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Valkyratings: No Longer Lions Edition

It's getting to be a theme at this point.

Last Updated
16 min read
Reign forward Bethany Balcer celebrates with her coach and teammates after a goal against Orlando in May 2024.
Mike Russell / Sounder at Heart

The Seattle Reign hosted the Orlando Pride for the first time since retiring Pringle to a farm upstate, and immediately surrendered two goals, fought back to even terms, and then conceded again, saw Bethany Balcer sent off on a second yellow, and found yet another way to lose from a position to take at least one point.

Barbra Banda is inevitable, but the Reign's defensive failings once again were very much not. For long stretches, the Reign played well – very well, even. They just also didn't really show up until they were already two goals down, and while it's good to see the fight still there in a struggling team for whom nothing much has gone right all season, the fight on its own isn't enough. The Reign are less than the sum of their parts, and with nearly half the season gone, 'played well for the last 70 minutes but didn't get a result' just isn't actually worth that much.

We have our Valkyrie back, so we're no longer playing lion derbies against 377 other lion-themed teams, but with a continuing black hole of no news and no updates on a (lack of) ownership situation the league should never have allowed to happen in the first place, not even the slightest semblance of catching a break on the injury front, and a shorthanded side that absolutely cannot stop shooting off both of its feet, we don't have much else right now.

Anyway, let's look at yet another loss.


Laurel Ivory – 5

Laurel Ivory wasn't really the problem, but she wasn't the solution, either. While her defense left her absolutely no chance on an unmarked 18th minute Barbra Banda header, and Barbra Banda left her absolutely no chance on a borderline-miraculous strike under pressure in the 58th, she was beaten too easily on a 9th minute hit by Emily Sams that put the Reign behind the curve early yet again.

A high-quality save on a brilliant Marta strike in the 62nd minute reminded that Ivory can be a game-changer when given the opportunity and kept the Reign in the game immediately after conceding to Banda. Her distribution was improved over past matches. She looks increasingly comfortable with the ball at her feet. She looked tentative off her line and in the air. More than anything, though, that first goal hurt, and that first goal put the Reign in a bad spot, a place they've simply spent too much time this season.

Going Forward: Laurel Ivory came out the gate with a strong argument she should be the long-term starter over Claudia Dickey, but had a forgettable night against Portland and a merely average night against Orlando. The Reign continue to bleed goals that continue to mostly not be on their keepers, but it'd certainly help if a keeper could ball out for an extended period.


Phoebe McClernon – 5

Phoebe McClernon did not cover herself in glory on Orlando's opening goal, drifting into space and allowing a dangerous cross to come in largely uncontested, and still not getting back into the play as it recycled, nobody took a real bite at the ball, and Sams delivered a solid hit that caught Ivory and gave the Pride an early lead. McClernon also struggled to keep possession and her choice of pass was often pretty questionable, especially in the Reign's nightmare of an opening 20.

As the game progressed, she grew into it, and was much better after the 25th minute, winning five tackles and putting Pride attacks from an utterly lethal right flank absolutely in her back pocket. She got in on the Reign attack, combining with Tziarra King in first-half stoppage time to create a half-chance, springing Ji So-yun in the 47th minute with an excellent tackle, and putting a solid dead ball service into the mixer at the end of second-half stoppage time that ended with Emeri Adames missing wide. But for all the good play in the last hour, it was a rough start for McClernon, and that rough start put the Reign on the wrong foot early, a place they've spent far too much time this season.

Going Forward: It wasn't a vintage performance, but Phoebe has probably been the absolute least of the Reign's worries in back this season, and should probably continue to be a starter.

Lauren Barnes – 3 (off 45' for Shae Holmes)

Per Laura Harvey, Lu Barnes was recovering from illness, and probably shouldn't have started. To put it gently, it showed – she was unsteady in possession, defended nothing on the Pride's opening goal, had numerous unforced and dangerous giveaways, one of which eventually ended in the back of the Reign's net for the Pride's second goal, and showed relatively little of the composure and calming presence that's been such a hallmark of her time in Seattle.

