It's hard to convincingly argue a team is 'struggling' when they've only lost one game in their last. . well, one game all year. But the Seattle Reign of the last month or so has not been the Seattle Reign of the first months of the season, when Kim Little was scoring for fun and the team allowed 2 goals in 6 matches. They've still gotten results for the most part, but the attacking flow has stuttered. Teams have learned that if they can pack the central midfield to deny Little the ball and hold a high line they can force the Reign out of their comfort zone and into a grind of offside calls and mistimed passes.
The Thorns were a good matchup to test that theory, because they are disinclined or incapable (or both) of packing it in. And the result was a Seattle rout. Sydney Leroux, who's been struggling to find her place in the offense all season, set the tone early and emphatically in the third minute, when she dribbled through the Thorns' right flank and beat Nadine Angerer near post for the early lead. That would portend a terrible day for the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year, who had one of the worst goalkeeping games I can recall in the league — not so much the goals, as many weren't reasonably save-able, but her handling, shot stopping, and decision making just looked terribly off. Perhaps the pressure of the rivalry match got to her.
The Thorns were not without good chances, but only one of them came before the game was out of hand. In the 19th, Sinclair got into the box, forced Solo to come out early, and got around her for the open net, but Lauren Barnes was alertly on hand to clear the ball away. After that, a number of good Thorns chances (including a shot off the crossbar and some close range headers that went over) were just attempts to save face.
Seattle's second goal was a beautiful example of what the team can accomplish at its best. In the 39th, Kim Little found space on the left for a perfect cross across the face of goal, where Naho Kawasumi was unmarked for a header buried with form that you wouldn't expect from a 5'2" player.
A 2-0 lead at half was close enough to keep it a game, but it got out of hand early in the second. Naho scored again in the 49th off another Little cross, this time with a tremendous volley to beat Angerer far post. In the 57th, Rapinoe (who had subbed in earlier in the half) headed in a beautiful cross (but I repeat myself) from Naho. And for the final dagger, in injury time Little settled the ball near the Thorns' penalty spot, was allowed to think about her shot for 5-6 seconds while defenders spiraled around her, and finished coolly for her 12th of the season and a round 5 goal lead.
The win kept Seattle's lead over Kansas City — who won earlier in the day — at 9 points with 4 KC games left. The Reign only need 4 points either earned themselves or dropped by Kansas City to clinch home field through the playoffs, and the chance could come soon with a quick turnaround to a midweek game at Houston, who are near the bottom of the table in their expansion season.
The Thorns leave Seattle with some critical questions to answer, which isn't new for a team that's boasted some of the best talent in the world for a season and a half but has never looked capable of deploying it effectively for long stretches (though capable enough to win a championship, so there's that). There's still the question of how to get Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair to play together effectively, how to get the ball to them without forcing one or both to drop into their own end, and how to defend at least well enough to give them a chance to win games consistently. First they just have to make the playoffs. They're two points ahead of two teams with a game in hand on them, though their next two are against the two weakest teams in the league, so you'd expect them to settle into a third or fourth spot eventually. But if it's fourth and they have to play a semifinal in Seattle, they'll have to erase every trace of the game that they just played.