Seattle Reign FC traveled to the North Carolina Courage for the second time this season, looking to avenge their 2-0 loss last month. Unfortunately, due to international duty at the Tournament of Nations, Seattle was without two important starters for the match, with Megan Rapinoe and Rumi Utsugi both given the weekend off to recuperate and avoid additional cross-country travel. There was also significant uncertainty going into the match about whether Jess Fishlock would be sufficiently recovered from her knee injury to make a significant contribution to the match.
All of this necessitated some significant tinkering with both the line-up and tactics, and led to a Reign FC approach to the match unlike any we’ve seen yet this season. To address the overwhelming speed and tenacity of the Courage attack, Seattle utilized a defensive formation with three central defenders and a pair of wingbacks. Rebekah Stott was moved into a central role, along with usual center backs Lauren Barnes and Rachel Corsie, while the outside speed was provided by Merritt Mathias and Kiersten Dallstream.
The midfield remained fairly typical for Seattle, with Christine Nairn, Lindsay Elston and Fishlock taking turns sharing the attacking and defensive roles, while the attack was weakened significantly by the shift to only two players forward and absence of Rapinoe’s creativity up top.
This strategy suggests that Seattle’s primary focus was on minimizing defensive miscues and keeping the score at zeroes, and for the most part the adjustments were successful, at least defensively. In their first match-up, the Courage pummeled the Reign with 31 shots and overpowered them with midfield pressure, while this game saw Seattle only face half as many shots, and most of those were low-probability chances from distance.
As the game progressed after North Carolina found their goal, the Reign got more aggressive in looking for an equalizer, first by pushing the wingbacks up into the midfield and leaving the three center backs to handle more of the defensive duties in more of a 3-5-2, and eventually shifting to a 3-1-3-3 at the end in an effort to overwhelm the Courage. The changes led to Seattle’s best sustained period of attack in the game, but unfortunately they were unable to finish any of their rare chances.
Haley Kopmeyer (6; 4 saves) – Seattle’s defensive adjustments were fruitful for Kopmeyer, reducing by half the number of shots she faced compared to the team’s prior trip to North Carolina. Furthermore, most of the Courage shots were long-distance efforts or from tough angles. Watching live I thought Kopmeyer made a meal of the goal, since it looked like a fairly modest shot close to where she was positioned that she should have been able to cover. On replay, however, it became more evident that she was screened by two defenders and didn’t see the shot until the last moment. On the flip side, Kopmeyer did very well to handle a long, knuckling Jess McDonald shot in the 83rd minute, which could have been disastrous if she’d given up any rebound because an unmarked Lynn Williams was only a foot away and ready to pounce.
Rebekah Stott (5; caution 24’) – Stott struggled mightily with North Carolina’s speedy attack the last time Seattle visited Cary, and Laura Harvey seems to have noticed, moving her inside as a third central back with wingback support this time around. It still wasn’t a stellar performance, but Stott looked more comfortable in this role, particularly since she could stay home to defend and didn’t need to press forward to contribute to the attack.
Her early yellow card for a late tackle on Ashley Hatch was a reminder that Courage attackers have a speed advantage on her, but aside from that foul she was more careful in her positioning so as not to get beat in a footrace. However, she shares some responsibility for the North Carolina goal due to losing track of their marks. As Makenzy Doniak dribbled into the Reign corner after a giveaway, the Seattle defense dropped in anticipation of a cross. Rachel Corsie was in the middle and had Kristen Hamilton off her right shoulder, while Stott was near the far post and had Williams just behind her. When the ball came through, Hamilton made a smart dummy that caused Stott to commit, leaving Williams unmarked at the top of the box to receive and control the ball before placing her shot. Ideally Mathias would have been back to help cover Williams on the play, but due to the awful turnover and fast counter, Stott didn’t yet have support.
Rachel Corsie (6) – After an extended absence due to injury and then international duty, Corsie’s return enabled Seattle to experiment with their back line. She mostly served as the middle CB in the band of three and was solid in the back, with a team-high 11 possessions gained to snuff out Courage attacks. Her biggest negative came early in the game while she was still shaking off some rust, when Lynn Williams got behind her on a breakaway after a looping Courage through ball, but Lu Barnes raced over to block the ensuing shot. After that, Corsie was steady and solid, and had a gorgeous midfield recovery and quick through ball in the 82nd minute that Fishlock just missed getting onto the end of before Katelyn Rowland cleared the danger.
