One of the subplots in the Reign's magical 2014 season has been opposing teams' somewhat successful attempts to stymie Seattle's dynamic offense by pushing the defense high and pulling the line of confrontation low to compress the midfield space and starve the central midfielders (particularly Kim Little) of the ball. I say 'somewhat successful' because, well. . how successful can it have been if Seattle's only lost 1 game all season? But it's still frustrated the Reign and has been a factor in their loss and recent draws, largely because they haven't been able to develop the timing on their passes and runs to properly punish those high lines with accurate balls over or through them.
Today the high line was punished. The master key that unlocked the defense was Naho Kawasumi, who was at both ends of a fusillade of crosses that put Seattle players in space behind the Dash line. It didn't seem to matter that Laura Harvey had opted to rotate out Sydney Leroux and Megan Rapinoe, to be replaced by Bev Goebel and Kiersten Dallstream. You might expect that to increase the team's offensive struggles, but instead they were rampant.
Naho looked frisky and incisive in warmups and I jokingly predicated on Twitter that she'd score 4. But by halftime she was actually ahead of pace. After a number of very good Reign chances through the first third of the match, the opener came in the 31st when Little sent a high cross over the defense that put both Naho and Fishlock behind and on goal. Kawasumi picked up the ball and dribbled uncontested toward goal to fire in a shot that Bianca Henninger could only deflect before it went in. The second came just a minute later in almost identical circumstances. This time Fishlock had the ball in her own end and had time to pick up her head and loop a cross over the high defense to put Naho behind. This time Henninger rushed out and Naho coolly chipped her for the brace.
Then in the 38th it was Naho's turn to make the penetrating pass, when she put a ball through for Bev Goebel, who turned in the clear and had space and time to dribble around Henninger for the tap-in and the rout was on.
The chances kept coming in the second half as the Dash were committed to keeping the defense high despite the first half results. But the line was actually a success in the 4th goal, in which Little had to be at least two yards offside but wasn't called and had half the field to herself to toy with Henninger before dribbling around her for her 15th goal of the season and a 4-0 lead.
The Dash would have a few good spells of possession late and eventually ruined the shutout with a goal from Nina Burger, who deflected in a low, hard cross to beat Haley Kopmeyer. But by then the outcome was in no doubt and the story of the game was written.
The win keeps the Reign 12 points clear of 2nd place Kansas City, who also won in an odd game shortened to 45 minutes by weather to clinch the #2 seed. And Little's goal keeps her 2 ahead of Amy Rodriguez, who also scored in that KC game. With that 2 goal lead and 2 games left to KC's 1, the Golden Boot seems likely. And her assist gives her 7, which ties her for the league lead along with Fishlock and KC's Lauren Holiday, so there's every likelihood that she'll finish tops in both goals and assists in her first season in the league. And some more stats trivia. . other than the Reign there are four teams with a positive goal differential, all in single digits and led by KC's +8. The Reign's goal differential is +31.
Next up Seattle hosts Washington this weekend in the last home regular season match and one that could have significant consequences for who the Reign play in the first round of the playoffs, as both the Spirit and the Thorns (who the Reign play next) are candidates for that 4th playoff place. But if the Reign continue to play like they did tonight, it won't much matter who they face.