As World Cup ramps up, Reign FC and other NWSL teams learn to play without their best

In their last game against the Houston Dash, the Reign FC game notes listed the players who weren’t available because they were off representing their countries in the Women’s World Cup.

Eight names were listed. Add in the four other players not available because of injuries, and the Reign were down a total of 12 players who normally would be available to play in that June 2 game.

This is the reality for the nine teams of the National Women’s Soccer League until the World Cup wraps up on July 7. The Reign, who take on the Washington Spirit at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Cheney Stadium, have planned for this and hope to weather this stretch as well as they can.

The Reign will play four games during the World Cup beginning with Saturday’s home game. The next three are on the road vs. the Chicago Red Stars, Utah Royals FC and Portland Thorns.

Unlike their counterparts in at the FA Super League in England and Frauen-Bundesliga in Germany, the NWSL has a spring to fall schedule, right in the heart of the World Cup schedule. In 2015, the league took a break to accommodate a portion of the World Cup but did not do that this time, instead opting to allow teams to expand their roster up to 22 players.

Reign FC signed five players under the International Replacement Player Tag: Steph Cox, Addison Steiner, Scout Watson, Ifeoma Onumonu and Maegan Kelly. A day before the Reign take the field against Washington, the franchise added two more players with midfielder Erin Yenney as another international replacement player and Kori Butterfield who was signed as a goalkeeper replacement Player since Reign FC’s Scout Watson will not be available due to a concussion suffered in training this week.

“We’re always on the lookout for players that will make our team better,” Andonovski said.

Andonovski sees it as a blessing that players have been able to step in and keep the team competitive — the Reign are 2-1-4 and in seventh place spot — while others are gaining valuable playing time.

“We probably don’t discover a Bethany Balcer, who is our leading scorer,” Andonovski said. “Maybe Darian Jenkins doesn’t get as many minutes as she is or even Shea Groom or Morgan Andrews. For us as a coaching staff, it is difficult but for us it’s exciting for us to develop players while we’ve got players out for World Cup.

“It’s one challenge to coach players like Allie (Long), Pinoe (Megan Rapinoe), Rumi (Utsugi), and (Steph) Catley, and Lydia (Williams),” Andonovski said. “It’s different challenges, there’s a different level of understanding and different levels of approach to the game. So while it presents a challenge, it’s also exciting because if those players aren’t gone then we aren’t able to see what others can do.”

Reign FC’s eight representatives in the 2019 Women’s World Cup represent five countries: defender Allie Long and forward Megan Rapinoe representing the United States, defender Steph Catley, goalkeeper Lydia Williams, and midfielder Elise Kellond-Knight will suit up for Australia. Celia Jiménez-Delgado will represent Spain as a defender, Rumi Utsugi, a defender represents Japan and Jodie Taylor will play for England at the forward spot.

Those players will return in waves as teams are eliminated from the competition. The challenge, said Andonvski, is to work them back into the team while allowing them to recuperate after a hard run of games and training.

“We have a general plan because we don’t know how long some of them are going to be in the tournament.” Andonovski said. “Once they get out, the first thing that we do is contact the high performance directors for the national teams so we can get all the specific numbers in terms of how much they’ve done in training, games and other physical data. We take those numbers and we create a reintegration plan to where they can join us on a regular basis.”

While Andonvski believes that France, Germany and the United States are the strongest teams in the 24-team field. He wouldn’t say who he thinks will win it all but said he supports all of his eight players in the tournament.

“I know it may sound cliche but I do hope all of them do well,” he said. “I don’t think I can single out one player or another and say this is the one I’m rooting for. The hardest part will be when they’re playing against each other, but I want all of them to do well and represent their countries and our team in the best possible manner.”