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Highlights of the 2018 Seattle Reign season

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The end might have disappointed, but the journey there was a lot of fun.

MikeRussellFoto

With the 2018 NWSL season complete and the long off-season in full-swing, it’s time to look back on the season that was for Seattle Reign FC. Earlier this week we presented the fan-voted player awards, and today we’re going to look back on the top 10 moments of the season, in no particular order, as selected by the Ride of the Valkyries staff.

1. New season, new Reign

The 2017-18 off-season saw the biggest roster upheaval for Seattle since their first-ever off-season back in 2013-14, as well as a change at head coach for the first time in team history. Through trades, free agent signings, national team replacement signings, and an unexpected dispersal draft following the dissolution of the Boston Breakers, Seattle had 14 new players on their roster at first kick, and later signed two more with the mid-season additions of Alyssa Kleiner and Adriana Leon. Only ten players returned from the 2017 roster.

2. …but also, old Reign

Reign vs. Sky Blue FC
The SRFC Century club.
Photo by MikeRussellFoto

At the same time, the veteran players still on the roster were among the most seasoned in the league – Lauren Barnes reached 100 appearances for Seattle in 2017, and was joined in that accomplishment this season by Jess Fishlock and Beverly Yanez. Only seven other players in the entire league have reached that mark with a single team, and one of those players – Allie Long – is also now with the Reign. In a league with high turnover and early retirements, that sort of long-term stability is invaluable.

3. Tifo game on point

The Reign supporters’ groups really stepped up this year. In addition to their usual flags, two-poles and drums, the groups put together some impressive tifo displays which you might have missed if you were sitting in the north stands.

Photo by MikeRussellFoto

With discounted Supporter Section tickets next year, we look forward to what an even more full section can pull off.

4. Late drama versus Portland

Reign vs. Thorns might not have the history of Sounders vs. Timbers, but it more than makes up for it in dramatic games. This year started off with two such matches, both thrilling in their own way.

The first game, on May 5 in Portland, saw Seattle storm out to a 1-0 first half lead in the derby’s first time featuring on national television. Twice in the second half Portland found an equalizer while attacking toward the Riveters end, but each time Seattle marched down the field to reclaim their lead within five minutes. The final goal came off the boot of Rumi Utsugi from long distance, sneaking past several defenders before slipping in the near post to secure the three points.

In late June it was Seattle’s turn to host on a weekend that also saw the Timbers in town to face the Sounders. With a huge number of traveling Portland supporters, Memorial Stadium was a cacophony of dueling cheers and chants as the teams settled into more of a defensive battle than the opening match. Seattle held the Thorns without a shot on goal in the game, but Portland was equally stingy and kept the game scoreless until the 89th minute, when Jodie Taylor received a ball near midfield and dribbled into the attacking third, then found Megan Rapinoe on the near wing in a pocket of space. Rapinoe pushed toward the end line and drew a lot of defensive attention while Taylor continued her run toward goal, then peeled off the Thorns centerbacks to easily tap in Rapinoe’s pinpoint cross for the win.

5. Pinoe’s winner versus Utah

Duels between Vlatko Andonovski and Laura Harvey have always had the air of the unstoppable force versus the immovable object, and that remained true this year even with them at the helm of new teams. After a grueling 0-0 draw in the heat in Sandy, Utah in late June, the teams faced off again in Seattle two weeks later. The first half was another hard-fought defensive stalemate, but early in the second half Andonovski pulled a rabbit out of his hat with an unexpected idea on a corner kick. Instead of taking the kick as usual, Megan Rapinoe set up at the far post and Steph Catley provided service. Rapinoe dropped off from her defender and headed the ball back across the face of goal and in for the only goal of the match.

After the game, Rapinoe mentioned that the play was drawn up by Andonovski and she had doubts about whether it would work, but was happy to be proven wrong and thus ran toward the bench to celebrate the success.