Per Angharad James-Turner, though, she also brought the team together after the narrow escape on Orlando's called back third goal, and her leadership got the team back into it. The intangible value she brings is real. It's just not enough when the quality of her play is...

Going Forward: Barnes can no longer consistently make up for her lack of pace with her positional awareness, and has possibly had more bad games in this half-season than in her entire Reign career prior. She still has a lot to offer – and she's shown as much on her good days – but she cannot be a written-in-pen 90 minute starter, and she especially cannot be starting when she isn't healthy.

Alana Cook – 5

Cook was, if nothing else, better than her starting counterpart at centerback on a back line that worked very hard to dig an insurmountable hole in the opening half hour and then was basically fine. She completely lost track of Banda on the back post in the 18th minute, and Banda simply nodded the cross home from three yards out for a 2-0 lead. Sometimes Hat Trick Barbra is just going to dunk on you no matter what you do, but this was a big unforced error giving her a layup. The whole defense fell asleep or fucked up on the play, but Cook's purposeless defending made the finish a triviality.

From the 30th minute on, Cook found another gear, and played a solid-to-good game. She was neat in possession and repeatedly found runners with her long passes, an element that's been missing from her game in recent days. She looked much better, and much more confident, after Shae Holmes replaced Barnes at the half.

Going Forward: When healthy and in form, Cook has consistently been a top centerback in this league. She wasn't healthy to start the season, and she's not in form right now. It should come with time and reps, but the Reign need her to make a difference, and so far she's struggled to.

Sofia Huerta – 5

In the third minute, Angharad James-Turner fired a screamer from distance that Anna Moorhouse saved cleanly. Moments later, Sofia Huerta found Jess Fishlock just inside the box, and Fishlock's strike missed the mark. A promising start that might've been worth an assist on another night came to nothing, and five and a half minutes later, Huerta's feebly mishit clearance fell directly to Emily Sams, who made no mistake from 23 yards out and buried it. That's kind of been emblematic of Huerta's season, and in some ways, the Reign's as a whole. The good play goes unrewarded, and the bad play is immediately and ruthlessly punished.

Huerta was better after that, as the Reign took control of the game from the 25th minute on, and was repeatedly involved in the buildup as the Reign fought from a 2-0 deficit back to level terms, as she raced forward to create opportunities and progress the ball up the pitch tirelessly. She didn't get on the scoresheet even as the Reign leveled things (and may actually be cursed), but the Reign assembled six quality looks in the attacking penalty area over the last hour of the match, and Sof's touch was necessary for four of them.

Going Forward: She didn't get the assist, but Huerta worked hard to help the Reign build out and fight back. The team still relies on her for too much defending, and it's still not an area of strength for her, but when they get her into advanced positions with a chance to do something, they immediately start looking more dangerous.


Olivia van der Jagt – 5 (off 67' for Veronica Latsko)

Barbra Banda victimized Olo on what turned out to be the winning goal for the Pride, with van der Jagt bodying her up, giving her no easy options to win or strike the ball, and Banda simply doing it anyway for an electric score. It's hard to hold that moment against Olivia, but she had a pretty down night by her own standards, and got involved in positive ways only infrequently.

Though she was tidy on the ball and only gave up possession a couple times, she touched the ball just 30 times, and a majority of her passes were backwards, to an often-pressured and questionably effective Lu Barnes and Alana Cook, and even as the Reign threw everything they had at fighting back, Olo struggled to get involved.

Going Forward: While Olo has worked hard through tough minutes in their absence, and has mostly been fine, the Reign need Quinn to get healthy, badly.

Angharad James-Turner – 7 (off 83' for Olivia Athens)

This was Angharad's best and most active game of the season. More comfortable and more confident on the ball than she's seemed in past matches, she's also showing more chemistry with both Wales teammate Jess Fishlock and Ji So-yun. At the end of first-half stoppage time, she made the late run to the top of the area, taking a bite of Ji's cutback pass and, while it wasn't the most graceful goal, she put good contact on it, and neither the defender who slightly deflected it nor the keeper could stop her from notching her first tally of the season. And you know what? They still count even if you fall over while taking the shot.

