MISSOULA -- Those who reside in Missoula may have noticed some familiar and famous faces walking around town.
The Garden City is playing host to the OL Reign of the National Women's Soccer League for most of the month of June as the team prepares for its end-of-season tournament. Based out of Tacoma, Washington, the OL Reign arrived in Montana on Monday when they began practice, but not without some last-minute preparations.
"I think we knew we were going to Montana 48 hours before going to Montana so everything came real fast at us," OL Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock told MTN Sports in a Zoom call Thursday evening. "Everything went so well and so smooth. Montana was really excited for it and we were really excited for it, and now I can understand why and I think it's a perfect fit right now."
In a world where COVID-19 has drastically altered the way of life for many, often negatively, the OL Reign's appearance in Missoula is a positive one. At the end of May, the NWSL announced a 25-game tournament to be held in Salt Lake City beginning June 27 that will replace the lost season. So teams were forced to find a way to train and quickly.
Enter Montana. Washington just removed its stay-at-home order on Monday, so restrictions are just beginning to ease there. Meanwhile, Montana entered Phase 2 of its reopening plan on Monday.
"Initially I was a little taken aback because I wasn't sure what the NWSL was going to do," OL Reign forward Sofia Huerta said. "But I really trust the NWSL, and they put protocols in place to ensure our safety, and so I think they found a window and an opportunity in our league to happen and they did that in the best way possible."
There's a lot of star power with the OL Reign, which is headlined by U.S. Women's National Team players Megan Rapinoe and Allie Long, though Rapinoe is reportedly not playing in the tournament. The team wanted to find a more remote location away from people as well as somewhere with fewer restrictions than its home state. The team partnered with the University of Montana and, after getting the needed clearance, began the transition to the Treasure State. Each player had to test negative for COVID-19 before leaving Washington and the team will go through weekly testing to track any movement of the virus.
The team must abide by stricter protocols while in Montana, so the players aren't taking any of these new freedoms lightly.
"We're taking every kind of step necessary to ensure that we are safe and the same here in Montana," Fishlock said. "It's not just about us. We have to make sure that if we go outside that we're very respectful to others. We're very, kind of hyper-aware that we've kind of come into this state, which is not ideal going in and out of states.
"We have to be hyper-sensitive to the heath and safety regulations."
For instance, spectators are not allowed in the stands while the team trains. Fans can watch from the perimeter around South Campus Stadium. Players are also asked not to take selfies or sign autographs, at least for now, as they follow the health code distancing guidelines set forth by the league.
There's a lot of rules to follow, but if it means they'll have a season at all, the players are more than willing to follow suit.
"When you hear they're going to try and get something going and day-by-day you realize it's more realistic and steps are being taken in the right way," Fishlock said, "you go from being a little bit hesitant to excited, and I think that's where everyone is right now.
"We feel very fortunate right now to be here in Montana."
Huerta hails from Boise, Idaho, so while having never been to Montana before, she said she had a lot of friends who have been to the state with it being so close. And she's excited to start playing in a state she gets a similar vibe from as her home state.
"I kind of feel like Idaho and Montana are similar in the sense that they are very underrated and quite beautiful, so I'm happy to be here. It's close to home and I'm new to the team, so it's been really fun to meet the girls and start training with each other again," she said.
This is Huerta's first season with the OL Reign. Huerta, who has represented both the U.S. and Mexico on their respective national teams, had a chance to play soccer in the NWSL offseason in Australia, so despite the delay she felt ready to join the team.
"I've only had about two months (without playing a game) and when I was in Idaho I was lucky enough to have resources to be able to feel like I was prepared going into anything that was going to transpire," she said. "The team has just been amazing. The Reign have a really good reputation and have been the best and so welcoming and made this transition to this mini-tournament and preseason in Montana very seamless."
Fishlock is already welcoming the spirit in Missoula with open arms. She posted "GOOO GRIZ!!" on Twitter on Wednesday with a photo of the team practicing. Fishlock, who hails from a small town in Wales and has more appearances for the Wales National Team than any male or female in country history with 113 games, grew up in a small town and said Montana reminds her of home in that everything is green and wildlife is abundant.
Fishlock has been with the Reign since the team's inception in 2013 and also holds an MBE -- or Member of the Order of the British Empire -- which is an award given to civilians for advocacy work in the United Kingdom. For Fishlock, it was for her work with women's soccer and the LBGTQ community in Wales.
Like most, Fishlock didn't know much about Montana before arriving but so far is enjoying what Montana has to offer and even said she's hoping she can find a whitewater rafting opportunity at some point while the team is here. Huerta also mentioned hoping to get in a fair share of hikes, as well. Among other things the team has done in the Missoula, some players have hiked the M or walked around downtown, and the team mentioned it visited Big Dipper, as well.
"I truly believe that Montana is beautiful and where we're located on the field we can see all of the mountains and the big M," Fishlock said. "You know, in the beginning we were like, 'OK? Montana? Let's kind of see what this is like.' And since the moment we've got here we've all kind of realized that it's not only a beautiful place, but it's going to give us everything that we need to make sure that we're ready for the tournament.
"The food here is great. I was not expecting to enjoy Missoula as much as I am enjoying Missoula."