On Sunday, September 13, the Seattle Reign FC take on the Washington Spirit in the NWSL semifinals. The match kicks off from Memorial Stadium at 6:30 p.m. PT and will air on Fox Sports 1, although the best way to take in the action will be from the stands.
Expect the Battle of the Washingtons to be a feisty one. Not only did the Reign defeat the Spirit 2-1 in last year's NWSL semifinal, but the two teams closed out the 2015 NWSL regular season in a match that got a little physical in the second half. Both sides are certainly going to come out fired up.
The Reign have a lot on their side heading into the semifinal match. Seattle has posted an 8-0-2 record at home this season, including a 3-1 win over the Spirit. The team also averaged 2.60 goals per game at Memorial Stadium this year. Will the Reign extend its unbeaten streak at Memorial for one more match? If they can control the midfield and contain Crystal Dunn, Seattle will have a good chance of heading south to Portland for the NWSL championship.
The Spirit are led by likely NWSL MVP Crystal Dunn, who scored 15 goals this season after being left off the USWNT roster for the World Cup. Six of those goals were game winners. Dunn, 23, is speedy, loves to push the line, and does extremely well dribbling at defenders. Did I mention she has some speed?
Aside from Dunn, former Reign player Christine Nairn is dangerous on set pieces, tallying five goals on the season, while Diana Matheson and Francisca Ordega provide speed on the flanks that will keep Seattle's outside backs busy. But the team has struggled to find goals to support Dunn. In fact, Dunn failed to score in five of the Spirit's six losses this season and accounts for basically half (15) of the Spirit's 31 goals.
The best way to limit Dunn's chances is to clog the midfield so that Nairn can't find Dunn in dangerous positions. This forces Dunn to get deeper to collect the ball, giving the Reign more opportunities to pressure her before she gets into the final third.
The Spirit are led defensively by USWNT goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, who is averaging over five saves per game, and by Rookie of the Year candidate Megan Oyster. The centerback hails from UCLA, where she led a defense that averaged just 0.245 goals against for the 2014 season. Oyster, at just 23, has been the most consistently strong defender for the Spirit.
Look for the Reign to get Megan Rapinoe the ball often in this match. Rapinoe was able to create plenty of chances down the Reign's left flank in last week's match against the Spirit, giving Whitney Church all sorts of trouble. With Beverly Yanez expected to be back, Rapinoe will have even more options: cut in and shoot or look for Yanez with a cross.
USWNT defender Ali Krieger had been asked by Coach Mark Parsons to move to a center defensive midfield position when she returned from the World Cup. She has provided some creativity on the offensive end, but both Krieger and the Spirit defense have struggled to fully adjust to this swap. It is a moot point, however, as Krieger will miss the match to attend her father's wedding.
The Reign have the best midfield in the league in Keelin Winters, Jess Fishlock, and Kim Little. The three players have combined for 19 goals and nine assists this year. Seattle's ability to dominate possession in the midfield is a big reason for the team's low goals against total of 21, which is good for second in the league. Opponents have a hard time scoring when they can't get the ball into the final third.
For the Spirit, Christine Nairn is the key threat in the midfield. Without Krieger, Nairn will likely push higher up in the midfield to help lead the Spirit attack. She did this well against the Reign last match, but will need support from her other midfielders: Angela Salem, Joanna Lohman, or Tori Huster.
The Path to Victory
By the time the match kicks off, we will know which team will be facing either the Reign or the Spirit in the NWSL Championship on October 1. If Seattle plays the kind of soccer Coach Laura Harvey emphasizes — disciplined defense, possession in the midfield, and lots of movement off the ball — the game should be theirs to win.