Among good teams there are gradations of "good"ness. It's easy enough to tell the very best from the merely good by checking the standings, but if someone took them away you could still separate from the good from the best by seeing how they play and how they force opponents to play. In the taxonomy of soccer teams, the merely good are those that can reliably win at home, get points on the road, and are always in contention for the playoffs or a title. Even better are those that can force the opponent to lower their expectations and try to bunker for a point. And the best don't care if the opponent bunkers because they can beat it anyway.
The Reign are good enough to force their opponents to bunker. But they are not yet good enough to reliably beat it. That can make for the occasional frustrating game, like the 0-0 draw against Sky Blue last month, or today's 1-1 draw with Chicago. It makes it easy to see the team's faults when pass after pass over the top of the high defensive line fails to find its target, or when a 10 pass sequence eventually falls to a turnover at the top of the box. But it's worth remembering that these aren't signs the team's bad. They're signs the team is so good that their opponent — in this case the Chicago Red Stars — spent 70 minutes of the game not even trying to play soccer, for fear that they would lose.
Today it worked for the Red Stars. Seattle knocked at the door the entire game, trying to find a cutting pass to work through the 7-10 players Chicago could pull into the box. The pressure paid off once, when in the 69th minute Sydney Leroux trapped a long cross on the endline and passed it back to Kendall Fletcher, who sent it to Bev Goebel to finish (on her birthday). Other than that, they couldn't unlock the defense. Fletcher hit the post once, but otherwise Red Stars keeper Karina LeBlanc didn't have to pull out any magic to make her saves. The Reign goal was the team's only shot on goal in the second half.
And in the other direction, Chicago's commitment to bus parking meant they created nothing until they needed to. Their only source of offense was trying to spring Christen Press on the counter. They had one shot on goal in the first half and it was easily saved by Hope Solo. But in the 81st, Jen Hoy pulled Lauren Barnes back as they contested a ball. No foul was called and Hoy was clear into space for a 2-1 break. She crossed to Press, who got around Solo for the equalizer. It was Chicago's only shot on goal of the second half.
So the Red Stars get the result that they were playing for and make slow progress in their playoff push while the Reign are left wondering how they can break down a compact defense. It's a question they can leave for a while, though, as their next game is a home match against the Portland Thorns. And I can predict with confidence that the Thorns, who have scored 14 goals in their last 3 games, will not be bunkering.
Seattle also took the chance to experiment with a big lead in the standings. Leroux started this game on the bench and Kim Little was pushed into the attacking three, with Fishlock taking over as CAM and Nogueira replacing her in the defensive midfield. Based on early returns it wasn't very successful, as the Red Stars compactness forced Seattle into trying a lot of high crosses into the box, and no height in the attack with both Goebel and Leroux off the field meant that they weren't winning any crosses.
There were some positive takeaways. The point officially clinches a playoff spot for Seattle, though that hasn't been in doubt for some time now. At least a draw against the Thorns next week and the Reign clinch at least a #2 seed and they're a few points away (or a few FCKC dropped points) from clinching the #1 seed and home field advantage. And today saw the return of Megan Rapinoe to the starting lineup for the first time since the season opener. Getting her fit and in game shape for the playoffs will be a huge boost to a team that's somehow managed to dominate the league with one of the top players in the world missing for almost the entire season.
And her crossing ability might be the key the team needs to unlock those bunkers and find some breathing room for Kim Little. I hope so, because they haven't found a reliable solution yet that will push them into the elite ranks of teams that don't care how hard you can bunker, because they can crash the gate down anyway.