After a half season of futility, the Seattle Reign are suddenly on a winning streak. On Saturday they welcomed the Chicago Red Stars to town for Seattle's third game in seven days. It was the first home match since an East Coast road trip that saw the Reign pick up their first win and their first points since opening day. But Seattle had yet to get any points at home. They'd only scored in one of their five previous matches at Starfire this season and failed to shut out any opponent at home (or away, for that matter). So it was a big opportunity to prove to the home fans that a corner really had been turned. And with clear blue skies, the first beer garden of the season, and 2,318 in attendance, it was the perfect evening for it.
With the schedule density, the long-awaited home debut of Megan Rapinoe had to wait a little longer. After putting in significant minutes for Olympique Lyon in multiple competitions and playing for the national team, she started her second Reign match on the bench. Newly signed forward Kennya Cordner returned to the starting lineup after being a late injury scratch in midweek. Kirsten Dallstream returned from her one-game suspension and Kate Deines came back to the starting lineup as a midfielder.
In a bit of a twist, Jessica Fishlock started and played most of the match as the center forward in a 4-3-3. She's spent most of the season as a ballhawking midfielder, but she also has a good shot. And the team's biggest need is a forward who can be aggressive and force chances, and Fishlock is certainly that.
That created a front line of Fishlock in the middle, Cordner on one wing, and Liz Bogus on the other. The midfield line was Keelin Winters, Deines, and Christine Nairn. And the defensive line was back to what's looking like a regular setup of Kaylyn Kyle and Lauren Barnes in the center and Dallstream and Elli Reed at fullback.
Early on, Seattle was clearly on the front foot. They had most of the possession and limited Chicago to a couple of tame chances while having plenty of buildup themselves. Still, in a familiar story this season they weren't able to turn that momentum into any great chances of their own. Their best early chance was a bicycle kick shot by Cordner that went a yard over the goal. Then Chicago began to get more into the game. In the 26th minute Alyssa Mautz nutmegged one Reign defender then deked around Dallstream to get an open shot from near the endline that Hope Solo was forced to turn around for a corner. In the 34th Inka Grings split two defenders to get free on Solo, who had to slide out to shut down the chance. That was followed by Seattle's best chance of the half, when Reed picked off a bad clearance and crossed it to the far post where Fishlock got her head on it and snapped a hard shot to the corner, but Eric McLeod made a great dive to her right to keep it out.
So we started the second half 0-0 and wondering if this was going to be another game where Seattle started brightly but faded late. But 5 minutes into the half, just as Rapinoe was warming up to make her entrance, Cordner was tackled from behind in the box by Ella Masar for a Seattle penalty. This was a tense moment and fans could be forgiven for being pessimistic after Seattle had missed their last penalty versus the Thorns and given Seattle soccer's history with spot kicks. But after a long discussion (while Masar was down and being treated) Kyle stepped up to take it and calmly shot it past her countrymate to give the Reign the 1-0 lead. The cheers for that were doubled when Rapinoe stepped onto the field to replace Cordner.
Then just 5 minutes later, a bad clearance in the Chicago backline and some abysmal marking let Nairn find Fishlock standing at the top of the box, where she had time to turn around, pick her shot, think about it, and loft the ball over McLeod for a 2-0 lead.
With their first ever 2 goal lead, the team and the fans were feeling pretty good. Rapinoe was showing world class ability on the left wing to hold the ball, turn defenders around, and pick out passes. That set up some nice chances and Seattle had a few close opportunities to go up three until we got to around the 75th minute mark.
That's when the curse of the most dangerous lead in soccer reared its head. Just a few days before, Seattle earned its first franchise win by taking advantage of a team that got complacent with a lead. This time Seattle got complacent with a late lead. They were unable to hold the ball for any length of time and were content to punt clearances straight back to Chicago rather than try to play out and hold possession. That gave the Red Stars chance after chance to whip crosses in and build up attacks at the top of the box. From the 75th to the 85th minute, Chicago had 9 shots or crosses into the box. That's not a rate even a good defense can defend against, and I'm not sure we can call Seattle's defense good yet.
If Solo hadn't been standing on her head making some great saves and clearances, the goal would have come earlier. But in the 84th minute the pressure was too much and Michelle Wenino got a point blank header off a corner to halve the lead.
Fortunately, Seattle was able to settle things down after that wake-up call and in injury time they sealed it when the entire Red Stars team was pushed up for a free kick. The ball was quickly cleared out leaving Rapinoe and Nairn with half the field against a single Chicago defender. Nairn passed to Rapinoe for the open shot, which she curled around McLeod for the 3-1 lead and a celebratory last couple minutes of the team's first home win.
But for that terrible stretch late in the second half when the team just couldn't relieve the pressure from Chicago, Seattle looked good. Their build-up play is as good as anyone in the league, and with Rapinoe on the team it'll only get better. Their problems have been finding someone who can turn that build-up into goals and solidifying a defense that still hasn't recorded a shutout this season. Stephanie Cox should be able to join the team any time now (she warmed up with the team before the game, though she wasn't on the gameday roster), likely to slot into left back. Her national team experience combined with Solo's should help stabilize the defense, as will Kyle's growing familiarity with playing center back.
For the other problem, I'm not sure Fishlock is a long-term solution at forward, but between Rapinoe, Winters, Deines, Nairn, Noyola, the team has a ton of other good midfielders who need to find playing time. So if she continues to find success there, it may be an option. And of course there's Cordner and Jessica McDonald, who has yet to join the team.
So there's every reason to believe this is a team on the rise. The crowd was large and active, putting out of mind those late May attendance slumps. The Reign win means they're no longer at the bottom of the standings (at least if you ignore games in hand) and the team ahead of them is the Chicago team they just beat. Only two of their five July matches are against teams with winning records and four of the five are at home, so this could be a month where the team takes off and even kindles their (admittedly incredibly slight) hopes for the playoffs.