Which Seattle is the real Seattle? The one that destroyed Houston and Washington? The one that was devastated by Boston early in the season? The one that ran roughshod over Portland a couple weeks ago? Or the one that was manhandled by North Carolina the following week?
The glib answer is to just say ‘all of them,’ and of course that’s true in the broadest sense. But if you’re looking for one game to encapsulate this team in 2017, you wouldn’t go wrong to watch this weekend’s draw with Boston. In it, we saw evidence of just how strong this team can be—the fluid movement, the incisive passing, the wonderful creativity of their front six. And you also got plenty of good examples of where things can often go wrong—the peculiar defensive lapses, the problems handling width, the relative weakness of the backline.
Re-tooling and re-kindling the Seattle Reign style
In 2014 and 2015, the Reign were a force of nature. When they were on (and they were usually on), they were close to unplayable. Their midfield trio of Kim Little, Jess Fishlock, and Keelin Winters was likely the best in the world and provided the engine that kept everything else humming along.
But all good things must pass and so it went with the Reign midfield. By 2017, only Fishlock remained, and coach Laura Harvey was faced with the task of re-organizing her team to meet the abilities and talents of the players on the roster. With mixed results.
It’s clear that Harvey has a preferred style of play: an attacking 4-3-3, with a lot of fluid movement high up the pitch—players interchanging freely, covering tremendous ground, making it exceptionally difficult for defenses to settle. And Seattle has broadly speaking continued to play that way. But Harvey has also shown some flexibility. You’re still most likely to see them playing that 4-3-3, but there have been some exceptions. Notably, Harvey moved to a back three against Portland in an effort to flood the midfield and close down their passing lanes. At other times, she’s deployed a defensively-minded 4-2-3-1 in order to slow games down to a more stately pace.
Against Boston, Seattle mostly stuck to character—spending most of the game in their usual setup—but within that structure they showed that not every 4-3-3 works the same way.
Generally, at least one midfielder will play in a true holding role. That was Keelin Winters in previous years, and this year it’s been Rumi Utsugi—the steady rock who helps stabilize the rest of the squad. But beyond that, there’s a lot of room for innovation. Seattle found great success with Fishlock as the linking player and Little as the attacker, but you don’t need to simply find one-to-one replacements in order to make it work. Which is a good thing, because ‘find another Kim Little’ isn’t a plan with much chance of success.
The importance of fluidity
The key to this setup is the variability of movement among the individual pieces. Megan Rapinoe generally plays in the wide left attacking role—which gives her the space she needs to take on isolated defenders, whip in crosses, and make those slicing attacks that have produced so many goals this year. But she is by no means confined to that role. And on the other side, the same is true of Naho Kawasumi, who theoretically play on the right wing but generally covers close to every inch of the pitch at one time or another.
One particularly devastating switch involves Naho dropping a bit and drifting central, with Rapinoe dancing freely just behind Matthias as the central striker. It’s not a ton of movement on the ground, but it produces a very different attacking structure—basically a 4-4-2 pinched diamond, with Naho playing as a de facto Number 10. That puts the other side in the difficult position of deciding whether to ask the wide defenders to drag inward to follow Naho (leaving the wing exposed), or to give her free access to a pocket of space just above the backline in which she can work her magic.
A great performance from Elston
One of the other key features of Harvey’s 4-3-3s is the importance of goal-scoring midfielders. The classic example, of course, is Kim Little. But even without a player of her incredible quality, the Harvey setup can produce a lot of great chances for midfielders to crash the box and exploit spaces ripped open by the movement of the attackers. And we saw wonderful evidence of that in this game, with Lindsay Elston turning in a marvelous performance. She wasn’t able to find the net, but put herself into dangerous positions constantly, and gave Boston fits all night as they struggled to manage the additional body arriving late and unanticipated.
