Little Equalizer Keeps Reign Unbeaten At Home

Mike Russell

The offense got a second half spark from the additions of Kim Little and Naho Kawasumi, and that was just enough to avoid the first (and what would have been only) regular season loss at Memorial Stadium.

In their final home match of the regular season, the Seattle Reign showed that they aren't quite the same team without Kim Little in midfield. With nothing really riding on the game for Seattle and coming off a game just three days before, Little started the game on the bench along with Naho Kawasumi, who was the offensive spark in that emphatic midweek win over Houston.

Without those two the Seattle offense sputtered. Under heavy full field pressure from the Washington Spirit, who were playing to clinch a playoff spot, the Reign struggled to move the ball upfield and were prone to dangerous turnovers. It was just such a turnover that led to the first goal of the game, when Megan Rapinoe left a pass short in the center of midfield to be picked off by Diana Matheson. That sprung the Spirit for a counterattack with a numbers advantage and it was Matheson herself who took the final pass for a clear 1-on-1 with Hope Solo. She beat the national team keeper far post and the Spirit had the early lead.

The Spirit had a very similar counterattacking chance later in the half that was only just broken up by quick defending from Lauren Barnes. That combined with Seattle's inability to create much build up and reliance on aimless long balls meant that Washington was the better team in the first half and fully deserving of the lead, even if it came on a counter. And Rapinoe and Sydney Leroux struggled through the half both to make good decisions and execute them.

At halftime Laura Harvey subbed in Naho Kawasumi for Bev Goebel, and the Japanese international's presence immediately improved the attack, as did a firmer commitment to keep the ball on the ground. The Reign had a number of good chances early in the second half, nearly all of which involved Naho, but were still unable to find the equalizer.

Despite the fact that the game didn't really mean anything in the standings, Harvey was clearly unhappy to be trailing in the last regular season home match, and in the 68th minute she brought on Little. That continued the improvement to the Seattle attack and they clearly had the run of play for the remainder of the half. It finally paid off in the 89th minute, when a sublime through ball by Jess Fishlock carved through three defenders and Little wove through the box to get on the end of it, dribble around keeper Chantel Jones, and finish her 16th goal of the season to tie the game.

The point gives Seattle 54 for the season, exactly three times the 18 they finished with last season. And it means the regular season home schedule is complete without a single loss at Memorial Stadium. Of course, the team wants to extend the home unbeaten streak through the playoffs, which would mean a league title.

But despite the thrilling comeback, this game leaves us with some concerns. First, center back Kendall Fletcher left the game early with what looked like a hamstring injury. If she's out for any length of time, the team will likely need to rely on Kate Deines to fill in. Fortunately, she had a player of the match performance in defense tonight with solid decision making and passing out of the back.

Probably more importantly, both Leroux and Rapinoe were off all night. It's telling that in the last match, when both started on the bench, the Reign offense looked unstoppable. Rapinoe has looked good at times in recent matches, so you could argue it's just a blip. But Leroux has struggled all season to adapt to her role in Harvey's system. As the playoffs approach it might seem unthinkable that the right forward trio is Naho, Rapinoe, and Goebel with Leroux on the bench. But the coach's responsibility isn't to put the best players in the team, it's to put out the players that make the best team. And with only one game left in the regular season, it's fair to question whether the version of the Reign with US superstar Leroux on the field is the best one.

Now the team has a week off to think about it before the regular season finale in Portland next weekend. That game may decide whether or not the Thorns even make the playoffs, depending on what they do in their game tomorrow against Boston. And thanks to Chicago's win tonight and the Spirit's late draw, both of the last two playoff spots are open. Fortunately, the Reign have earned the right to not have to worry about any of that and to focus on their form for the playoffs.

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