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Kim Little: World class wherever her team needs her

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The Seattle Reign midfielder was asked to play deeper in Jess Fishlock's absence, and she did it flawlessly.

Photo: Mike Russell

There is a short list of players that rise to the top of everyone's "world's best" list in women's soccer. Amandine Henry, the soon-to-be Portland Thorns star, is often touted as the best defensive midfielder in the game. Marta's speed and wizardry on the ball have led her to become the leading scorer in the World Cup. Louisa Necib's technical skills and vision are virtually unrivaled.

Each of these players deserve to be included in a conversation about the most elite talent in women's soccer. But over the weekend, one player proved she is not just one of the best, but one of the most well-rounded players in women's soccer today. That player is, of course, Seattle Reign FC's Kim Little.

With Jess Fishlock out up to six weeks due to a tibia fracture, and Seattle facing FC Kansas City, a team that won back-to-back NWSL Championship titles, fans nervously anticipated the lineup Seattle would roll out for its first match back at Memorial Stadium after a poor performance against Sky Blue FC in the home opener.

Reign FC coach Laura Harvey surprised many by starting Little, a creative playmaker that powers Seattle's offense, in a defensive midfield role. While Little has shown her versatility in two seasons with the Reign, that often came at the attacking end, where Harvey would push her high up the field to steal a late goal in matches.

However, any doubt about how the team would fare with Little playing deeper was quickly put to rest the second she stepped onto the field. Little looked like a supercharged, yet more controlled, Osvaldo Alonso — sprinting back on defense to stop attacks and creating plays on the other end of the pitch.

"Kim Little's playing centerback," my friend said to me at one point during the match. And she wasn't wrong. At times, Little also filled in at right back, forward, and winger. She was where her team needed her to be, and it was truly beautiful to watch.

"She was everywhere," Harvey said after Sunday's match. "There were times where they had a few little breaks, and the player getting back is Kim Little. A few crosses into the box, a player controlling it on her chest and doing a (Johan) Cruyff turn in your 18-yard box is Kim Little. And at the other end, she just needs that one opportunity."

That opportunity came in the 56th minute, when Little calmly collected a bouncing pass in the box, cut it outside and away from pressure, and slotted the ball far post.

Kim Little goal FC Kansas City

Minutes later, Little nearly got a second on a well-timed run and clever give-and-go with Bev Yanez.

While statistics cannot fully capture the brilliance of Little's performance on both ends of the pitch, they do help convey the impact she had against a Kansas City side that is known for moving the ball quickly and allowing opponents only a few good chances to get a shot off.

Little completed 52 of 55 passes, good for a 95 percent pass completion rate. She also had 10 interceptions, tackles, or recoveries on the defensive end. This play in the 64th minute is a great example. From the top of the box, Little sees an opportunity to provide some extra pressure to support left back Carson Pickett. Not only does she steal the ball, she maintains possession and helps move the ball up the field.

Little recovery

Beyond Little's performance, the defensive shape of the midfield band of her, Winters, and Yanez was virtually flawless. Kansas City was regularly forced to move the ball back and forth along their back line, finding it difficult to get anything into or through the midfield. This play in the 36th minute was a great example of what Harvey preaches—pressuring from the front and moving as one defensive unit.

Seattle Reign defensive positioning

I also counted at least seven times where Little either dribbled forward to push the attack or successfully dribbled out of pressure. Reign fans are familiar with Little's ability to manage two or three players collapsing on her, keeping the ball close to her feet and maneuvering away from pressure. Doing that closer to your own goal is a little more risky, yet Little managed it with ease.

"There's times she does things under pressure ... where you just stand there in awe, really," Harvey said. Awe, indeed.

Little dribble pressure

While this role is one Little hasn't needed to play in Seattle, it is a position she regularly fills on the Scotland National Team, which lacks the midfield support that Fishlock and Winters provide. Little's efforts for Scotland have them closer than they've ever been to qualifying for their first major competition, the 2017 UEFA Women's EURO.

Playing against FC Kansas City is always tough for Seattle. It can come down to just one mistake or one moment of brilliance. Thankfully, Kim Little's brilliance won the game on Sunday. But to sum up her match with a goal alone would be a disservice to what fans witnessed on the field. If Little and the team continue to put in performances like this, it's going to be hard to beat the Reign this season.