Reign FC began a new era of soccer in the South Sound in front of 5,323 at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, Washington on Sunday, April 21 with a 1-1 draw against the Orlando Pride. For Reign FC, the match served as a return to the identity that head coach Vlatko Andonovski desires, despite limited squad availability due to injury.
Like its season-opening 1-1 draw in Houston on April 14, Reign FC again conceded an early opening goal. Alanna Kennedy pulled off a bicycle kick six minutes into the match to score Orlando’s first goal of the season.
Unlike the first match, however, Reign FC only needed 25 minutes to find an equalizer as Bethany Balcer curled in an effort from just inside the 18-yard box to score her first professional goal.
Reign FC head coach Vlatko Andonovski was much more satisfied with the play of his squad compared to the first match.
“I thought we did a lot better than the game in Houston,” Andonovski said Monday. “We looked more like ourselves. We looked more like we want to look going forward. I think it’s a great improvement. Bev (Yanez) coming back, I think she’s a huge piece of this team and her presence on the field is inspiring. Her being there definitely helped out in terms of how we want to play both ways.”
Yanez, who missed the first match while recovering from a concussion, cleaned up the middle of the park for Reign FC. The midfielder completed 26 of her 36 attempted passes, helping facilitate as the club looked to switch the field.
The more contemplative approach to buildup had been a point of emphasis for Reign FC in the preparation leading up to Sunday’s match. Against Houston, the club was flagged offside six times and attempted 10 crosses, largely playing in a direct style the raw speed of Jodie Taylor and Darian Jenkins. Against Orlando, the club was only flagged offside three times and managed 24 attempted crosses, the result of more developed play building up the wings.
“I think that in the first two phases (of the attack) we were very good,” Andonovski said. “We were braver. We were able to combine, so that was really good. In the last phase, I think it was a little more challenging just because Orlando was very compact on defense, but I think we were still able to manage to create decent opportunities.”
Yanez’ introduction also helped the club defensively. The midfielder had eight recoveries, two interceptions, a block and three tackles won over the span of a 90-minute performance that was part of a team effort to limit Orlando’s Marta and Alex Morgan to a combined three shots with just one on target.
“I thought that our negative transition was amazing,” Andonovski said. “We were able to regain possession very quickly. Even if we didn’t get the ball back, we were able to get numbers behind the ball and deny opportunities to the other team.”
Up front, Reign FC continued to improve on its opening week. Balcer lead all players with a match-high five shots, two of which were blocked. Her confidence and willingness to go for goal grew after scoring with her second professional shot.
After being dogpiled by teammates, Balcer ran over and embraced Andonovski in the technical area before the restart of play.
“Obviously, we were happy that Bethany scored a goal,” Andonovski said. “It was important that she did well for her confidence. Not just to build it, but it seems like everybody enjoyed it. It’s a nice story how she came to the team, how she made the team, and how she is able to impact the team.
“For someone like Bethany coming from the school that she came from. To be in the same field with the likes of Marta and Alex Morgan, I think that it was a great experience. Another thing is to have the support of the team. For someone like (Megan Rapinoe) to be her biggest fan is incredible. I was enjoying the whole thing.”
Balcer wasn’t the only forward who drew praise for her performance. Shea Groom, moved up a line after injuries had necessitated Andonovski deploying her as a 10 against Houston, finally had a chance to make runs in space and cut in from the wing. Her aggressive style of defending nearly earned Reign FC a go-ahead goal in the 32nd minute, when she sprinted forward and blocked an attempted clearance from Orlando keeper Ashlyn Harris. Groom chased after the ball, but was unable to score on an open goal as the ball rolled over the end line.
“What you saw from Shea is what you’re going to see all the time,” Andonovski said. “Her intensity, her energy is contagious. She’s going to get in, she’ll block clearances, dribble down and get in peoples’ faces. She’ll score goals too. You can tell she’s not quite at her best because her end product was not quite there. She was still dangerous. Every time she got the ball, I felt like something was going to happen.”
The only similarity to Houston’s result apart from the final score was the injury situation. For the second match in a row, Andonovski kept Rapinoe and Steph Catley off the match day roster, along with Darian Jenkins and Jasmyne Spencer, who is not expected to play again in 2019 after tearing her ACL against Houston.
Andonovski said the omission of Rapinoe, Catley and Jenkins was largely precautionary, with a mind toward the length of the season.
“We’re going to have to make decisions pretty soon,” Andonovski said. “Whether we want to rush any of the players to come back and what the risk of doing that is. Knowing myself and the medical staff, if there’s any risk in rushing a player back on the field, we’re not going to do it. We’re going to take it easy and support their recovery.”
On the whole, Reign FC put in a much more complete 90 minutes at Cheney Stadium, bolstered by the home support. Captain and centerback Lauren Barnes summed up the evening after the match.
“I think we pride ourselves on our mentality,” Barnes said. “Regardless of how the game goes, if we keep working hard and do our jobs we’ll get back to the game. That’s what we had to do today. It’s a really good sign as well. To be honest, I think we could have finished it off with the three points. I’m so happy our team got back into the game and then played a solid end to the game, as well.”