On Sunday, Seattle Reign FC travels across the country to take on the New Jersey squad that defeated them in the 2016 home opener, breaking Seattle's two-year home undefeated streak. The match kicks off at 3:00 p.m. PT and will be streamed live on YouTube.
Reign players will be looking for redemption after that uncharacteristically poor performance at home, which was just the beginning of a somewhat rocky start to the season. But with new signings Rumi Utsugi and Naho Kawasumi (!!) joining the squad shortly, and a stronger performance last week against Houston, we shouldn't expect the same level of frustration this time around.
We exchanged 3 Questions with Once a Metro's Allison Lee to check in on how each team has fared since facing one other at the start of the season.
SaH: Sky Blue's high pressure had Seattle Reign players flustered in the season opener. Has Sky Blue continued this style of play against other teams?
OaM: That has been one of the major strategies for the season, but the Seattle match is probably the game where it was most effective. That match also stands apart from all the others so far this season because I think the team knew going into it that everyone already had Seattle written into the win column, so they had nothing to lose. That allowed them to play their game, and that caught Seattle off guard and resulted in three points for Sky Blue. I think it was also pretty successful against Houston and even Chicago, resulting in draws against both teams, but opponents are expecting it now and injuries have forced Sky Blue to go with different tactics at times.
SaH: Sky Blue is tied with Boston for the most goals given up this year (12). What are some reasons for the defensive struggles?
OaM: The Sky Blue back line has had two rookies, Erin Simon and Erica Skroski, on it for most of the season. Both have played phenomenally against some tough opponents, but there are times when their inexperience shows. Coach Holly made some changes to the back line the last two games, shifting Skroski out to right back and starting Kristin Grubka in the center, so hopefully that'll beef up the defense some.
The outside backs have also been playing more of a fullback position, and that's allowed Kelley O'Hara especially to be a major contributing force to the Sky Blue attack. While that's great when she's moving the ball down the field and creating opportunities for goals, it's not so great when there's a turnover and there's a hole left on one side of the field. O'Hara's one of the fastest, fittest players around, but 90+ minutes of running end line to end line is enough to wear out even the best players, and that affects her ability to get back on defense and prevent shots.
SaH: Australian winger Sam Kerr is back from injury! How much does her return impact the squad?
OaM: So much. Our front third has been plagued by injuries this season, and what the team has really lacked is a consistent goal scorer. While you can get draws without goals, you can't get wins without them, and Sky Blue needs wins. Despite only playing in nine games last season because of her time with the Australian WNT, Kerr was tied for most goals for the team and was the team's Golden Boot winner.
She also has great chemistry with O'Hara on the field, and that created a lot of opportunities on goal for Sky Blue last season. Having her in the attack would also allow O'Hara to not have to push up quite as high, which would simultaneously strengthen the defense. So, all in all, Kerr's return is huge.
OaM: Last season Seattle had 17 goals in the first eight games, but this year the Reign has only had eight. What accounts for the Reign's offensive struggles this season?
SaH: Opponents have narrowed their gameplan against the Reign to focus on shutting down Seattle's midfield, which has been a big factor in the goal shortage. If you can disrupt the trio of Jess Fishlock, Kim Little, and Keelin Winters, you can stop a good percentage of goal-dangerous opportunities. Sky Blue did that quite well in the home opener. The absence of both Fishlock and Megan Rapinoe has made it even worse. Rapinoe, in particular, provides unpredictability, which Seattle could really use right now. You never know what run she's going to make or pass she'll try.
Finally, for whatever reason, the team has taken much longer this year to gel as a unit. This feels particularly strange, given how few players the team lost in the offseason. The reasons are kind of inexplicable, but their last performance gave us a glimpse of the Reign we know and love.
OaM: Jess Fishlock returned to play a full 90 for the first time last weekend against the Dash, and the midfield arguably looked the best it has all season. What is it about Fishlock that makes her such a dynamic force on the field for Seattle?
SaH: Fishlock is truly one-of-a-kind. Not only is she a never-ending engine on the field, she has the unique ability to quickly spring an attack from deep in Seattle's defensive half. In her absence, while the Reign certainly held their own defensively, they struggled to move the ball forward - often opting to move it back and forth along the backline or near the middle of the field. The team seemed to lack a sense of urgency, even late in the match, without Fishlock in there.
In addition, Fishlock's connection with Kim Little is unparalleled. The two link up so well, and we saw a little of the Little-Fishlock magic in their last match against Houston. No goal came from their long balls and runs into the box, but they were a lot more dangerous than at any other point this season.
OaM: The season opener between Seattle and Sky Blue didn't go the way most people expected it to. What changes can fans expect to see from the Reign when the teams play this weekend?
SaH: Reign players looked completely stunned and discouraged after the home opener. I suspect the biggest thing that fans will notice is a much higher level of energy from the squad. They're going to want to control the pace and tempo of the game. On top of that, Reign players have been working on their runs off the ball. If Kim Little gets the ball in the midfield, we know she'll be swarmed immediately. That means space and players should open up all around her. The trick is finding those pockets quickly, something Seattle has struggled with this season.
The match kicks off Sunday, June 19 at 3:00 p.m. PT. You can follow the free livestream on YouTube.