Seattle Reign thrive even without FIFA's best women's player Megan Rapinoe
At about the same moment that Megan Rapinoe stood on a stage in Milan to accept her FIFA Player of the Year award, Reign FC players stretched on a practice field thousands of miles away. While Rapinoe gently needled FIFA president Gianni Infantino for stealing her thunder by bringing up social issues during the gala at Teatro alla Scala, her teammates practiced during a week that would settle their season.
They would have loved to have her available for a crucial midweek game against Utah. They would have loved to have her through much of the summer, Rapinoe so far limited to three post-World Cup appearances because of an injury incurred while leading the U.S. to a title in France. But they understand they share Rapinoe with the sport.
"She's won this award for best player, but I can't tell you how great she's been for women's soccer in general and our club," said Lauren Barnes, Reign defender and Rapinoe's teammate for the past seven seasons. "I think that's what makes her so special, to be honest. It's not just about the football for her, she really wants the game to grow and progress as much as possible.
"For players that aren't with national teams, the ones that kind of keep this league afloat while everyone is gone, she really cares for and makes sure she uses her voice for all of us."
The Reign went about their business without her, beating Utah 2-1 and leapfrogging the Royals into the fourth and final playoff position with about two weeks left in the regular season. And in a year in which Rapinoe seems to have a hand in shaping everything that is anything in women's soccer, it says quite a bit to find the Reign where they always seem to be as summer gives way to fall. A win and a draw in their final two games, enough to ensure a place in the postseason.
Rapinoe will be back for Sunday's rivalry game against the Portland Thorns (2 p.m. ET on ESPN2). She may yet seize this spotlight, too. But the Reign survived until now without their best-known star. They survived despite any number of injuries and after moving to a new home. It's what they do -- even this year.
"Every year the style of play changes a bit," Barnes said. "The roster changes a bit. Coaches change a bit. But even with all of that said, we're just proud of who we are here."
In a league in which U.S. national team stars are necessarily marketing centerpieces, the Reign rank among the most consistent on-field products, despite limited contributions from the biggest names. An original allocation, Hope Solo played in a majority of the team's games just twice before she exited. Rapinoe was instrumental in a playoff run a season ago, but injuries and international duty limited her to 10 or fewer games in four of the league's first seven seasons.
Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux passed through quickly. Allie Long only arrived recently.
Yet only Portland and North Carolina (formerly Western New York) have better records than the Reign in the league's history. No team has more consecutive winning seasons than the Reign, seeking a sixth in a row.
Much of the foundational credit goes to Laura Harvey. The Reign's first coach, Harvey introduced an American audience to Scottish star Kim Little and Welsh standout Jess Fishlock. She convinced Barnes to come to Seattle and try the new league. She brought Beverly Yanez back from Japan. She weathered a lot of losing in the first season and did quite a bit more winning thereafter.
She also had the backing of an organization sailing against prevailing winds. While women's teams across Europe and the NWSL increasingly operate in partnership with men's teams, the Reign remain independent of the MLS Sounders -- the move to Tacoma symbolically underscoring that separation despite investment from some involved in Sounders ownership.
Highlighted by championship game meetings in 2014 and 2015, the Reign and FC Kansas City helped set the bar for on-field performance in the NWSL and bolster the independent model. But for Vlatko Andonovski, the former FC Kansas City coach who first denied the Reign titles in both finals and then replaced Harvey prior to last season, the two were not wholly alike.
"The similarities come more so in the team environment than the organization," Andonovski said. "I think Seattle is far more organized, more advanced in every aspect, whether it's logistical support, infrastructure, manpower, everything. Way more advanced than Kansas City. [Reign FC owner Bill Predmore] is a lot more hands on and wants to do everything possible, everything in his power, to make the experience for the players comfortable."
Still, if ever there was a year to be the victim of circumstances it was this year. The Reign knew they would be without Rapinoe -- perhaps not for as long as they ultimately were but certainly for much of the season. Andonovski could plan for that, as well as absences from Australian, English and Spanish players bound for the Women's World Cup. It worked in Kansas City in 2015.
He couldn't plan for a wave of injuries that took out half a dozen players with season-ending injuries. The team's top two goalkeepers were lost. And shortly after getting her back from a loan with Champions League winner Lyon, Fishlock was lost to an ACL tear suffered the same day Rapinoe scored twice for the U.S. in a quarterfinal win against France.
"It was a huge loss for us," Andonovski said of Fishlock. "The games that she was here and she played, I thought she was by far the best player in the league."
By virtue of fewer international commitments and better health, at least until this year, Fishlock has played nearly twice as many minutes for the Reign in seven seasons than Rapinoe.
"She's the heartbeat of this club," Barnes said. "If there is anything going on in the game that's not right, she can adapt and figure out the problem and help the team solve it."
In Wednesday's crucial win against Utah, an undrafted rookie from an NAIA school scored the opening goal. Bethany Balcer further bolstered Andonovski's reputation as both a talent evaluator and teacher. A goalkeeper who started the season in France, Casey Murphy, held her own. A player cut by Portland, Ifeoma Onumonu, provided a much needed spark off the bench.
"I don't feel like I went into [any] game thinking, 'I know that everybody is healthy, I know that everybody is ready, let's look at the first 11,'" Andonovski said this week. "It seems like every game was, 'OK, let's see who is injured, who is available, who can play and how long.'
"And then we start putting the team together."
There is talk of Rapinoe potentially leaving, Barcelona making clear its interest as recently as this week. Even assuming she stays another year, the Olympics will presumably occupy much of 2020. Andonovski's work this season is the latest entry on his stellar resume. He is among those frequently mentioned as candidates for the U.S. women's national team vacancy.
Every year will bring challenges. One year it may be too much.
"You want all your players healthy and you want to have that consistency," Barnes said. "But realistically, in this career and this line of work, that doesn't always happen.
"You have to do your best to adapt. And I think we've done that really well."