Aside from the goal that got the Reign back into it, she also had a good look from distance in the third minute, forcing a decent save from Anna Moorhouse, combined with Jess Fishlock and Tziarra King for a half-chance in the area in the 60th, and combined with Ji So-yun and Fishlock in the 73rd to give Jess her own clean look from downtown. Joining the attack more frequently did leave her less well-positioned defensively than we're used to seeing, and she didn't always choose the right pass, but when you score a goal, help will your team to a two-goal comeback, and do enough on your own to turn a disaster into a result (alas, but it didn't last...), those are fairly small critiques.

Going Forward: I might get chased down by USWNT stans again for this, but Haz continues to be better in the midfield than Emily Sonnett was last year.

Jess Fishlock – 8 (POTM)

Usually, when the whole attacking band has a plus performance, it's worth points. Usually, when even just one player really balls out like Jess Fishlock balled out against Orlando, it's worth points. It wasn't a perfect game by Fishlock, but it was a really freaking good performance, and it was basically wasted. Fish was one of few players who was dealing hard even during Orlando's 20 minutes of dominance, and when the Reign fought back, it was her cultured feet all over every good thing they did.

Fish led all players (on both sides) with 8 progressive passes and 7 shot-creating actions, including the beautifully weighted assist on Bethany Balcer's 48th minute goal and the hockey assist to the Ji So-yun cutback that set up Angharad James-Turner's stoppage-time strike. She popped up everywhere and did everything. She connected the entire midfield and offense and made things happen. She had a great shot at putting the Reign on the board just three minutes in, she combined with Ji, James-Turner, and Veronica Latsko late for a series of opportunities to claw back to level terms, and she was involved in absolutely everything good the Reign did in between. Virtually every one of her 65 touches was a positive one.

Had she put her 3rd minute strike on target, maybe even beaten Anna Moorhouse, it could've been a different game. As it stands, it was a game at all because Fishlock insisted it become one.

Going Forward: For years now, NWSL appreciators have been asking when Fishlock will start to decline, but the answer remains a fairly effusive "not yet". She's dealt out a few truly excellent performances in this bleak run of form. In the future, the Reign need to make them count.

Ji So-yun – 7 (off 87' for McKenzie Weinert)

In recent matches, Ji So-yun has shown a bit of a tendency to fade out when fouled hard and often, especially when obvious calls aren't forthcoming. Against Orlando, she was once again hacked and chopped at often without the benefit of a whistle, but she pulled herself back up and got mad about it, and dished out an extremely good performance as the Reign fought hard to make a game of what could've been an unmitigated disaster. Playing much of the game as a false 9, she held up play, drew defenders, found the right pass, and beat people on the dribble time and time again. The incisiveness was there, and for a nice change, the assist was there when it was desperately needed.

Trailing only Fishlock with 5 shot-creating actions, it was Ji who ultimately found Angharad James-Turner for the opening goal with a well-weighted cutback pass to the top of the penalty area, and she continuously created space and opportunities with her movement and ball skills. Leaning into the physicality of the game more than she has in the past, she won two tackles in the attacking third, both of them springing good offensive phases for the Reign. She was tidy as hell on the ball, misplacing only three passes the whole night. Her recognition of space and vision for seams put Balcer, Fishlock, Latsko, and King into good positions.

Going Forward: Ji So-yun hasn't had the easiest time adapting to the NWSL's brutal triad of Physicality, Inconsistency, and Quality, but she's showing that she can make things happen here, and this was one of her best outings for us.


Tziarra King – 6 (off 83' for Emeri Adames)

On first watch I was often frustrated with Zee, but on rewatch, this was a much better performance from her, and if she can keep it at this level – or better yet, improve on it – she'll have plenty to contribute. Her long-distance strike, forcing a good save from Moorhouse in the 25th minute, was the exclamation point that the game was starting to turn and the Reign were going to fight. A minute later, she found Boats inside the six yard box, and the Reign should've had their opening goal but for a highway robbery of a save.

