The interminable NWSL offseason is halfway(-ish) complete, and with the turning of the calendar to 2015, we'll take a look back at a very successful 2014 for Seattle's newest pro soccer team.
The opening of the year saw a continuation of the massive roster rebuild in which head coach and GM Laura Harvey was trying to wipe away the ruins of a disastrous inaugural season and construct a championship contender in a single offseason. Having already added the talented Sydney Leroux, Kim Little, and Bev Goebel, she completed the team's international roster by adding Japanese winger Naho Kawasumi. In January's draft, they added another Portland Pilot in the versatile Amanda Frisbie. And they went relatively unscathed through the Houston Dash' expansion draft losing only Arianna Romero, who had just been allocated to the team as a Mexican international.
The improvements weren't just to the roster. The team unveiled new uniforms atop the Space Needle, replacing the cookie-cutter kits from the previous season. And in the biggest non-roster news, in February they announced that they would be leaving the shared confines of Starfire Stadium in Tukwila and instead play in their own home - Memorial Stadium in the middle of Seattle.
With all of the changes, predicting how the team would line up would seem like a challenge, but . . uh . . we nailed it.
The month began with a pair of warmup friendlies against out-of-season local college teams: a 5-0 win over the UW Huskies and an 8-0 win over Queen Anne's own SPU Falcons. Then the season began.
On April 13, the team broke in their new roster, their new stadium, and their new uniforms with an achievement that it took them 12 games to earn in their previous season — a win. They handily beat the Boston Breakers 3-0, setting the tone for both teams' seasons. Seattle's first goal was a Kim Little penalty and then Little scored the second as well in the start to a phenomenal season.
In their second match -- again at home -- they defeated the Washington Spirit 3-1, with the first goal coming from defender Kendall Fletcher, who introduced us to the celebratory Fletcher-flip. The only down note to the game was the injury to Megan Rapinoe, which seemed minor at the time but would plague her all season.
The third home match in a row was another win -- this time 2-0 over the expansion Dash, with Little scoring both goals. Then — having proven that Memorial Stadium was a shiny, new fortress — they went on the road for the first time to play Sky Blue in horrific weather conditions in New Jersey and dominated through another 2-0 win to end the month. The team's Scottish sensation Kim Little would go on to win the league Player of the Month award.
Results: 4 wins in 4, 10 GF, 1 GA.
In the second month of the season the team was still without Rapinoe thanks to her lingering foot injury. And they'd be losing Kawasumi to the Asian Cup for much of the month. But they just kept rolling.
The team opened May with another win over the Spirit, this time 2-1 on the road. Then they played their first match against the defending champion Portland Thorns. The Thorns weren't the only team to rough up the Reign in 2013, but they were certainly the loudest about it. Their first matchup of the new season was in Portland and it was a tense affair with few good chances in the first half and a ton of good chances in the second, but none came through until the 90th minute when Little scored to stun the home crowd and earn the team's 6th win of the season and first ever against the Thorns. The win gave them 18 points, which matched their entire total from their first season. And it left us with some memorable griping from Merritt Paulson who thought the Reign celebrated the win over their rivals a little too much.
Next the team played a hard fought pair of games against Kansas City — a matchup that would create memorable moments all season. In the home leg, they surrendered multiple goals for the first time in the season, but a late Keelin Winters headed goal from a sublime Kiersten Dallstream cross earned the three points and Seattle's 7th consecutive win. The winning streak came to an end on the return leg when the league Golden Boot leaders Little and Amy Rodriguez traded goals for a 1-1 draw.
Next they hosted the Flash and after trading goals in the first half the teams settled into a grind that didn't offer up many chances, but Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd found two to Jess Fishlock's one and it looked like Seattle was going to suffer their first loss of the season until the second minute of injury time, when Little found space at the top of the box and did what she does to tie the game and preserve Seattle's undefeated run. Little would go on to win her second Player of the Month award in a row.
Results: 3 wins, 2 draws, 9GF 7GA.
The team opened the month with a much sunnier trip to New Jersey than the previous game against Sky Blue. The match marked the return of Naho from national team duty and she settled straight in, scoring a brace in a 3-1 win which included one of the most memorable goals of the season. The next match was at home against Chicago and it was the Kim Little show again, as she scored two to earn a 3-1 win. The win set a league record for the longest unbeaten streak.
With most soccer-seeking eyes turned to the World Cup in Brazil, the Reign kept rolling. Even with a huge number of starters missing to womens' national team duty, they beat Boston 2-0 on the road and then with the internationals back beat New York 2-1 on the road thanks to a late Leroux winner.
The good month was interrupted by off-the-field news when Hope Solo was arrested on domestic violence charges stemming from an altercation with her extended family. She would plead not guilty and eventually the team would decide to let her train and play as usual pending the results of the legal process. (That process is ongoing, with the latest being that the case may collapse due to inconsistent statements from the alleged victims).
Back on the field, the team closed out the month with a labored home match against Sky Blue in front of a record crowd of 5,770. Nothing clicked offensively for the team and they finished 0-0, the first time all season that they'd been shut out, but with the undefeated streak still alive.
Results: 4 wins, 1 draw, 8GF, 3GA.
