It’s as if Laura Harvey didn’t understand the question.
She leaned into the camera during a videoconference call with media recently and said, “It’s Portland,” fanning her hands open. “That’s it. Say no more. It’s Portland.”
It’s obvious the OL Reign coach is ready for her team’s historic 10th season, which begins with a Cascadia derby against the Portland Thorns FC on Friday. The match is part of the NWSL’s third-annual Challenge Cup tournament.
For the region, a Seattle-Portland billing doesn’t need any additional hype. The Reign drew a league-record 27,248 fans to Lumen Field for the derby last summer — part of a doubleheader with the Sounders FC. Midfielder Jess Fishlock had the iconic moment when she mic-dropped a bouquet of long-stemmed roses before the Brougham End supporters’ after a 2-1 win against the Thorns.
Now the same venue is the home of the Reign, and fans at Lumen will quickly see this isn’t the same team that left the city in 2019 to play in Tacoma. Friday marks the formal debut of the Bold’s new home — Lumen Field — new leadership, and new possible star players.
Three days after the club announced in December it would play at Lumen beginning in 2022, approximately 1,500 season-ticket packages were snatched up — matching the total sold for last season at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma.
The team relocated from Memorial Stadium, a dilapidated Seattle Center facility primarily used for high-school football games, because Cheney provided a better fan experience. But that stadium was built for minor-league baseball.
NWSL hasn’t announced its 2022 regular-season schedule, yet the Reign continue to build on their season-ticket memberships. The Challenge Cup features three of the club’s 14 home games and to date, more than 2,5000 season-ticket packages have been sold.
“My guess is we can get 3-4,000,” said new Reign CEO Vincent Berthillot. “For me, (the first match) is really important. It’s going to shape the perception of the fans that will be there. We have to make it look good and we have to get as many people as possible in the stands and make them enjoy the experience.”
The Frenchman is responsible for crafting the reintroduction as the new leader for the team’s business and soccer operations. In February, Berthillot replaced Bill and Teresa Predmore, who founded the Reign in 2012.
While there’s palpable interest, it’s unclear how a leadership change will impact the Reign.
Berthillot moved from Lyon, France to the Seattle area as COO when Olympique Lyonnais (OL) Groupe purchased the team for about $3.5 million in 2019. The Predmores retained 7.5% of the Reign while Tony Parker, a four-time NBA champion and French international, owns 3% as part of his Lyon-based basketball team.
The Predmores were uniquely accessible in cultivating a familial environment the past decade and remain Washington based. Now the Reign are the first of the 12-team league to have decision-makers in Europe, which could make longtime Reign supporters uneasy.
Especially considering Berthillot’s openness about his lack of soccer knowledge.
“I graduated from a business school, I have a financial background and started my career in the banks,” said Berthillot, who’s fluent in French and English. “I have absolutely no skill to conduct soccer operations in a club like OL Reign.”
Berthillot and OL Groupe should prove to be an asset. The Predmores targeted OL president Jean-Michel Aulas about four years ago when it was clear their goals for the Reign surpassed their pocketbook.
Aulas has operated and financed the entertainment company the past 35 years. He’s an enigmatic businessman with as many supporters as detractors, according to a recent profile in The Athletic.
“Jean-Michel Aulas was probably the first individual to make a thoughtful decision to invest significant amounts of money in the women’s game,” Predmore said of Aulas establishing the women’s French side in 2004. OL Feminin, which have a private clubhouse, gym and training field, have won a record seven UEFA Women’s Champions League titles, the last in 2020.
“He didn’t just say he cared, he showed he cared,” Predmore continued. “Their commitment is unquestioned. They’ve been doing it for over a decade when nobody else was doing it.”
Among the first hurdles for Berthillot and the Reign is making Lumen Field their own.
The NWSL and MLS seasons overlap, but Berthillot insists there won’t be any Sounders signage for Reign games as the teams plan to keep their identities separated. But there are discussions about hosting more doubleheaders with the Sounders. Capacity for Reign matches will start at 10,000 with the option to increase seating.
‘Bonfires are Back’
The Bold and Thorns were among the NWSL’s eight charter teams in 2013 — the only west of Kansas. Angel City FC, which is based in Los Angeles, and the San Diego Wave FC will play their inaugural seasons this year, forming a true Western division.
In the past, the NWSL didn’t divide its teams into conferences. For the Challenge Cup, the West Coast teams will form one of three regional groups for double round-robin matches. The championship will be played May 7.
Portland is the defending Cup winner, while the Reign has yet to win any NWSL title. The Bold finished second in the table and lost in the playoff semifinals at Cheney last year.
Berthillot made it a priority to land general manager Nick Perera in February before the tournament to help the team pursue its title chase. The former Tacoma Stars player, who most recently was the Stars’ head coach and general manager, took over a roster that has 25 players under contract — four who were named to the league’s first or second Best XI team last year — and nine new signees. University of Washington midfielder Olivia van der Jagt is one of three unsigned players.
“Everything that happened recently at the league level, we thought it was critical to have someone in the organization who understands the players,” Berthillot said of what the NWSL Players Association categorized as “systemic abuse.”
One owner, five coaches and multiple executives, including NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird and Reign coach Farid Benstiti, were fired or asked to resign last year amid leaguewide allegations of sexual coercion, racism, abuse and neglect.
“ (Someone) who can work on the players’ working environment, make sure the players feel good showing up at work every day,” Berthillot continued. “That’s not the job of the technical staff to do that. They are here to train the team and make sure they are good on the pitch.”
Harvey replaced Benstiti in July. The Englishwoman was the Predmores’ first hire in 2012. She departed in 2017, coaching the now dormant Utah Royals FC and being an assistant for the U.S. women’s national team’s run to a bronze medal during the Tokyo Games last summer.
Reign supporters unfurled a tifo that read “Bonfires are Back” with an image of Harvey for the coach’s first home match in her return — the doubleheader at Lumen. A decade ago she was envious of the Thorns because of their downtown stadium and fan support.
Harvey can now torch that envy and see what comes next for the Reign.
“Get ready,” she said.