6. Pinoe takes the franchise lead in goals

Coming into 2018, Megan Rapinoe was five goals behind Kim Little for the Reign all-time scoring record, and her early season form had her on pace to crush that record and easily set a new bar. Injuries slowed that torrid pace, but in July she stepped up to the penalty spot early in the second half of a match against Houston and rocketed the ball into the upper corner for her sixth goal of the year and 33rd all-time in a Reign FC uniform. She went on to add one more in 2018, and looks to continue her form and further boost her record in 2019.

7. The smoke saga

Every season there seems to be one peculiar issue that leads to a change in league policy, and for some inexplicable reason those issues more often than not involve Seattle. In 2016, there was the baseball game in Western New York. Last year, a mid-afternoon game at Houston in extreme heat led to a revised policy about national TV scheduling, postponing matches, and cooling breaks. In 2018, the theme was smoke.

The issue first arose during Seattle’s second visit to Utah in early August, and it followed them home against Chicago four days later, but it was their home match against Houston on August 21st when air quality was at its worst. Major forest fires raged in British Columbia, eastern Washington and Oregon, and the weather pattern drew heavy smoke into the Puget Sound basin, with air quality frequently falling into the Hazardous range in the days leading up to the match.

Hours before the game the teams were still essentially in the dark (both literally and figuratively) about whether the game would proceed as scheduled, but finally less than an hour before kickoff the league announced that the match would go on, albeit with extra hydration breaks and supplemental oxygen available on the sidelines.

8. Seattle’s stingy defense

With significant roster turnover and three new faces along the back line, plus Seattle’s Australian and Japanese internationals absent for the first month of the season due to World Cup qualification, there were some big questions about how quickly the Reign defense would gel and whether there would be issues similar to 2017, when the team managed to keep only three clean sheets.

Instead, Seattle hit their stride quickly, tying a league record with 12 shutouts and losing only two matches all season by multiple goals. They finished with the second-fewest goals conceded, behind only North Carolina. Near the end of the season they also set a new league record with a 519-minute shutout streak, surpassing a 511-minute streak previously set by the 2016 Reign.

Perhaps most remarkable about this accomplishment is the amount of player rotation Seattle dealt with in the back, due to a combination of international duty, fitness, and injuries. No player on the back line started more than 20 matches, the defensive midfielders rotated frequently, and backup goalkeeper Michelle Betos made 8 starts.

9. Drama versus the Courage in the final home game

Seattle had a simple objective in their final two games of the regular season – earn at least two points and secure a home semi-final playoff match. Unfortunately, their second-to-last game was against the juggernaut North Carolina Courage, who were consistently steamrolling the rest of the league en route to a title.

Much like in their prior matches, the Courage peppered the Reign with 29 shots and dominated possession, but Lydia Williams put in a stalwart performance in goal and Seattle grabbed a surprising second-half lead thanks to a Theresa Nielsen header off a corner kick.

Seattle held on for dear life as the clock ticked toward 90, with Nielsen clearing a ball off the line in the 88th minute to preserve the lead. Just moments before the final whistle, Elizabeth Addo took the ball down the Courage endline and looked to send in a cross, but the ball struck Courage defender Abby Dahlkemper in the arm. Despite shouts of protest, the referee waved off calls for a penalty and allowed play to continue. A few minutes later, deep in stoppage time, the Courage equalized off a scramble in the box and denied Seattle the full three points and a home playoff berth.

That tremendous let-down foreshadowed a tough match the following week at Portland in the season finale, and gave Portland the right to host the semi-final match one week later.

10. Reign return to the playoffs

Although the final two games of the regular season didn’t go as hoped, Seattle still put together a quality season which saw them reach the playoffs for the first time since 2015. In their semi-final match they returned to Providence Park for the third time in 2018, to face the team that had defeated them 3-1 the week before in the match that determined the playoff host. Once again Seattle jumped out to an early lead thanks to a Jasmyne Spencer goal in the 29th minute, but Portland equalized just before halftime and took the lead for good in the 77th minute thanks to NWSL MVP Lindsey Horan.

Heading into the season, there was a cloud of skepticism surrounding Seattle. With so much change — from the coaching staff to players — could the team rebound and return to the playoffs? The club didn’t make it quite as far as they wanted, but they provided plenty of exciting moments that have us looking forward to 2019.

What were your favorite Reign FC moments from 2018?