Seattle Reign Preview: the NWSL’s Newest Old Team


Once upon a time, the Seattle Reign were the most dominant team in the NWSL, playing a brand of fast-paced, possession-oriented soccer that remains some of the most attractive we’ve seen in the young league. For two years, they were all but unstoppable, winning the shield in 2014 with 54 points and a ridiculous goal differential of +30. Although they’ve never won a championship, that squad was the most successful in league history by just about any other measure.

In 2016 and 2017 though, following the departure of some key players, the Reign fell off. They landed in the middle of the table in both years, combining some great wins with a lot of lackluster performances, with huge defensive shortcomings in 2017 especially.

At the close of the 2017 season, Laura Harvey, the Reign’s only coach to that point, announced her departure, and the team brought on Vlatko Andonovski of FC Kansas City. Andonovski made wholesale changes to the roster this offseason, marking a new era in Reign history. What happens next in Seattle is one of the most interesting open questions going into this new season.

Head Coach: Vlatko Andonovski

2017 record: 9-7-8 (34 points), fifth place in the league

Projected Starting XI:

Goalkeeper: Lydia Williams (it’s worth noting, though, that she won’t arrive until late April—so if Michelle Betos is in form, Williams could end up fighting for playing time)

Defense: Theresa Nielsen, Yael Averbuch, Lauren Barnes, Steph Catley

Midfield: Jess Fishlock, Allie Long, Rumi Utsugi

Forwards: Megan Rapinoe, Jodie Taylor, Nahomi Kawasumi

Player you should know: Jess Fishlock has been the center of this team for a long time. She’s a famously (or infamously, depending on where you’re standing) physical, extremely hard-working midfielder who can dictate play from the center of the pitch and has a knack for scoring from distance—and under Laura Harvey, she was basically second in command, with a level of influence that went well beyond what she did on the field. Following an enormous roster overhaul this offseason, Fishlock is the most important remaining link to the Reign of old, and one of the biggest questions going into the season is what her working relationship with Andonovski ends up looking like.

Under the radar: To longtime Reign fans, Nahomi Kawasumi is hardly a secret, but she’s a key contributor to the Seattle offense who gets relatively little fanfare in the national press. She’s an archetypal Japanese player, extremely smart and technical with a buttery-smooth touch, and notched nine assists last year—just one short of the single-season record in the NWSL.

Biggest off-season acquisition: With so much turnover, it’s hard to pick just one answer.

I’m going to interpret “biggest” to mean “most surprising,” though, and go with Allie Long. If it weren’t for that other big trade, the Long-Foord trade would have been the biggest news this offseason, simply for the drama: a standby for Portland, who many would have expected to retire in red, seemingly requesting a trade to her club’s longtime rival (more on that in a minute). Thorns fans were heartbroken. Reign fans were skeptical.

Let’s stick to the field, though. Long was inconsistent in 2017—when she played at all—and observers of the national team probably know her best for her ill-fated stint at centerback. Neither is representative, though; over five years in Portland, Long proved herself as a multi-use player who can have an impact anywhere in the central midfield.

“I don’t know exactly what role she’s going to play,” Andonovski told me in a phone interview, “but I feel like she has a quality to play any role in the middle. She can play in front of two center backs and be a great six, but at the same time, she has the stamina and the ability to go box to box—and also, she has the creative and finishing abilities to play at the ten. So I’m pretty sure she’ll do well regardless of what we ask from her.”

Biggest rival: Portland. In the six-year-old NWSL, there are still few actual rivalries—especially given that teams keep relocating or folding altogether. The Thorns-Reign rivalry, however, is absolutely real, in the eyes of fans and players alike. Portland fans carry a much longer-established animosity towards the Seattle Sounders over to the women’s side, while Reign fans look at Portland as the unfairly-advantaged evil empire to the south. Look for things to get especially heated this year, in the wake of the Long trade.

Most memorable moment from 2017: Instead of choosing a single moment, I’m going to point to Seattle’s last two matches against Sky Blue, each of which ended 5-4—one in the Reign’s favor, one in Sky Blue’s. Incredibly, there were two other games last season in which Seattle scored at least five goals, but those two matches brought out both the best and the worst in two teams with high-flying offenses and poor defenses.

The scoreline in the first match was 4-0 in Seattle’s favor by the 60th minute, when Kelley O’Hara put away a penalty. Sky Blue nearly came back to draw, before a Rapinoe goal in the 87th minute netted her a hat trick and put the game away for the Reign. The second match played out similarly, with Seattle up 3-0 heading into halftime before Sam Kerr scored four in the second half. These matches were a perfect storm, a meeting of two teams seemingly engineered to yield the most exciting (or stressful) possible soccer—and if Andonovski has done his job, nothing remotely like them will happen in 2018.

Why they’re the team to watch in 2018: Seattle are not literally a new team, but in just about every sense short of having moved and rebranded, this is a revamped Seattle team. As such, there are layers of storylines here.

Andonovski is one of the league’s most successful coaches, but headed a team that struggled in the last two years of its existence. The Reign, meanwhile, once played some of the most dominant and attractive soccer we’ve seen in the NWSL, but couldn’t pick up the pieces after losing key players in successive years. It’s an almost poetic matchup.

” I think my coaching style is attacking-minded,” he says. “Based on possession and being able to progress from one zone to another, very methodical, being able to break lines or advance forward with short, sharp, and accurate passes.” Andonovski’s teams have also, historically, been defensively strong, even in years where they stumbled offensively. That’s good news for a Seattle side whose defense was among the worst in the league last year.

Predicted finish: Fourth in the table. This roster has the potential to be really good, but so many new players aren’t going to gel overnight. I expect them to be hit-and-miss early in the season, and pick up steam as they get into the summer.

Success depends on: What else? Defense. That was one of Andonovski’s first priorities coming in, and, accordingly, he’s brought in some world-class defenders to join longtime mainstay Lauren Barnes. Steph Catley and Theresa Nielsen are upgrades at outside back—although the left side of the defense may suffer as Catley misses playing time early for the Asian Cup. Yael Averbuch followed Andonovski from FCKC, and Megan Oyster, picked up in the Boston dispersal draft, is likely a depth piece, but strong one.

Fun prediction: Harvey and Andonovski meet again in the championship match. Lydia Williams is sent off with minutes left in overtime, and, with no subs left, Fishlock goes in goal. Tune in to the 2018 season to see what happens next.

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