Route Two Soccer: A Strong Start for the Reign

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This offseason, the Reign said goodbye to their longtime coach Laura Harvey, and quite a few players as well. For many fans, this movement was disconcerting. Even for those who liked the changes in principle, there was plenty of concern about how long it would take them to get everything organized.

One week in, it’s still far too early to draw any serious conclusions. But the news so far is good. In this column, I want to take a quick look at the Reign’s first match, and see what it tells us about the new Vlatko Andonovski regime.

The team set up in a 4-3-3, which was hardly surprising. It was very similar to how they played under Harvey, and quite similar to the way Vlatko’s FCKC teams often played as well. The personnel available definitely creates some flexibility here, with both Allie Long and Jess Fishlock able to play a holding role, allowing them to shift easily back and forth between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 depending on game state. Against Washington, they spent the majority of the game on the front foot, allowing Long to generally play as a single holding midfielder, while giving her and Fishlock freedom to interchange as necessary.

Getting the most out of Allie Long

This is a role Long has played before, but rarely excelled in. She’s a solid defender in one-on-one situations, and her good workrate allows her to be a disruptive force, but her lack of positional discipline has always prevented her from truly excelling at the job of shielding the backline. Further, her tendency to dither on the ball is risky for a player tasked with winning the ball and distributing it quickly from dangerous positions. Finally, playing her deep tends to limit her opportunities to crash into the box—one of the most important qualities of her game.

In this game, however, Long looked transformed. All those good qualities were present, and she looked far more confident managing play. Gone were the tentative stabs that opened up space behind her. Gone was the player who often fell under some tough challenges, conceding possession in dangerous zones. She seemed far more locked into the holding role, and played it far better than she generally has managed.

She still isn’t the most dynamic passer—generally opting for static sideways balls if at all possible—but that’s really the only complaint to be found about her play. She was even able to pick and choose a fair number of opportunities to get forward and contribute in the box.

It’s never a good idea to draw firm conclusions from one game, particularly against a team as young and raw as this Washington side. But at least on the first impression, Coach Andonovski surely will have been pleased to see the Long and Fishlock partnership work out so well.

The magical Rapinoe

The Megan Rapinoe renaissance continues apace. She put on a show in this game, absolutely bamboozling Taylor Smith on multiple occasions, ranging far and wide to get the ball, shooting at will, and playing plenty of beautiful passes as well. It was a majestic game, from a player who may have lost half a step of pace, but who has more than made up for it with guile and precision.

That said, it’s once again worth mentioning the opposition. Taylor Smith had a great year in 2017, but hasn’t looked nearly as solid so far in 2018. Her first half here was particularly rough, as she persistently overcommitted only to find herself turned and chasing Rapinoe. She also struggled enormously trying to establish a working partnership on with Whitney Church—whose lack of pace exposed huge gaps in the right side of the defense.

Jodie Taylor also deserves credit. While she didn’t provide any singular moments to rival those of Rapinoe, her presence was felt all through the night. Seattle desperately needed a true #9 last year to establish a point of attack, soak up pressure, and give Rapinoe and Naho someone to play off. With Taylor, they’ve now got one, and it brought the attack into clear focus.

A backline full of options

All of the key performances for Seattle took place in the front six, but there’s plenty worth discussing in the back half of the pitch as well. We should begin by noting the incredible depth of the Seattle defense. The five starters last night are all excellent, but you could conduct a complete line change and replace them with five more top-level players. After all, they were missing two starters away on international duty (Lydia Williams in goal and Steph Catley at left back) and another (Yael Averbuch) to illness. Then consider names like Christen Westphal, Maddie Bauer, and Kristen McNabb and you’ve got two full defensive units that could easily be starting.

Of the group that started this game, the clearest positive story was Theresa Nielsen, whose first game in the league went very well. Many have suggested that the combination of Nielsen and Catley gives Seattle the best fullback duo in the league, and on the evidence of the night, there seems to be a lot to that. She is a dynamic player who will do a lot to settle the position for them. On the other side, Utsugi did fine, not blowing down any doors but getting the job done. It seems like she will be a nice luxury for Andonovski this year: a seasoned player who probably doesn’t start when everyone is healthy, but who can cover virtually any midfield or defensive position in a pinch.

At center back, Lauren Barnes looked a bit shaky. She has been a mainstay at Seattle for years, but appears to be in one of those phases that often hit players as they emerge out of their peak years: still good, but struggling to adapt to a slight loss of physical performance. It will be worth watching to see whether Averbuch slots immediately in as a starter once she’s healthy. On a team with fewer options, both would certainly be expected to play every day, but on a team with depth, some rotation might serve both players best, giving them time for rest and recovery to allow full exertion when they’re called on.

Finally, Michelle Betos put on quite a show in her first game back in the NWSL since she departed after the 2016 season. It was a vintage Betos performance, with some impressive sweeping, a few nice saves, and a few moments to set the heart racing. Williams should still be expected to start once she returns, but at a bare minimum Betos showed that Seattle have solid depth in the position.

Verdict still out, but a promising start

Ultimately, one game is only one game. Things could still very easily go wrong. But one theme coming into the year was concern that it might take Vlatko time to get everyone working together, to imprint his vision, and to establish the sort of style he wants to see. With five new players (many of them down the spine of the team), more new players to come, and a new coach, it would be understandable if things hadn’t really gelled. Instead, they hit the ground running.

Last year, Seattle finished fifth, five points off of a playoff spot. The four teams who finished ahead of them can’t have liked what they saw on Saturday night.

Image courtesy of Leanne Keator