Diminishing returns: How NWSL caught up to the Seattle Reign

Daniel Bartel-ISI Photos

Seattle was a juggernaut in 2014 and 2015, but Laura Harvey's magic hasn't been as effective lately. What happened?

The Seattle Reign engineered one of the most remarkable year-over-year turnarounds in women’s professional soccer, laboriously turning the ship after an 11-game winless streak in its inaugural 2013 season. Seattle went from seventh in an eight-team league to first out of nine in 2014, then repeated as NWSL Shield winners in 2015.

That success has left high expectations of both head coach/general manager Laura Harvey and the Reign, which is why the team’s drop out of the top four in both 2016 and now feels so precipitous.

Seattle is still a team that can put together occasionally intoxicating performances, but no longer is it an assured contender. The Reign could still squeak into this year’s playoffs, but for a team accustomed to defeating all comers, clinging to fifth place is hardly remarkable.

There are several big problems facing Seattle that individually might have been overcome but together create compounding errors. But these problems are mostly symptoms of a mismatch between personnel and style as Harvey attempts to soldier on in the face of a roster turnover the Reign still hasn’t figured out how to deal with.

Personnel issues strike hard

This year’s most glaring issue was always going to be the loss of Kim Little.  A world-class midfielder who can open up play with her passing as well as dominate and control space, Little returned to Arsenal as part of her preparations for the 2017 European Championship. (Rather cruelly, she tore her ACL in May of this year and ended up missing the tournament.)

Seattle used to rely on a midfield triumvirate of Little, Jess Fishlock, and Keelin Winters, but Winters decided to retire after the 2016 season. The Reign picked up Japanese international Rumi Utsugi midseason in 2016 and added Christine Nairn in a trade with the Washington Spirit in the offseason, but the Nairn-Utsugi-Fishlock midfield is decidedly not as good.

Jane Gershovich-ISI Photos

A frustrated Fishlock (Jane Gershovich-ISI Photos)

Utsugi is very capable of providing defensive cover, but Nairn is no Little, and Fishlock is often put in the position of trying her damndest but not being able to drag the entire midfield into the right attacking space. And yet Harvey is still asking these three to try and play the way she would have had Little-Fishlock-Winters play, which is kind of like asking someone to build a house but giving them the tools to bake a cake.

Injuries hit the Reign hard, none more impactful than Megan Rapinoe, who was red-hot earlier this season but had to undergo arthroscopic surgery on her left knee. Though she has since returned, Seattle suffered some key losses during her absence, including a classic 5-4 loss to Sky Blue on August 19 and a demoralizing 2-1 defeat to the Portland Thorns on August 26. It was the first time the Thorns beat the Reign at Memorial Stadium and another sign that Seattle’s two-year stretch of dominance is a thing of the past.

Rapinoe is crucial to the Reign’s ability to find width on the field, especially in combination with Naho Kawasumi on the opposite wing. The two of them can stretch a defense as wide as it will go then switch the point of attack on a dime. With Rapinoe out, though, Seattle’s Little-less, Winters-less world looked that much less dangerous.

And consider the other key players the Reign have lost between 2016 and 2017: Hope Solo, Kendall Fletcher and Manon Melis. Solo, whatever her personal faults, was a stellar goalkeeper, and it’s no slight on Haley Kopmeyer to say that she couldn’t quite fill those boots. Fletcher and Melis both retired, impacting both the stability of the team’s defense and its goal count. The core of the team was gutted, from front to back.

Add to that both Utsugi and Fishlock having their seasons interrupted by injury, and the Reign has been rotating key players in and out of the starting XI all season.

Defense wins championships

With both Fletcher and Solo gone, Seattle’s defense is struggling: third worst in the league with 34 goals allowed, more than last-place Boston. If not for Seattle’s 40 goals scored, the Reign would have been out of the playoff picture a long time ago. The struggle is partly a symptom of the midfield, though.

According to Opta, the Reign defense has faced far and away the most shots in the league at 372, with the next most being FC Kansas City at 318. The league-leading North Carolina Courage? Its defense has faced 172 shots total so far.

A couple of stats don’t illustrate a team’s entire story, but they are worrisome. The two key examples here are both against Sky Blue, one a victory, and one a loss. Seattle may have given NWSL fans two of the most exciting games in league history - beating Sky Blue 5-4 on July 22 and then losing to the same team, 5-4 on August 19 - but the Reign’s defensive issues were on display.  

Look at the 71st minute of the loss, when Sam Kerr brings down a long ball and promptly sprints at the goal. She’s almost surrounded and her only nearby help is Madison Tiernan, creating an advantageous four-versus-two situation for the Reign. And yet the defense drops and no one steps to Kerr, allowing her to eat up as much space as she wants and set herself up for a very nice goal.

The struggling defense was evident again in the loss to Portland a week later, when Christine Sinclair picks up the ball behind the halfway line and goes 40 yards completely unchallenged. Seattle’s back line wasn’t in a good position to start, and you can see Fishlock yelling and holding up her arms in exasperation that the defense hasn’t pressed high enough with the rest of the team, leaving an enormous gap between her, Utsugi, and Nairn and the defense they’re trying to protect.

A midfield more prone to turnovers leaves a defense more open to counters. Seattle also hasn’t had the same back four two games in a row since July 15, a rotation that has brought inconsistency.

The recent addition of a new starting goalkeeper, Australian international Lydia Williams, has only complicated the scenario. As the Reign mix and match, perhaps the defense lacks the leadership, confidence, or just the experience to be bolder.

What to make of the once-mighty Reign

Nine players on Seattle’s roster weren’t with the team in 2016, a notable level of roster turnover that didn’t pan out as expected. As much as the roster changed, the team’s style didn’t, which created a clash between goal and execution.

Now, Seattle is likely out of the playoffs for a second year in a row. The days of dominating the league as it did in 2014, with a 16-game unbeaten streak and a plus-30 goal difference, 13 points clear of second place, are gone. Even if Seattle managed to nab a transcendent player like Little again, other teams have now had five years to get familiar with Harvey’s coaching style and the habits of her other key players.

Jane Gershovich-ISI Photos

Kopmeyer rallies the troops (Jane Gershovich-ISI Photos)

In fact, it’s probably unfair to expect the Reign to repeat their 2014-15 run because the circumstances that created it - the early years of a league with the exact right combination of players - are extremely unlikely to repeat. But they can still play a pretty game, and Harvey has a decent eye for talent, like rookie forward Katie Johnson.

The Reign can still be formidable. With a little bit of stability, a little bit of rest, and the sun’ll come out over Seattle again.