The Seattle Reign extended their unbeaten run to 5 games after an 82nd minute goal by Christine Nairn gave them a 3-2 lead over the Western New York Flash, which they just barely held onto. The goal capped off a high scoring match, but the Reign had many more good chances than the visitors. It was only the play of Flash keeper Adrianna Franch that prevented Seattle from running up the score. She made a diving save on a 40 yard chip from Megan Rapinoe when the keeper was off her line and had to scramble back.. she tipped over a point blank header from Jessica McDonald late in the match. And there were more. But even her great play couldn't keep the Reign offense from looking as good as any in the league, which is light years away from where they were just a month ago.
The first goal came from the Flash. After sustained Seattle pressure in their end, defender Brittany Taylor punted a 60 yard pass over the top to Abby Wambach. Showing tremendous speed for a player who does most of her damage with her head, Wambach outran the defense for half the length of the field and beat Hope Solo one on one with a low far-post shot. With three touches from deep in the Flash box to the Reign goal, it was route one soccer at its finest. It was a gut punch to a Seattle team that had controlled the match, but the lead didn't last long. Four minutes later Seattle once again was in the Flash box and this time new signing Renae Cuellar laid the ball back for Jess Fishlock to shoot and score from the top of the box.
The game went back and forth at that point, with most of the Flash chances coming via high crosses to Wambach and most of the Reign chances coming through Rapinoe, who was carving up Alex Sahlen on the left wing all night. The deadlock was finally broken just before halftime. New signing Jessica McDonald got around her defender and into the box near the endline to cross. The cross didn't find anyone and should have been easy to deal with, but after a Flash defender passed it back to Franch she was pressured by Cuellar and panicked a bit. She poked out a half-clearance that went straight to Rapinoe at the top of the box. She easily chipped it around the scrambling keeper for the lead. It was the only significant mistake Franch made in the game, but it was a major one.
Just after the start of the second half we got another taste of NWSL officiating. Earlier in the season the Reign were penalized with one of the most absurd penalty calls you'll ever see, which even the Professional Referees Organization agreed was a bad call. Last night in the 47th minute Abby Wambach tried to back through Kaylyn Kyle to get to a high Carli Lloyd pass and Kyle was called for the penalty. You can watch the incident here and decide for yourself whether it merited a penalty kick. Regardless, it was given. And after a yellow card issued to Hope Solo for something or other, Wambach scored the PK and the game was tied again.
Even a draw against a good New York side wouldn't be a bad result and it would keep the undefeated streak going. But it would put the playoffs nearly out of reach. The team needs wins in bunches and they kept competing to the end. In the 82nd minute Nairn was left unmarked on a far post run and right back Ellie Reed picked her out perfectly for the trivial tap-in. That didn't end it, as the Reign suddenly stopped being able to hold possession and the Flash had three golden opportunities that they couldn't finish. But the team held on and picked up their 3rd win in 5 games and their 11th point in 15 available.
That puts the team 11 back of a playoff place and a lot still has to go right. Things like Portland beating the Flash this weekend (I know it might be tough for some of you to root for a Thorns win, but we're not passing them in the standings . So the more damage they can do the better). Still, it's a reasonable conversation to have, which is a big improvement over May.
New additions Cuellar and McDonald looked very able on the front line with Rapinoe and I think the team's panicked search for a consistent forward is probably over. Now we have to look to the defense. Stephanie Cox suited up for her first match but wasn't used off the bench. Her experience will help settle a young defense that has yet to record a shutout all season.
Now the team looks to this Sunday's home match against the bottom of the table Washington Spirit, which will also happen to be the league's first nationally televised game. Fox Soccer will be showing the match (which also necessitated moving it to 5:30, so update your calendars). The previous Spirit visit to Seattle was a very disappointing Reign loss, but this isn't that same Reign team. And they should be strong favorites to extend their unbeaten streak to 6 and possibly even pull within single digits in the race to a playoff spot.
Other News: Today the team announced that they've signed midfielder and Australian national team co-captain Emily van Egmond, who among other things scored the W-League goal of the year this season. Some pretty fancy footwork there. With Nairn, Fishlock, and Rapinoe locked into midfield spots and Cuellar looking good up top it's not clear where she'd play. Taking a midfield place from Keelin Winters seems unlikely. The other option would be right wing rather than Jessica McDonald. Or maybe after a full W-League season, she'll be used as a late sub. As a 19-year-old and already captain of a good national team, she's certainly one for the future.
To make room for her the team waived Kennya Cordner, who was called up from the reserves to help at forward but has been pushed back on the depth chart by Cuellar and McDonald.