Lauren Barnes (7; caution 86’; PotM) – Barnes looked much more like her old self in this game. Early in the game she helped set the tone, shielding out a long through ball that was meant for Lynn Williams. Just a minute later, Williams broke free behind Stott and Corsie, but Barnes raced over and blocked the wide open shot with a well-timed tackle.
Barnes was solid on defense, with several interceptions to stifle Courage attacks, and she won 75% of the 12 duels she was in. She was primarily on the left side of the center back trio, where Kiersten Dallstream was handling wingback duties, and despite their unfamiliarity together, there were minimal breakdowns in defense on their side.
In the second half Barnes had a few shaky moments, including an iffy clearance in the 72nd minute that nearly led to a quick North Carolina counter which they fortunately misplayed for a Reign throw-in, as well as failing to step up to challenge Jess McDonald in the 83rd minute when she dribbled at the top of the Seattle box and got off a quality shot, but ultimately Barnes and the defense held together much better and were able to handle the speedy threats of the Courage.
Merritt Mathias (7; off 79’) – I was both worried and a bit puzzled when Seattle announced its starting 11 for this game. There was a lot of confusion about whether Mathias or Dallstream would be the fourth defender, with the other presumably slotting in at forward. Much to my surprise, Seattle used both as wingbacks in this game, a hybrid role that wasn’t too much different from what she typically asks of her outside backs, but with additional defensive support.
Mathias did well in her new role this game, showing some good defensive presence and refusing to get beat on the dribble in the 10th minute, and chasing down some long balls to shield them away from Courage attackers. In attack she also put in some quality crosses, although with an extra defender back Seattle didn’t have enough numbers forward to capitalize on them. However, she was also far less involved in play because of how Seattle moved the ball forward this week, registering only 16 pass attempts before subbing off.
Kiersten Dallstream (6; off 63’) – Dallstream was by far the biggest surprise in this lineup, as I expected either Utsugi or Rapinoe to travel to North Carolina, and short of them the next most likely solution seemed to involve Larissa Crummer getting her first start up top. Instead, Dallstream earned her first start of the season as the left wingback, which I thought she handled pleasantly well. In the 12th minute she played a very nice through ball to Bev Yanez as Seattle tried to play more direct to counter North Carolina’s smothering midfield, and a minute later she was back on defense holding her own in a challenge.
In only an hour on the field, Dallstream led the team with four tackles and committed no fouls, while challenging well for balls and also putting in a few promising crosses. Aside from a few poor passes to Seattle attackers, her only notable negative was in the 53rd minute, when she and most of the Reign were caught snoozing on a Courage throw-in near midfield, which left Mckenzy Doniak wide open on Dallstream’s side to receive a cross, but luckily her shot went over the bar.
Jess Fishlock (6) – Fishlock is clearly superhuman, and should probably be tested for adamantium at some point. She was amazingly back from her injury and played a full 90, allowing Seattle to rest Rumi Utsugi after her long travels and minutes at the Tournament of Nations. Seattle’s game plan this week involved a lot of through balls hoping to find space between Courage defenders, and Fishlock started the sequence in the 9th minute when she picked out Naho, but Katelyn Rowland was aggressive off her line to clear the ball.
Although Fishlock clearly wasn’t yet back to 100%, she was still a force to be reckoned with, winning 75% of her duels and pressing forward to contribute to Seattle’s underpowered attack. Unfortunately, two of Seattle’s best scoring opportunities were off her boot, including a wide open shot from the top of the box in the 75th minute, but both balls went well over the bar. That might have been rust, or it might have been due to the hefty knee brace Fishlock was wearing, but either way chances for the team were few and far between and Seattle needed to capitalize on at least one of them. She also had significantly fewer touches on the ball and passes than her midfield counterparts, and a disappointingly low 62% pass completion rate as she tried to push the ball forward and look for seams in the Courage defense.
