With nine players unavailable due to injury, Reign FC head coach Vlatko Andonovski was forced to get creative with his lineup against the Portland Thorns on July 5. The decision netted a goal from Celia Jiménez Delgado, who was deployed as an attacking midfielder despite normally playing fullback.
“It’s not necessarily the skill set that caused me to play her there, it’s the understanding of the game,” Andonovski said on Monday. “She has a great understanding of the game. She’s an intelligent player. She analyzes the game very well and she has the willingness and desire to do well regardless of the circumstances. All of those things together helped her do well in the game on Friday.”
For the Jiménez Delgado’s part, she was happy to be involved in her first match back following Spain’s loss to the U.S. in the Women’s World Cup Round of 16 on June 24.
The defender was somewhat used to Andonovski moving her to different positions. In a preseason friendly against the Thorns, Jiménez Delgado played left back, centerback and forward over the span of 90 minutes.
The versatility offered allowed Jiménez Delgado to play a role while still keeping the steady presence of Theresa Nielsen at right back and allowing for the second start of the year for Australian left back Steph Catley following her return from international duty.
“Steph Catley is a world class player,” Andonovski said. “It doesn’t take much for her to get integrated with the team. Partly because of her quality, but also because she trained with us prior to the World Cup. She knows what we’re trying to do and how we’re trying to accomplish things. We welcome her with open arms.”
Still, the Spanish international was glad that Andonovski—who had joked about playing her in goal after the preseason match—only asked her to play one position in the rivalry match.
“I actually think I’ve only played (attacking midfielder) for two or three games in my career, but I’m open to anything,” Jiménez Delgado said. “I love playing. As long as I’m on the field, I can’t complain about the position.”
After powering in her first NWSL goal in the 55th minute, Jiménez Delgado wheeled and sprinted toward the sideline, leaping into Andonovski’s arms as her teammates closed in to celebrate.
Andonovski, who is recovering from surgery to repair a torn meniscus, joked that he was worried Jiménez Delgado’s celebration might re-injure him.
“The first thing that I was thinking was that I may need another surgery, but I’m glad everything worked out,” Andonovski said, laughing. “If that’s what I need to go through in order to win the game, then that’s what I’ll do.”
Jiménez Delgado’s defensive tendencies carried into her midfield role. She finished with three tackles won, one interception, six recoveries, three clearances and five fouls committed in the span of 90 minutes.
Reign FC found a method to defend by attacking when it brought on forward Addison Steiner to replace Shea Groom in the 76th minute. Steiner harassed Portland’s back line and kept them moored in their own half of the field, lest they give up a one-on-one that might concede a second goal.
“Steiner, every time she goes in, she has a specific plan in her head from the moment she goes in,” Andonovski said. “She knows how we want to close the game down. She cuts off a lot of passing lanes, which makes it easier for our next line, our midfield. Also, when we win the ball, she stretches the back line so well and is able to cause a threat to our opponent very easily. We’re just glad that we can have such a fast player up top there for us.”
The win gave the club its third straight on the road. Keeper Casey Murphy has kept a clean sheet in all three contests as the club has stretched its unbeaten run to eight matches, going 5-0-3 in that span and rising to the top of the league standings.
Andonovski puts his team’s ascendant run down to grit and his players’ ability to contribute in multiple roles.
“If I had to summarize everything in one word, it would be resilience,” Andonovski said. “I think that we did a good job physically and we were mentally tough and able to hold off all the attacks that Portland threw our way.
“We have some great momentum now. It’s all thanks to these players for the drive and the fight that they’ve shown during a difficult stretch.”