Beating Sky Blue FC — tied for the top of the table — was inevitably going to be a tough task for the Seattle Reign. But doing it with a depleted roster, with multiple starters playing out of position — and eventually down a player — was asking the impossible.
The starting center back pairing for the Reign tonight included Jenny Ruiz and Kaylyn Kyle. Ruiz is a fullback. Kyle is a career midfielder. Those were the worst, but not the only, lineup contortions forced on the depleted Reign team by injuries. Elli Reed and Kate Deines, two of the team's stronger defenders, are out injured and will be for weeks more. That an actual center back — Emily Zurrer — was left on the bench was probably a bad sign for how much confidence the coach has in her. And in the midfield Keelin Winters is just returning from injury, forcing Teresa Noyola — an attacking midfielder by trade — to start in her holding midfield spot.
Even with that positional shuffling, the team opened strongly enough and had a few slim chances early that failed to become truly dangerous. Sky Blue were playing a high line and the Reign tried to drop balls over the top for forwards Tiffany Cameron and Lindsay Taylor to run onto, but they couldn't outpace the Sky Blue defenders.
Eventually they would settle into a routine of taking long shots. They'd finish the night with 13, but at least 8 of those were from more than 20 yards out. And not the dramatic long shots curling toward the top corner. They were nearly all the low, soft long shot that the keeper comfortably lets roll out 8 yards from goal.
At the other end, Australian Lisa De Vanna had no problem outpacing the makeshift Seattle defense. She was a terror all game, with her speed running onto balls and her tenacity in harassing Seattle's defense. But her early goal came from technique, as she split Seattle's defense on a run through the box and slotted the ball around keeper Haley Kopmeyer in the 9th minute.
Despite a number of other Sky Blue chances, Seattle escaped from the first half down just the one goal. But both Kyle and Ruiz had picked up first half yellow cards shutting down Sky Blue attacks and that would eventually be the team's undoing. In the second half Ruiz held the ball too long under pressure from De Vanna. She gave the ball up to the striker and tried to chase her down from behind, eventually knocking her down in the box for both the penalty and her second yellow.
In a rare bright moment for the team, Kopmeyer saved De Vanna's ensuing penalty shot. But being down a player would eventually be too much. Good offensive chances became even rarer and Sky Blue was getting increasingly dangerous. In the 78th minute, Winters (who'd subbed on earlier in the half) was called for a pretty soft foul just outside the box going up for a header. Sophie Schmidt curled the ensuing kick around the wall and into the net with Kopmeyer rooted to her spot.
Then in the 86th Taylor Lytle finished off the game when a long free kick (off another pretty soft foul against the Reign) bounced to her in the box and she lofted it over Kopmeyer into the net.
Despite the result there were some bright spots for Seattle. Fishlock, as we've come to expect, was a force in the midfield with ferocious tackling, good vision, and good passing touch. Dallstream was very solid at right back with a number of well-timed tackles and interceptions to keep De Vanna from being an even bigger factor in the match than she was. Winters returning was a good sign for the midfield as well.
But there was little evidence that this is a team that's going to find a run of good results. The offense was effectively fully healthy with Cameron and Taylor integrated in the team. But they weren't able to create any good chances. Part of that is Sky Blue's very good defense. But it's likely this is a team that's going to struggle to score goals all season, at least until Megan Rapinoe returns from France and international duty to change the dynamic of the offense.
At the other end, the team ends the match in even worse defensive shape than when it started. Ruiz' red means we're down another defender. Presumably Zurrer will return to the lineup alongside Kyle when they take on Portland next weekend, and you might recall that Alex Morgan had her way with the Canadian the last time the two teams met.
Oh, and speaking of Portland. Be prepared for the Rose City Riveters to dominate the atmosphere at Starfire next weekend. It will be a shame, but it will happen. Seattle's attendance has faltered along with the results — 1046 being the reported attendance tonight. The Royal Guard, Seattle's supporters group has a nascent showing of 5-10 flag wavers at each match, but expect there to be 50-100 Riveters turning it into effectively a home match for the Thorns.
There will, of course, be endlessly depressing arguments about whether this means Portland really is Soccer City, Whatever and whether it counts because Seattle actually has two women's teams, or whether reversing the player allocations would have substantially changed the fanbase. I can't give you any guidance about how to navigate those flamewars. I can only warn you that they're coming.