King fought for balls, held up play, distributed for her teammates, and called her own shots. She missed on a number of passes that could've put teammates through into dangerous spots, but most of her missed passes were high difficulty, high reward sorts of hits, and seeing and attempting them is exactly what we want her doing. It's a cruel inequity of soccer that an attacker can change a game by seeing the killer pass eight times, missing on seven attempts, and making it on one. The one King made should've been a goal. On another night, it will be.

Going Forward: Zee needed a solid performance where she was a consistent net positive in the attack. Hopefully she can build on this.

Bethany Balcer – 6

Okay, so, to be clear, I think the red card was some hot, thin-skinned garbage on the part of referee Elijio Arreguin. I don't often make this comparison, but it's extremely hard to imagine any PRO official sending off, say, Carlos Vela or Riqui Puig for the exact same thing. But at the end of the day, Balcer needed to be smarter in that moment. She had every right to be frustrated, and PRO seems to expect her to just eat shit and take it more than perhaps any other player in the league, but... nothing good was going to come of fighting in that moment. And unfortunately, Arreguin defended his ego, and Balcer got her marching orders in the 83rd minute.

Before that deeply unfortunate incident, Balcer was having a storming game, running right by Orlando's back line for the Reign's second goal in the 48th minute and combining well with King, Fishlock, Ji, and Huerta in a suddenly-dynamic and incisive attacking shape that, with their backs against the wall, forced the issue and made a game of it. Aside from her goal, she had an excellent close-range chance robbed in the 26th minute, set up King's long-distance effort in the 25th, and got Fishlock in for a dangerous shot in the 3rd. Shortly before being sent off, she was clearly and obviously fouled in the penalty area, but VAR does not exist and holding isn't a foul in NWSL.

And she made it all happen without her usual dominance in the air, as the Pride defense quickly realized they could simply foul her to stop her from challenging for aerials, and Arreguin was going to just let them do it.

Going Forward: The Reign are much less dangerous without Balcer on the pitch, and she needs to avoid being sent off. Even when a referee's really lost the plot.


Shae Holmes – 6 (on 45' for Lauren Barnes)

Shae Holmes came on at the half for an ill and ineffective Lu Barnes, and immediately shored up the Reign's defense. An Orlando attack that had run rampant for the first half-hour found little joy outside of a borderline magical Barbra Banda set piece in the second frame, and Holmes, who started her night be coolly beating Banda for footwork and continued it by annihilating attacks up the center for 45 more minutes, was an anchor for a defense that needed one.

It's a shame the Reign had already spotted Orlando two goals before Holmes came on, and Banda's wonderstrike was too much for them to overcome.

Going Forward: Every time Holmes has been called upon, she's been good to great. I understand the trust Lu has earned, and I understand why Cook's peak is too good to ignore, but at this point, what more can Shae do to show she deserves starting minutes?

Veronica Latsko – 5 (on 67' for Olivia van der Jagt)

The Reign's own patron saint of xDAWG after dark chaos came on a few minutes after Orlando reclaimed the lead, and she made an effort. With only about 15 minutes to change things before Arreguin decided he wanted to stamp his name on the match, Latsko looked to be growing into the game offensively, finding a decent shot in the 75th minute and then winning a dangerous set piece not long after, but she didn't manage much after the Reign went down a player, and ultimately couldn't find that bizarre moment of magic to make a difference that she found so often last year.

Going Forward: We know what Latsko brings, and she had some good moves before PRO ruined the end of yet another game.

Olivia Athens – N/A (on 83' for Angharad James-Turner)

I've declined to provide a numerical rating for players who subbed on after the Balcer red card. Athens came on into a largely impossible game state, was tidy as fuck on the ball as the Reign desperately tried to keep offensive possession and steal something out of a broken match, and did fine, as Orlando seemed content to bunker while up a player for the last 10+ minutes.

Going Forward: Athens is a good tackler and good in possession. It would've been nice, but she couldn't really be expected to alter the outcome after PRO ruined the end of yet another game.

