We all know the Washington Spirit have undergone a pretty major series of changes this offseason, both on and off the field. While Reign FC will have an advantage tomorrow night in terms of familiarity as a squad, they’ve undergone some major changes of their own during this past winter. We’re talking a new home in a new city, along with a bit of an adjustment in terms of their name.
To get the scoop on what the Spirit can expect tomorrow night, we checked in with Susie Rantz of Sounder at Heart:
Black and Red United: With the U.S. roster coming out, Reign FC will have to deal without two huge parts of their midfield. How prepared are they to cope with the absences for Megan Rapinoe and Allie Long?
Susie Rantz: Fortunately, the Reign have a lot of midfield depth at the moment, although that will change as more players depart for the World Cup. For this match specifically, I don’t suspect you’ll notice a huge adjustment in how the midfield performs. As the CAM, Bev Yanez should be helpful in the high press the Reign like to run from the midfield, with a combination of Rumi Utsugi and Elise Kellond-Knight likely folding in behind her. While both are international players heading to the World Cup, they’ll be with the squad this weekend. Utsugi and EKK are pretty like-for-like replacements to Long, although that doesn’t discount how influential she can be in building the attack and shielding the backline.
Unfortunately, we have already seen what the squad looks like without Megan Rapinoe, who has been injured since the NWSL season began. Rapinoe was the focal point of the Reign FC attack last year, and without her you don’t really have a game-changer on the offensive side that you can rely on to take over a match. The build-up isn’t going to be as focused on the left without Pinoe, although we’ve seen some promising creativity from Reign newcomers Bethany Balcer and Darian Jenkins, with Shea Groom showing signs that she’s on her way back to becoming the Groom that terrorized defenses a few years ago.
B&RU: Vlatko Andonovski has rightly become one of the most admired tacticians in American soccer. With a new roster this year, how much of Reign FC’s gameplan is business as usual, and how much of it is new?
SR: One big change that Vlatko wanted to make this year was to get a little younger. You see that will all of the new signings this offseason. Tactically, the team won’t be playing much different. They are still looking to build out of the back, play aggressive attacking soccer, and dictate the game through possession. However, Andonovski really wants this team to be more aggressive when it comes to winning the ball back quickly. As fans know, Groom brings that bite that the team was lacking a bit last year, especially during the NWSL semifinal. Hopefully, as the season progresses, that new part of the gameplan is noticeable. You saw it more in the Reign’s second match against Orlando, and I think Yanez’s work in the midfield played a big role in that. Against Chicago, however, the team really struggled to do this effectively. Spirit fans shouldn’t be surprised to see the Reign really attempt high pressure for 90 minutes on Saturday.
B&RU: Let’s pan out and look at the big picture. With the relocation to Tacoma and plans for a new stadium in the near future, how is the fanbase feeling? What impact has all that news had on the squad itself?
SR: Because the owners have been open and transparent about the move, fans in general are feeling really positive. They knew that Memorial Stadium wasn’t a long-term home for the club and understand how hard it was to find another Seattle-based solution. The move to Tacoma doesn’t just give the Reign a long-term vision for a home stadium. It brought new ownership to the table, including Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer. It allows the club to sell this semi-popular beverage called beer, which seems to be a favorite among soccer supporters. And the Reign now have gear to sell at a team store with a physical location and additional marketing resources to promote the team. Knowing the impact this move has on fans in Seattle and further north, the club arranged a bus from Seattle to Tacoma on matchday. These are small things in isolation, but when added up they are huge for the club when it comes to revenue and getting people to come back to attend more matches. The great news is that the Reign had 5,323 people come to the first match Tacoma, a new club record for home opener attendance.
The players seem stoked about the move for a few reasons. First, Tacoma is a cheaper housing market than Seattle. Second, they get to play on grass, where Memorial was really hard turf that was rough on their bodies. And finally, Tacoma is a city that is close to Seattle but doesn’t have high-level professional sports competing for attention. The Sounders USL squad, Tacoma Defiance, plays there, and so does the Seattle Mariners Triple-A affiliate, the Tacoma Rainiers. It’s a place eager to embrace new professional teams. And they’ve fully embraced the Reign, with city leadership and legislators celebrating the move in a way that Seattle never did.
B&RU: Question that is not in the list of 3 but must be acknowledged as a separate question: What is your best guess at Saturday’s lineup?
SR: Ha, I honestly have no idea. There’s a lot of players Vlatko has rested early. Here’s my best guess: Balcer, Taylor, Groom; Yanez, Utsugi, EKK; Celia, Barnes, Oyster, Nielsen; Williams. But seriously, I could see Jenkins starting if she’s fully healthy and McNabb replacing anyone on the backline depending on their health. Not very helpful!