It is a battle of Northwest versus Southeast on Sunday, May 21, as Seattle Reign FC faces the Orlando Pride in the squad’s last home match before a three-game road trip. Three points aren’t absolutely necessary, but they sure would be nice.
Before the match kicks off, let’s get to know Reign FC’s nemesis for the day. We exchanged 3 Questions with Michael Citro from The Mane Land. Here’s what he had to say about the team from Disney and Butterbeer.
Sounder at Heart: The Reign scored four goals in a span of 10 minutes last week. What makes you think Orlando has the tools to stop Seattle's attack? And, on the flip side, what makes you nervous about the Pride defense?
The Mane Land: To answer the second question first, I’m not all that nervous about the Pride defense. They’ve had a few nervous moments this season but the club has allowed two goals on penalties for handballs in the box, and one off a turnover by the goalkeeper. So the defending hasn’t been too bad, although North Carolina’s play in the air on set pieces was a bit nerve wracking.
With Ali Krieger and Aussie internationals Alanna Kennedy and Steph Catley on the back line, the defense shouldn’t be an issue. Toni Pressley is also much improved this season and seems to be favored over Australian international veteran Laura Alleway these days. The defensive midfield play could be better, however. Either that or set piece defending might be my biggest worries.
I suppose the tools needed would be the ability to close down Seattle’s attacking players, particularly Jess Fishlock and Megan Rapinoe. That’s going to require teamwork and communication, which is an area I think the Pride have displayed some prowess this season so far. Camila has been able to hound the ball in the middle of the pitch and Krieger and Catley have been able to close down the wide areas for the most part. Whether they can do that while being leggy from an extremely long trip remains to be seen.
SaH: One of the best players in the world has joined the Pride, and has already had quite the impact in her short time with the team. How close do you think Marta is to her peak at this point?
TML: I don’t think she’s quite there yet although she’s getting better game by game. Her vision is still head and shoulders above most players, as evidenced by her assist on Jasmyne Spencer’s goal last weekend against North Carolina. She’s creating dangerous situations in the box but she’s not yet quite on the same page as some of her teammates so a lot of those chances go by without anyone getting onto the ball.
Once she learns what runs players like Chi Ubogagu, Jamia Fields, Danica Evans, etc. prefer to make and where they want the ball – whether at their feet or played into space – I think we’ll see a lot more danger in the Pride attack.
What’s underrated about Marta is her ability to read the game on defense. She’s spectacular at getting into passing lanes to turn teams over or get a foot on the ball to knock it off course. Once she’s more comfortable and in rhythm here I think she’ll start to make a profound impact on the offense and start scoring more goals for herself.
SaH: Orlando just beat the top team in the league, getting the squad's first win. That's quite some momentum. What do you think the Pride have to do right to leave with 3 points?
TML: Seattle’s offense is pretty scary, having posted a league-high 14 goals. The Pride aren’t getting out of there with any points if they can’t hold the Reign to two or fewer goals. On the other hand, only two teams have conceded more goals than Seattle, so the Pride must take their chances when they come. Orlando generated a ton of chances at Portland in the opener but either fired off frame or hit the goalkeeper in the chest. That won’t do in this match so it’s a good thing Ubogagu finally opened her Pride account last game. I got to interview her earlier this week and she seems to have found her confidence. Spencer is another player who got the goal monkey off her back last weekend so her confidence should also be on the rise. And Camila and Marta always seem confident. All of that should help.
Fatigue from travel is a likely factor in the league’s longest possible trip so the Pride must get on top before they start to feel the effects later in the game. The first goal is critical, especially if there isn’t one in the first half. Orlando will be playing its fourth road game of the year already (with a fifth coming up next at Sky Blue) so just getting a point would be a good result, knowing the back end of the schedule is loaded with home matches. But Tom Sermanni will want three, so getting the first goal and taking advantage of the opportunities Seattle gives the Pride will be crucial toward accomplishing that goal.
*** REVERSE ***
TML: It's not surprising that the Reign are the NWSL's top scoring club. The surprise is how leaky Seattle has been at the back. What's going on with the team's defense and how open have Seattle's matches been so far in 2017?
SaH: Oh, how I'd love to see the Reign finally get a shutout this weekend. I think the defensive struggles have been primarily due to two factors. First, this is a fairly new backline still getting to know one another. Rachel Corsie is slowly working her way back into the lineup after missing nearly six months due to injury, while both Carson Pickett and Rebekah Stott are young outside backs still adjusting to the league.
It seems to be taking a bit more time for all the pieces to fit together. Most of the goals Reign FC conceded, haven't been the result of total defensive breakdowns, but small mental lapses.
The second factor is the change in the midfield. Keelin Winters was extremely underrated in her ability to shield the backline from too much pressure, and she had three years to form a partnership with Jess Fishlock and Kim Little. A new midfield has put even greater pressure on the backline, and the team is still adjusting. I'm hopeful that more time and more games is all the team needs.
TML: Fans around the league should know plenty by now about Jess Fishlock and Megan Rapinoe. Who else should Orlando fans be aware of when it comes to the team's dangerous attack?
SaH: Unlike previous seasons, where teams really targeted Kim Little and tried to limit her time on the ball, the Reign attack has multiple dimensions this year — making them hard to predict and defend. If you pay close attention to Megan Rapinoe and Naho Kawasumi on the wings, Bev Yanez, Christine Nairn, or Fishlock are ready to pounce in the middle of the field.
Yanez in particular has been a critical component of the attack. She might not score a ton of goals, but her movement to draw defenders and open the field has been a key component of Seattle's attack. For a target forward, Yanez has such great control in tight spaces. In fact, she had an 85% pass success rate last week. She brings the movement, passing, and finishing that make Seattle's possession-focused attack work.
In addition, the attack is also just as strong as the defense, and when Seattle's high pressure, defend-from-the-front approach is in sync, it creates a lot more quick breaks on offense for the Reign. While Yanez plays a big part in this, it's the whole Seattle front line working together that makes the team so dangerous.
TML: How has Seattle improved as a team from last season? Conversely, which areas of the team do not seem as solid in 2017 as they were a year ago?
SaH: Last year was so hard to figure out. On paper, the Reign boasted one of the best teams in the world. I think that what the team lacked, however, was unpredictability. They weren't a team that adapted their game plan from match to match, and instead relied on their ability to play beautiful, technical soccer consistently. Seattle suffered as teams began to figure them out and clog up balls into the midfield.
This year, a combination of young energy and a renewed commitment from Laura Harvey and the team to make adjustments has jumpstarted the attack early in the season. I cannot overstate how important Rapinoe is to this team, either. Unpredictability is a cornerstone of her game, and she has been relentlessly aggressive on the defensive end. A healthy Pinoe for a full season should scare other teams.
Consistently is what the Reign still need to work on, especially on defense. The backline was really strong last year, and Seattle is letting in far too many goals in 2017. It all comes down to playing their game for a full 90 minutes. If the Reign do that, I think they'll be really hard to beat.
Seattle: OUT: Larissa Crummer (right foot fracture), Diana Matheson (left ACL tear), Merritt Mathias (suspended)
Orlando: OUT: Mackenzie Berryhill (season-ending injury – disabled list), Aubrey Bledsoe (concussion), Monica (bone bruise), Chioma Ubogagu (left hamstring strain)
It should be a beautiful, warm night for soccer, with highs in the mid-70s. Kickoff for the match is scheduled for 6:30 PM PT on Sunday, May 21. Can’t make the game? Follow the action in our gamethread.