The NWSL season kicks off on Saturday, and Seattle Reign FC’s opening match will take place at the pitch they’ve called home for four years and counting: Memorial Stadium. At 7 PM PT on March 24, Seattle faces off against the Washington Spirit for the home opener.
Fans might remember the last time these two squads battled at Memorial. Reign FC came out on top 6-2 thanks to four assists and a goal from Naho Kawasumi, who also would have earned a fifth secondary assist if the league gave those out.
As fun and vivid as those memories are, we probably shouldn’t be looking to the past to prepare for this game. Both squads brought in a lot of new players during the offseason — Seattle bolstering its depth across all positions on the field, and the Spirit greatly improving its midfield and attacking bands.
Predicting a team’s results for opening weekend can be difficult. Seattle and Washington mostly faced off against college teams during the short preseason. This is the first real test and can set the tone for the rest of the year. So what kind of competition can we expect?
We exchanged Three Questions with Caitlin Buckley of Black And Red United to help you better get to know Seattle’s opponent this weekend.
Sounder at Heart: The Spirit have a lot of attacking talent this year. Which player (or players) do you think is going to be the engine behind the goals this year?
Black and Red United: Well the Spirit certainly have a lot of midfielders! 9 or 10 depending on how you count Rebecca Quinn. In the preseason game against North Carolina last week the offense wasn’t that strong, but I think that will definitely be the strong spot for the team after all the new players have gelled. In the midfield, I’m excited to watch Quinn start the attacks, whether she’s on the backline or in the midfield. I thought she was a standout player for the Spirit against North Carolina. Up top it will probably be a combination of Ashley Hatch and Mal Pugh. Former Reign midfielder Havana Solaun was given a lot of freedom up top in the game against the Courage so Reign fans should certainly watch her when she’s in.
SaH: While the team now features numerous scoring threats, the defense looks rather thin. Where do you think Washington is most vulnerable?
BaRU: Defense is easily the Spirit’s weakest area in terms of depth. I think the big concern is any injuries that would force one of their few defenders out of action. Meggie Dougherty Howard has played some time at right back this preseason and the Spirit could bring up one of the draft picks that didn’t make the roster, but that’s not a great place to be. At the moment though, I would say that the right side with Whitney Church and Taylor Smith looked the most vulnerable last week — but that’s also where Crystal Dunn was, so it’s a little hard to tell. Against the Courage, Church was simply left with too much ground to cover and that’s an issue that will need to be fixed. The second half of that game was Quinn and Smith who seemed to be a better combination.
There’s also been issues with going forward from the backline, which is something to watch out for. This is also a team that will have had at most five training sessions with the full team before the season opener, which Gabarra has mentioned as a challenge. That said, the lighter load could help prevent injuries and will likely pay off in the long run.
SaH: With a strong mix of newcomers and veteran talent, which player do you think will be the biggest surprise for the Spirit?
BaRU: There are definitely a lot of exciting newcomers! I’m really excited to watch Andi Sullivan and Quinn; both have been productive and fun to watch so far. For non-rookies, I think Meggie Dougherty Howard is sneaky good and definitely a key player for the Spirit and a frequently underrated one. It was definitely a surprise to see her at right back! She was pretty good at right back and the Spirit could use all the depth on the backline that they can get.
* REVERSE *
BaRU: Seattle has been through a lot of change this offseason, most prominently a new coach. What do you make of these developments and how will they affect Saturday’s game?
SaH: I think Jess Fishlock summarized it well at the season ticket holder event and kit reveal this week: “The decisions that have been made are to ensure this club gets back to being what it should be. We have a high expectation for ourselves, we have a high standard we have set to ourselves and for the last two years we have failed. We have been unsuccessful, so the change had to happen to make us be who we are.” There were a lot of changes, and fans saw some of their favorite players get traded away. That always hurts. We lost Laura Harvey, who was a hugely successful coach and fun personality.
But the Reign also brought in Vlatko Andonovski, whose resume is equally as impressive and who knows how to get that elusive NWSL Championship trophy. And the changes the team made along the backline and in the midfield should only be seen as positive moves. Allie Long said it was the most talented group of players she’d ever played with. The biggest question will be how long it takes the team to gel together. With many players only getting a week and a half of training, and others heading to the Asian Cup in April, we might not see the best of Seattle Reign FC when the season begins. Hopefully, that momentum comes before August.
BaRU: What element of the Reign do you think is the most underrated and how will that play into this game?
SaH: I think, especially with Vlatko Andonovski coming on board, the team’s simple ball movement is going to be an underrated strength this year. Short passes. Moving the ball forward in the attack. Simple, but effective balls. It isn’t always going to be flashy (unless Megan Rapinoe gets the ball and tries stuff), but Andonovski’s teams have always had consistent and smart movement on and off the ball.
That style of play is going to suit players like Rumi Utsugi and Allie Long in the midfield. Long is at her best when she’s not trying to do too much, and Utsugi’s movement is — in my opinion — incredibly underrated. It won’t always wow you like the team did when Kim Little was in the midfield, but I do think it is going to result in more goal-scoring chances and possession for the Reign this year.
BaRU: Both the Reign and Spirit have made some interesting acquisitions this winter. Which players are you excited to watch and why?
SaH: I am so sorry to say this, as I know you and others feel like she was underutilized in Washington, but I am really excited to watch Megan Oyster this season. She is such a smart, steady defender whose passing is really underrated. I think she’s going to get a lot of playing time, despite the fact that there is strong competition at centerback.
With players like Megan Rapinoe and Naho Kawasumi putting balls into the box, and Steph Catley and Theresa Nielsen bombing up the flanks to whip in crosses, I think Jodie Taylor could have a fantastic season at striker. She has never had the kind of service that this team can provide her.
Finally, Morgan Andrews had a great preseason and I think she is ready for a breakout year. Honestly, the list could go on and on. This team has a lot of exciting new talent, and I can’t wait until this season finally kicks off.
Seattle Reign FC kick off against the Washington Spirit at 7 PM PT on Saturday, March 24. See you at Memorial Stadium.