Elston is hardly a star, but she turned in a POTM performance in this game. And while that’s obviously partially a sign of her own skill and commitment, it’s also a testament to Harvey’s tactical management. One mark of a top coach is their ability to build collaborative systems in which good players are made to look great.
Elston’s performance was particularly impressive given just how many different hats she had to wear at different points. Those deep runs into the box are exceptionally hard for the defense to track—which is what makes them so dangerous—but they can also leave your own midfield quite exposed. You need to be judicious about your movement, and you need good communication to ensure that your run is protected. We expect that level of sophistication and precision from Jess Fishlock, but for Elston to step in so assuredly is a good indication that the whole team is on the same page.
Still, for all the good work that Harvey has done to adapt her system and integrate new players in the process, there are still major weaknesses in this team. When everything is clicking, and they have the space they need to orchestrate their attacks, they look incredible. But there’s a fairly simple solution: don’t give them that space.
And it doesn’t take an aggressive gegenpress to unsettle them, either. You just need to stay organized and consistently apply pressure on their weaker passers, to break up the rhythm and keep yourself from getting pulled completely out of shape when the ball gets to their more creative players. And Boston generally did this to great effect in this game. It wasn’t a perfect performance by any means, and Seattle certainly had plenty of decent attacks. But in general, they were able to keep Rapinoe and Naho fairly restrained to the sidelines and kept the pressure on them strong when they did get the ball.
They were certainly aided in that project by their own tactical setup—with Angela Salem and Morgan Andrews both playing in holding roles, allowing them to pack that crucial central space into which Seattle hopes to find exploitable openings.
Of course, that choice doesn’t come without costs. By packing the center, Boston had to sacrifice the chance to really come at Seattle with pace on the wings. It’s no surprise, then, that this ended up a tense low-scoring affair. Boston’s setup was designed to limit Seattle’s attacking space, and in order to achieve that result, they were willing to forego an aggressive assault on the Reign’s weakest point.
And it mostly worked. Seattle’s only goal was the product of a defensive miscue from Abby Smith (whose poor clearance only made it as far as Naho’s feet) and a wonder strike, not from any sophisticated build up.
Meanwhile, Boston’s goal helped to clarify that if the Reign make the playoffs this year, it will be primarily because they were able to outscore the opposition, not from any particular defensive solidity. It all started with a corner, which left Seattle out of position. Once the ball was cleared, they tried to reset but didn’t have time. Which meant that Westphal received the ball on the right wing with acres of space—since the ostensible left back (Pickett) was effectively playing right back at the moment. They tried to shift, with Barnes moving out to cover the left and Stott moving into a de facto center back position, but it was all a bit sloppy. So when Westphal’s deliciously weighted ball arced toward the net, three Seattle players formed a neat triangle around the onrushing Adriana Leon, with none of them actually close enough to stop the shot.
This was by no means a catastrophic failure. Stott and McNabb gave Leon just a bit too much space, and Kopmeyer may have waited a hair too long to come out and missed her chance. But it still took a truly superb cross and a clinical finish to find the net.
Which Seattle is the real Seattle?
In the end, Seattle will likely be frustrated to have only managed a point from a home fixture against a struggling Boston side. But they’ll also likely savor any result against a team that beat them so comprehensively earlier in the season.
And beyond the result, the same sort of gray picture emerges—with pluses and minuses in equal doses. Seattle played the style they wanted to play and mostly played it well. That’s a good sign, especially given the absence of Fishlock. At the same time, for all the decent play and fluid movement, they still found it pretty difficult to actually penetrate the Boston defense. And that is worrisome because Boston’s setup was hardly a complicated one, and their personnel is hardly the most daunting in the league.
Ultimately, if Seattle hope to make the playoffs and make a run for the title, they need to keep adding tools to the arsenal. Going into the season, Seattle’s two biggest red flags were probably depth and lack of flexibility. On both of those fronts, this game provided some clear evidence of consolidation. But it remains to be seen how much more room there is there for progress.