Going into the penultimate month of the season the Reign had destroyed any lingering doubts remaining from the previous season. They were undefeated on the year and were in first place in the standings by a mile. New additions Little and Kawasumi were instant stars, and even with Rapinoe and first round pick Frisbie out with long term injuries and Leroux struggling to make an impact, they were clearly the best team in the league.
The opening of the month saw the return of Rapinoe in a 2-1 win over the Flash. The US star came in as a late substitute and promptly got her first assist of the season when she fed Fishlock for the winning goal. That was the last trip to the East Coast of the season and one of the toughest remaining road games, starting serious conversations about the likelihood of an undefeated season.
Against Boston at home the Reign lost Rapinoe to another injury and faced one of the best goalkeeping performances you'll ever see, from Breakers keeper Alyssa Naeher. But they still managed to find the net 3 times to come back for a 3-2 win.
Then against the Chicago Red Stars on the road, the streak finally ended. The finally failed to come back from a deficit and fell 1-0, ending their undefeated run at 16 games — the longest in US pro women's soccer history. Even with the loss, they were 9 points ahead of Kansas City for the Shield.
A home rematch against Chicago ended in a 1-1 draw that clinched a playoff place, but raised concerns the team was sputtering against packed in defenses. Those concerns were ended when the team faced the Thorns for the second time on the season and the first time at home and went on to crush their rivals 5-0 to delight everyone in the crowd except for the large contingent of Riveters.
The final game of the month was on the road against the bottom of the table Dash and Seattle waltzed into a 4-1 win that clinched the 2014 NWSL Shield, the team's first ever hardware and a guarantee of home field through the playoffs. Little scored a brace in the game, which brought her season total to 14 — a new league record. She went on to win the Player of the Month award for the third time in four months.
Summary: 4 Wins, 1 Draw, 1 Loss, 15 GF, 6 GA
The season wound down with the Reign in the awkward situation of not really having anything to play for. The Shield and home field advantage were secured. The loss at Chicago put to bed the quest for an undefeated season. Now Seattle was just trying to balance the need to keep players healthy with the desire to keep momentum up going into the postseason. It's fair to say the momentum kind of stuttered.
The month opened with a 1-1 away draw at Kansas City thanks to a late Rapinoe equalizer. Then they returned home to deliver another 4-1 beatdown to the Dash with Naho picking up two goals and an assist. It was a rampant win but it turns out it'd be the last win of the regular season. Against the Spirit in their last home match before the playoffs, the Reign fell behind early with Little and Kawasumi on the bench. Both were subbed in in the second half and Little scored an equalizer to preserve an undefeated season at home.
In the final match of the regular season, the team traveled to Portland with a chance to knock the Thorns out of the playoffs. They'd beaten their rivals twice already this season, so would go in confident, but the Thorns had a lot more to play for and it showed. Without Jess Fishlock, who was away on duty with Wales, Seattle was prone to turnovers and gave up a number of Portland chances. Only one went in and the Thorns finished a 1-0 victory, giving the Reign only their second loss of the year to close out the regular season.
Then came the absurdly short NWSL playoffs. With only two single-leg rounds, the Reign were two home games away from winning the double. In their first match they were true to form and surrendered the first goal to the Washington Spirit, leaving ex-Husky and ex-Sounders Women Veronica Perez to put the visitors ahead. But the Reign equalized soon after when a handball in the box was called against Washington and Little scored the penalty twice, having to retake it after an encroachment call. Then Solo saved a make-up penalty called against Seattle, Rapinoe scored a late goal to go ahead, and Seattle was through to the final to face Kansas City, the number two team in the league.
The final, while being played 'at home' was actually played at Starfire thanks to Bumbershoot taking over Memorial Stadium. That was the risk of playing in the busier Seattle Center and for most of the season the change was clearly for the better, but not playing the final on their own field was frustrating.
In the championship game, the Reign again surrendered first and surrendered twice: once to the individual brilliance of Amy Rodriguez and once to the brilliance of Lauren Holiday in making a weaving dribble through the Reign box to set up Rodriguez for a second. Down two the Reign rallied but couldn't find a breakthrough until the 87th minute when a Rapinoe goal rekindled the home fans' hopes. Unfortunately, they couldn't find the equalizer despite a few good chances in injury time and they lost the final game of a magical season.
Kim Little won the league Golden Boot and predictably won the league MVP award. Laura Harvey won the league Coach of the Year. Between those awards and the Shield, the Reign can feel it was a successful season, especially in comparison to year one. But the failure in the final will always be a sour end to a season of magic.
There have been substantially fewer moves than last season, predictably given the better form of the team. Now the challenge is figuring out how to handle the 2015 World Cup, which will wreak havoc on the league schedule and rosters. The Reign were somewhat fortunate in both Wales and Scotland narrowly missing out on qualifying, meaning Little and Fishlock will both be available all season assuming they're still with the team. Kawasumi is unlikely to return, given Japan's qualification and hints from the Japanese camp that they'd like to have all of their players nearby in the lead up to the Cup.
Frisbie missed the entirety of her first pro season with a chronic injury, but reports are positive about her ability to return, so the Reign may get a starting quality central defender addition without having to make any moves. In their only significant move of the offseason so far, the team dealt local favorite Kate Deines to FCKC for midfield bulldog Merritt Mathias.
Now as the 2015 draft and preseason approach, we wait to see if the team can build on the transformative 2014 and take the final step in bringing a championship trophy to Memorial Stadium.