If there was any doubt that the Seattle Reign are a transformed side, they put it to rest with a comprehensive win over Boston on Sunday. The came out in new kits on their new field and showed a new quality in earning their first win of the season and their first shutout as a franchise.
The major lineup question coming into the game was whether the six internationals who had just flown in midweek would make the starting lineup. And the answer was yes for all of them. Instead it was Nahomi Kawasumi, who's been with the team all preseason, who started on the bench to make room for a front line of Megan Rapinoe, Sydney Leroux, and Bev Goebel. Behind them was the expected midfield of Keelin Winters, Jess Fishlock, and Kim Little. And the remaining lineup question of who would pair with Lauren Barnes in the central defense between fullbacks Stephanie Cox and Elli Reed was — at least for this game — answered with veteran American Kendall Fletcher, who joined the team from the Australian league in the offseason. Hope Solo naturally started in goal.
Despite that large amount of quality on the team, the game started ragged, as early season games often do. Boston played a very high line, hoping to either pull the Seattle attackers offside or bait them into sending through balls too far across the turf. That worked fairly well, as the Reign picked up a significant number of offside calls and sent quite a few balls straight through to Breakers keeper Alyssa Naeher.
But even that and the early season lead touch wasn't enough to keep Seattle down completely. They warmed into a series of early minor chances that didn't trouble Naeher too much before nearly breaking it open. In the 21st, Leroux got the ball deep in the box with a defender draped over her and tried a backheel shot that nearly came through, with the rebound coming out for a Little shot that Naeher had to make another save on. Then a couple minutes later Little found a wide open Rapinoe at the top of the box, who first-timed a shot that Naeher made a nearly impossible save on, deflecting it onto her far post.
All that good work was nearly undone by Boston's best — and it would turn out, only real — chance of the match. Heather O'Reilly attacked down the left wing as numerous Breakers crashed into the box, and she found a wide open Joanna Lohman, who shanked her shot up into the crossbar and down, to be cleared over the backline by Lauren Barnes (who does that sort of thing in her sleep). That would have been reminiscent of last season, when Seattle would often look good early only to give up a goal and then fall apart in the middle of the game. But they held up there and the teams went into the half scoreless.
The second half was a Reign show. They finally broke through in the 48th when a fairly harmless Rapinoe low cross was stopped by Courtney Jones, but it kicked up to her arm for the easy penalty call. Little calmly finished for Seattle's first goal of 2014. Then in the 54th after a foul call against Boston, Fishlock alertly spied Little running past the defense. She quickly took the free kick with a perfect looping ball that Little ran onto to finish past Naeher for the 2-0 lead.
After covering soccer for many years now, I've decided the best compliment I can give a team is that after taking a lead, they kept getting the good chances. A bad team that gets a lucky lead will bunker like hell. Even if it's a pair of closely matched teams, when one takes a lead the other will naturally press harder and get some chances. It's a testament to how much better the Reign were that even with the lead, Boston really did nothing. They subbed on Lisa De Vanna, who on her day can be one of the most dangerous attackers in the league, but she didn't get a sniff of a good chance.
The game was put to bed in the 88th, when Fishlock sombrero'd a beautiful pass to herself to get past a Breakers defender and measured a through-ball to Rapinoe. Neaher rushed out to the ball at the top of the box but she badly mistimed it and ended up nearly running into her defender and letting the ball roll by. Rapinoe got to the ball first and just dribbled in for the easy tap-in. Seattle held on comfortably for the last few minutes, and their first win of the season and first every shutout was complete.
It's worth noting that despite some shows of incredible quality by Seattle: substitute Kawasumi's pinpoint long crosses, Rapinoe's scorpion kick pass, Leroux's late runs off the backline. . the three goals they actually scored were pretty grindy. They got an unlikely penalty, a route one goal off a quickly taken free kick when the defense fell asleep, and Naeher just letting a ball roll by her.
The quality goals will come. . Rapinoe was so close to so many, forcing some amazing saves and hitting the woodwork multiple times. But while the team still gets to know each other, the fact that they have the quality to 'grind' out a 3-0 win is heartening. Little is legit. Naho is legit. Goebel was almost an afterthought this offseason, but she's better than any center forward the team played last year. The season is young yet and those predictions of Seattle in the playoffs are very premature, but it's likely the team only improves from here. And if that's the case, the rest of the league is in trouble.
Their next match is in 10 days at home against Washington, the team that finished at the bottom of the table last season. So there's a reasonable chance that Seattle can start the season with six points and bury the ghosts of 2013 for good.