Emeri Adames – N/A (on 83' for Tziarra King)

I've declined to provide a numerical rating for players who subbed on after the Balcer red card. Emeri Adames came on in a largely impossible game state, and tried to provide an offensive spark against a packed-in Orlando defense with a numerical advantage. She got a decent shot away from a set piece at the death, but otherwise could not provide that spark.

Going Forward: Adames is an inconsistent but promising young player with a ton of sauce. It would've been nice, but she couldn't really be expected to alter the outcome after PRO ruined the end of yet another game.

McKenzie Weinert – N/A (on 87' for Ji So-yun)

I've declined to provide a numerical rating for players who subbed on after the Balcer red card. McKenzie Weinert spelled Ji So-yun late, and felt a bit like a throwing-in-the-towel sort of substitution, but she ran at the defense and flirted with the offside line, and did her best to make something happen against an Orlando defense that was bunkering with a player advantage and a one goal lead. Ultimately, she could not.

Going Forward: Weinert offers some real speed and a change of approach as a late game offensive sub. It would've been nice, but she couldn't really be expected to alter the outcome after PRO ruined the end of yet another game.


Elijio Arreguin – 4

After a fairly strong start from PRO referees in the NWSL season, we've had a real string of chest-puffed, look-at-me ass performances from the center of the pitch, and it is, frankly, exhausting. I expected my opinion of Elijio Arreguin's performance to soften on rewatch, but instead, I found it even more frustrating. He showed no consistency, no standard, and little professionalism, blowing a whistle for literally no contact one moment and ignoring absolute maulings the next, allowing grabbing, pullbacks, and dragging down throughout the match with abject disinterest, and really only deigning to get into the business of "officiating" when VAR told him a goal was offside, and when players objected to his dereliction of duty. A flurry of increasingly bizarre whistles (and equally bizarre non-whistles) in the last 30 minutes of the match did nothing to get it back under control.

Balcer probably could have been smarter in the moment she got sent off. However, given that she was repeatedly targeted, repeatedly dragged down, and repeatedly taken out without the benefit of a whistle (I counted eight(!) fouls against her on rewatch, and yet she was only the beneficiary of Arreguin's whistle once), her frustration was understandable. Shortly before seeing her second yellow, she was egregiously dragged down in the penalty area without a whistle, only for Arreguin to instantly and dramatically whistle the first contact the other direction on the counter directly sprung by that non-call. And Arreguin's demonstration of extreme eagerness and Olympic-tier reflexes to send her off when players are constantly given much more leeway for much more evocative dissent smacked of a ref defending his ego, rather than managing the game.

It also largely ended any chance of the Reign getting back into it. They've made their own messes plenty this season, but it's sure harder to clean up when PRO seems to make a sport out of ruining our matches on top of that.

A Stray Thought...

The lineups shuffle, the specific moments change, but the results remain the same. The Reign are less than their individual performances. They seem brittle and broken, barely present in games until they've already taken a dozen body shots. They created more and better chances than the Pride, they largely dominated one of the best teams in the league for a solid 70 minutes... but they spotted them a two goal lead first. We keep bleeding out from self-inflicted wounds.

It's exhausting to watch, and it's even more exhausting to rewatch.

We can all speculate about what would fix this team, about the league's ongoing ownership debacle, about Harvey's tactics, about the roster, about the garbage fire of an officiating docket we've had, but ultimately, we are what we are: an hour of good play, five minutes of absolute nightmare defending, and yet another dropped result from a position to take something from a game.

Having already played and lost to the Washington Spirit on Friday (Valkyratings forthcoming), the Reign have a much-needed week off to get a little healthy and figure a little bit of their shit out. With eight losses in the books and half the season gone, they have no choice but to come out on the other side of a week off firing on 120% of their cylinders if they want even a fool's hope of getting into contention.

Maybe we'll also finally hear an update about the ownership mess.

The Reign next play away at the Kansas City Current, on June 9th at 3:00 PM Pacific. A win wouldn't get them back into it, but it would make a statement, and the Reign desperately need to make a statement.