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Reign Report: A battle at the top

The top two teams in the league face off. A win would secure a home semifinal match for Seattle.

Seattle Reign vs. North Carolina Courage MikeRussellFoto

What You’ll Watch

On Saturday afternoon, Seattle Reign FC host their final regular season home match of 2018 — facing off against the top-ranked North Carolina Courage. This is the final of three meetings between the two clubs this season. A depleted Reign FC squad fell 1-0 to the Courage during a mid-week match on the road in April, and the team fell apart in the second half to fall 4-1 to the Courage in June.

North Carolina currently sits in first place — and secured the NWSL Shield three weeks ago — with a record of 16-1-5 (53 points in 22 games played; 2.4 ppg) while Reign FC are in second with a record of 11-4-7 (40 points in 22 games played; 1.8 ppg). The last time out, North Carolina had its match against the Orlando Pride delayed due to thunderstorms, then came out the next morning and trounced Orlando 3-0. Reign FC defeated the Houston Dash 2-0 on Tuesday this week.

A Look at the Enemy

Last Five: W-T-W-T-W with eight goals scored and four conceded

Leading Goal Scorer: Lynn Williams, 11

Assist Leader: Jessica McDonald, six

Injury Report and Suspensions

North Carolina

OUT: Jaelene Hinkle (left ankle sprain), Yuri Kawamura (left knee ACL tear – SEI), Julie King (left ankle repair)

INTERNATIONAL DUTY: Darian Jenkins (USA U-23)

Seattle

OUT: Yael Averbuch (illness – SEI), Kiersten Dallstream (right knee sprain – SEI), Allie Long (right knee sprain), Beverly Yanez (right foot fracture)

Match Officials

REFEREE: Ramy Touchan

AR1: Jeremy Weed

AR2: Diego Blas

4TH: Corbyn May

What to Watch

Oh, North Carolina. Could you stop dominating this league? This Courage team has a chance to overtake the 2014 Reign FC team for the most points in a season. Seattle had 54 in 2014, and North Carolina enters this match with 53.

What makes this team so effective? Under the direction of head coach Paul Riley, they play with a ton of grit and tenacity. Their tactics are actually fairly predictable; they just play direct, athletic, speedy football really, really well. Their players never seem to get tired.

The team typically lines up in a 4-4-2 diamond formation, relying on their outside backs for width in the attack. Those outside backs — Jaelene Hinkle and former Reign FC player Merritt Mathias — get up frequently, morphing the formation into a 3-3-4 when they join the attack. After a really hot start when the season began, Hinkle has been a little quieter in the last month, and will actually be out this match with an ankle sprain.

The Courage lead the league in goals scored, and it is not really close. They have 47 goals on the season, with Portland trailing them at 36. North Carolina’s objective is to get as many shots off as possible, no matter the distance or angle. They’ve taken 111 more than anyone else this year. Seattle Reign FC actually has taken the second most shots in the league — 231 to North Carolina’s 342.

The problem with facing North Carolina is that you really have to pick your battles when it comes to trying to stop them. Teams have tried a variety of tactics. Utah has had the most success, earning a win and two draws against North Carolina. Their secret? Bunker defense and taking advantage of quick counter-attacks. Chicago played a strong second half against the Courage by cutting off easy crosses into the box and building more play through the midfield. They walked away with a draw two weeks ago.

Last time Reign FC played the Courage, Seattle actually did a great job controlling the midfield. The problem with that strategy is that North Carolina will just counter by either bombing their outside backs up the flanks or bypassing the midfield completely with long balls. That’s exactly what they did in that match, and Seattle was punished when the team didn’t win those 50/50 balls or duels.

While Portland lost to North Carolina recently, the Thorns did some things defensively that made a lot of sense. They allowed Hinkle and Mathias time on the ball, but positioned themselves in a way that made it difficult for the Courage to push quickly down the flanks or send diagonal balls to the corner — a place where North Carolina is lethal. Unfortunately for the Thorns, the one time they allowed Mathias to get endline, her cross found a North Carolina player and went into the back of the net.

Defensively, the Courage have given up just one goal more than Reign FC. Their ability to win the ball back so quickly in all parts of the field means that opponents have to move the ball quickly and with precision. Centerback Abby Erceg is also one of the best defenders in the league this season, and the New Zealand veteran keeps the backline organized and in control.

So, how can Seattle stop the Courage? The league-leading defense is going to have to play its best match of the season, and that comes at all levels of the field. Preventing North Carolina from sending long balls to the corners for their rushing forwards will be key, as will keeping things compact defensively. Seattle should have a healthy attack, which they didn’t have both previous times they faced the Courage. If they can catch North Carolina when a lot of Courage players are pushed forward, Reign FC should have some quality goal-scoring chances.

A win secures second place and a home semifinal match for Seattle, so while the playoffs are already secured, there’s still plenty on the line for Reign FC heading into Saturday.

Quick Keys

  • Don’t let their attackers get in behind. North Carolina is fast. Really fast. And they love to send direct balls to the front line. Keep the play in front of the backline at all times, and don’t let the Courage run onto balls out wide that stretch the defense.
  • Stay tight on set pieces. North Carolina is dangerous in the air, and Seattle will have to own and clear every set piece.
  • Own the midfield. If Seattle can create chaos in the middle of the field, they have the potential to break down a stalwart Courage defense. But that will really only be possible if they can spray balls wide and through the midfield.

How to Watch

Date/Time: Saturday, August 25 @ 1:00 PM PT

Location: UW Medicine Pitch at Memorial Stadium, Seattle

Streaming: NWSLSoccer.com (website / app)