With such a short preseason, the first round of NWSL matches are usually riddled with small moments of brilliance and a lot of mistakes. This opening weekend was no different, with teams attempting to integrate new players in just three short weeks while dealing with a number of player absences due to international call-ups.
For Seattle Reign FC, who played to a 1-1 draw against Sky Blue FC, there were a number of uncharacteristic giveaways and sloppy play as a result. While it is hard to take much away from the first of 24 matches, here are five things we observed in the draw at home.
1. The midfield needs more time together
One of the largest questions emerging after last season involved the midfield. After losing Keelin Winters, one of the best holding midfielders in the league, and Kim Little, one of the best playmakers in the world, we knew the midfield would operate differently in 2017.
Then Laura Harvey acquired Christine Nairn, and suddenly Seattle had more options. This weekend, however, Sky Blue’s four-person midfield ran through Seattle, who rolled out with a midfield trio of Jess Fishlock, Nairn, and Bev Yanez.
Fishlock was forced to sit deep — sometimes along the backline — to help the team absorb the pressure. As a result, Seattle lost much of its link to the attack. Nairn and Yanez never looked comfortable defensively, and it wasn’t until Rumi Utsugi subbed on that the midfield regained some control.
The good news is that Utsugi is a likely starter in the future. She played for Japan at the start of April and had only practiced one day with Reign FC before the opening match. Utsugi is a natural defensive midfielder, and having her on the field allows Fishlock to push higher up and play more of the box-to-box role that has benefited the team in numerous ways the last five years.
It took Winters and Fishlock a year to find their chemistry and learn how to make runs off one another. Hopefully, more time together is all this midfield needs.
2) Megan Rapinoe looks healthy, but is still a bit rusty
Megan Rapinoe looked fit and strong in the match. She admitted that her play was a bit rusty, but the strong work she put into the offseason to get match-ready from a fitness perspective was evident. Rapinoe wasn’t sure she had played 90 minutes since the 2015 Women’s World Cup, which concluded more than 18 months ago. It’s exciting to imagine what she can do when she gets those technical skills back.
3) Haley Kopmeyer is ready to shine
This is Haley Kopmeyer’s team in 2017, and what an initial showing she had. Kopmeyer tallied 8 saves and kept Reign FC in the match. It could have easily been a 3-1 game. In fact, Kopmeyer put in such a strong performance that she was voted NWSL Player of the Week for the opening weekend.
Reign FC goalkeeper coach Ben Dragavon has praised Kopmeyer for the work she put in during the offseason. If she keeps playing the way she did last weekend, she deserves some national team consideration and a Goalkeeper of the Year nod.
4) Can Seattle’s defense handle speed?
Sky Blue put three speedy players into the attack: Sam Kerr, Kelley O’Hara, and Leah Galton. It was Kerr in particular that threatened Reign FC’s backline through most of the first half. Seattle’s outside backs were caught too far forward on occasion, and Kristen McNabb understandably had a few rough moments — she was playing her first-ever NWSL match, after all, and the naturally left-footed defender was on the right side of the pitch.
If the defense wants to keep the team in the match, they are going to have to figure out how they handle opponents who rely on speed. They’ll have another test this weekend when they face the Houston Dash, as Kealia Ohai and Rachel Daly are both fast players who can be quick to pounce on defensive mistakes.
5) The kids are ready to contribute — now
This is a whole new Reign FC, and there are a lot of young players ready to prove themselves in the NWSL. After their first match, Harvey and Reign FC teammates praised McNabb for her calm performance along the backline, while 23-year-old New Zealand international Rebekah Stott showed us what she is capable of in her limited substitute minutes, nearly getting an assist in her first appearance.
Carson Pickett displayed some strong offensive collaboration with Rapinoe and has also been praised by teammates for the work she put in during the offseason. She should get more looks in the attack as Seattle’s defense and midfield take shape.
Harvey also has players like Katie Johnson, Stanford All-American Maddie Bauer, and Lindsay Elston to call upon. The kids are all right, and might be just what this team needs to get through the 24-game season and into the playoffs.
Seattle Reign is again at home this weekend for a match against the Houston Dash. The game kicks off at 7 p.m. PT on Saturday, April 22. Head on down to Memorial Stadium to see how the squad adjusts after week one.