Last night, the Seattle Reign traveled to Chicago hoping to extend their impressive 16-game unbeaten streak to start the season. But for the 8th time in the last 10 games they started slow and allowed the opponent to score first. They've shown an almost unbelievable ability to pick up their game late and overcome those early deficits. But eventually there will come a day when the breaks don't go your way, you don't get a close call, the ball doesn't deflect or swerve for you, and you won't be able to reliably get a late goal. That day came for Seattle yesterday, and despite a few late chances they succumbed at last for their first loss of the season.
That undefeated streak was, on its own, historical. The previous best run for a professional women's soccer team in the US was FC Gold Pride's 13 game unbeaten streak to end the 2010 WPS season. The Reign can only hope that they emulate the rest of Gold Pride's season, as the Bay Area team went on to win the league by 17 points on the strength of an MVP season from the Brazilian star Marta. They got a bye into the championship game, which they dominated for a 4-0 win and a championship trophy (Never mind that the team folded in that offseason).
But it's even more impressive if you add some context. This Reign team is just off a horrendous season that saw them second to last in the table. They've made the turnaround in a league with close parity controls, in which you can't just go overspend on any star you want. Head coach and GM Laura Harvey had to make canny trades (and if you remember the offseason, you remember that she made an absurd number of them) and careful international and free agent signings that would still fit under the league salary cap.
And the other part of the context is that the supposed keystones of the team — the allocated US international players — have not been the players powering the turnaround. Megan Rapinoe, whose addition to the team halfway through last season sparked a winning streak that turned perceptions of the team around, has made almost no contribution after being injured in her first game of the season and playing only part of one game since. Sydney Leroux, who was considered a coup of an acquisition in the offseason, has struggled to find her scoring touch all year and has been little of an offensive force, especially in comparison to Amy Rodriguez — the player Seattle sent away to get her (though multiple moves) and who is 2nd in the league with 10 goals. Hope Solo has been available for most of the season (aside from the occasional international callup and legal trouble), but there's only so much influence a keeper can have on the field. And after a strong opening to the season, the team only has 2 shutouts in its last 11 games, so it's not as if the success is being built on dominating goalkeeping performances.
Instead the success has been built on those smart free agent acquisitions. Kim Little has been an offensive force in the heart of the team. Japanese international Nahomi Kawasumi has been dynamic and dangerous on the wing. Bev Goebel, an American who was also brought back from Japan, has been a consistent contributor when attention is drawn to those other players. Kendall Fletcher, brought back from Australia, has brought solidity to a back line that could have been in dire shape with the season-long injury to first round draft pick Amanda Frisbie. Adding in Jess Fishlock, who was the team MVP last season, the Reign's internationals have added more than any other group of internationals in the league.
Which is all the more heartening when you consider that the team can only improve when Rapinoe finally gets healthy and when (if) Leroux can find her offensive form in Harvey's system. Seattle has seven more games remaining in the season — the next a home rematch with Chicago next Sunday — and there's an argument that the end of the streak is a blessing in disguise, as it could have been a distraction from building and resting the team for the playoffs as the season winds down. The team's just one win and/or a couple of Portland losses from clinching a playoff spot and has a 9 point lead on second place Kansas City.
So barring a real collapse over the next few weeks, they should have home field advantage in the playoffs secured with some time to go, with time to get healthy without the weight of the historical achievement of an invincible season hovering over their heads. I think that's a fair trade for a championship, if they can pull it off.