One of Laura Harvey's tenets is everyone on the field plays defense. Apply constant pressure to whoever has the ball and win it back. Revisit the 2014 and 2015 Reign FC teams and be amazed at whenever Seattle gave up the ball, how quickly they got it back. Merritt Mathias has been with the Seattle Reign FC since 2015 and has grown into the player that Laura Harvey coveted when she first saw her in the 2014 season. It's one thing to talk about the Reign FC Originals who have trusted and flourished under Laura Harvey's process, but even those that joined the squad well after the inaugural season and are established NWSL veterans reach that status because they too have bought into Laura Harvey's process.
I caught up with Mathias after Thursday's Reign FC training session and talked about the evolution of her game, ahead of Saturday's big match against Sky Blue FC.
"Over my three years with the Reign, it's definitely been a growing process," said Mathias of her development as a player drafted by FC Kansas City as a forward. Since coming to Seattle, it's been a rotation of being a forward and being defender, often at right back. There is a tenacity to Mathias' style of play that comes with a risk/reward, with the risk as we have seen, a three-match suspension earlier this season. The suspension brought some discussion if Mathias as a defender is a liability and for some unbeknownst reason, some absurd armchair psychoanalysis. Any defender can make unfortunate fouls in the box. And I’m not even going to hypothesize what exactly happens on the field in the heat of a moment between two players jostling for the ball. Whatever the risk is that comes with Mathias' tenacity, head coach Laura Harvey is fine with because the reward is a Merritt Mathias with flexibility to do work on both sides of the ball.
"She's athletic. She's fit. She's super quick. She's physical, she's not scared to go and put people under pressure. So when we want to press, she's often the answer to that. We've seen now she can do the other role. She can play outside back, she can play wide," said Harvey after the 1-1 draw against FC Kansas City in which Seattle played 86 minutes with only ten players.
Laura Harvey demands all of her players to be flexible. In the same post-match conference, she said that she doesn't see the number nine position as just goals. They have to play defense and try to win the ball back or else they're not playing for her. The way all of Laura Harvey’s players are committed to her, you’d swear if she asked goalkeeper Haley Kopmeyer to play forward, she’d do it. If you asked Merritt Mathias to play goalkeeper, she’s probably going to ask for Kopmeyer’s gloves. Nahomi Kawasumi’s goal last week against Boston Breakers came from forward Megan Rapinoe smothering a Breakers defender into forcing her to pass the ball back to their goalkeeper who mis-hit it to serve it on a platter to Kawasumi. Regardless of where she is on the field, Mathias feels her game gets utilized, which includes this tenacity that Harvey covets.
"Out of our back, we want to attack and go forward, so I get to have that part of my game when I'm playing fullback. And defensively our nine is really asked to start our defensive pressure."
No denying Merritt Mathias checks off those boxes whether she is up top or in the back and looking forward to tomorrow's crucial match against Sky Blue FC, wherever Mathias will be in the starting eleven, there will be the huge task of trying to contain forward Sam Kerr.
In case you've been living under a rock, you won't find a more in-form soccer player in the world than Kerr. The Australian forward is putting on a sort of assault on the senses display of soccer akin to the Coma-Doof Warrior from Mad Max: Fury Road. You’re not going to find anyone that follows the league, fan or media that wouldn’t pencil her in as the front-runner to the NWSL MVP award as she rockets into that echelon of one of the world's best players. It's incredibly easy to just say, "Get the ball to Sam Kerr," as to what could be Sky Blue's plan against Seattle. However in order to just "get the ball to Sam Kerr" is going to involve building an attack through their backline and midfield. This is where Mathias could be up top in the number nine position. Her ability to disrupt with her press could make Sky Blue building any attacks from the back easier said than done.
While Mathias didn't give a preview of Reign's tactics for Saturday, she emphasized that it's not so much build a plan against one specific player, but rather reinforce that it's what the Reign do with the ball and off the ball that is more important. Yes Sam Kerr is going to get her touches, but if that touch comes with her looking at three or four Reign FC players in front of her then perhaps it's lower percentage of risk that she can do some damage. For a game that can be viewed and digested as incredibly intricate, it's fascinating that whatever preparation goes into tactics can most of the time be summarized as simply not losing focus. "For ninety minutes we have to be on. And if you're off, for a split-second with someone like Sam, she will punish you," said Mathias.
Tomorrow's match against Sky Blue FC could have playoff implications, perhaps be a fixture in the actual NWSL Playoffs in early October. Of course the Reign FC and their fans will want nothing but the win and 3 big time points, but we won't know the outcome until late Saturday night. What we can expect is that Merritt Mathias will be part of the collective team effort because bought into the Reign FC program is very much a Laura Harvey player.
Mathias joined Seattle in 2015 because Laura Harvey wanted her and Mathias liked what Harvey was building in hearing from other players. Keep in mind this is coming from winning the NWSL Championship with FC Kansas City and appearing in 20 games that season. That said, if Laura Harvey is interested in you and wants you on her team, surely you gotta hear out what she has to say. As one of the veterans on the Reign FC, it comes as no surprise that when she reflects on her growth as a soccer player, that it echoes what say the Reign FC Originals have said - they are the player they are today because of Laura Harvey.
"I came here because Laura wanted me here. She made that very clear when I made the decision and that wasn't made clear by other coaches in this league and to have someone that wants you and wants you to bring what you have to an organization and to a team, yeah that's something special. -- I think my growth as a player also reflects the people that I'm surrounded around day in and day out. They're absolutely great players, but they're wonderful people too."