Lindsay Elston (4) – Elston had a tough game, which is a bit surprising when you look at her raw stats. She had the second most touches of anyone on the team after Lu Barnes and a surprisingly high 85% pass completion rate on 52 attempts, but a couple of errors at critical times were significant. Most notably, she had an awful pass to nowhere off a Reign free kick in the 32nd minute that led directly to the Courage counter attack and goal, and several times throughout the game she seemed to be lost and caught flat footed as play went on around her, most notably in the 27th, 64th, and 83rd minutes.
That’s not to say she didn’t have some good play, as attested by her passing stats. She played a great through ball to Naho in the 47th minute, did well to dribble herself out of danger and find an outlet pass in the 64th minute, and won a strong challenge in the 91st minute to set up one last Seattle attack. However, barring injuries, it seems likely she’ll be returning to a substitute role next week with the return of both Fishlock and Utsugi.
Christine Nairn (5; off 79’) – Nairn has talked some about how her role this year is different than what she was more familiar with in Washington, with Laura Harvey asking her to be more of a two-way midfielder and to contribute more on defense. In this game she did a lot of shuttling and defensive work, with nice tackles in the 19th and 53rd minutes and some strong recovery runs to provide support when the Courage would press with a fast counter attack and reduce the danger posed by their strong midfield.
However, combined with using an extra defender, this work came at the expense of Seattle playing through their midfield, and although Nairn also completed 84% of her 54 attempted passes, she created only one chance on the night and had no shots herself. She also had a couple of poor touches in the second half, including a pass she almost completely whiffed on controlling in the 59th minute that led to a Courage attack, and an awful trap off an easy Seattle throw-in in the 73rd minute that led to Jess McDonald’s dangerous shot.
Beverly Yanez (5) – Yanez spent a lot of time this game with her back to the Courage goal, looking to get onto the end of Seattle passes to spring attacks. She also dropped back on Courage set pieces to provide an aerial presence to counter North Carolina’s height advantage, and had a few headed clearances of corner kicks. Yanez completed 23 of the 25 passes she attempted and had only one shot that was blocked, which gives some indication of how much more often she laid passes back to her midfield versus pressing forward in attack. My suspicion is that this was a deliberate part of Seattle’s attacking plan, although aside from a brief flurry where Seattle took four shots from about the 63rd through 76th minute, the Reign attack was anemic at best.
Nahomi Kawasumi (5) – For much of the game, Naho was the preferred target for Seattle passes into the attacking third. Unfortunately, her game this week was a bit hit-or-miss, with passes that were either just out of her reach or where she was making one run and the ball went another way. Some of this was probably due to Seattle using a different formation and tactics in this game, and also because the Reign had one less attacking threat to spread the Courage defense. When Naho did win the ball, she had some nice play, including a great switch to find space in the 15th minute and quality crosses in the 64th, 74th and 85th minutes. After Katie Johnson entered the match, Naho dropped into more of an outside midfield role.
Katie Johnson (5; on 63’) – Johnson’s entry signaled a tactical shift for Seattle, pulling the wingbacks up into midfield roles and using a defensive midfielder to support the center backs instead. She had the first Reign shot on target of the game in the 74th minute, a header off a Christine Nairn cross that didn’t have much power on it. A minute later she did well to win a second ball after a chip into the Courage box, and then found Fishlock wide open with a cross, but the shot went over the bar.
Johnson unfortunately struggled with her passing compared to the other forwards, completing only the aforementioned cross among her 9 pass attempts. A few of her passes were particularly poor, including two giveaways in the 78th and 85th minute.
Kristen McNabb (incomplete; on 79’) – McNabb came on as a holding mid, serving as the lone defensive midfielder in front of three defenders for the final 11 minutes, while the rest of the team pressed forward looking for an equalizer. She had one very poor pass when trying to switch play in the 84th minute, which led to a Kristen Hamilton counter and shot, but otherwise did fine in her limited role as Seattle chased the game.
Elli Reed (incomplete; on 79’) – Reed was a surprise late sub, replacing Merritt Mathias as an outside midfielder. Most of the game went through the other side of the field, where Naho was located, in the final minutes, so she didn’t have much influence or effect on the game, finishing with only four passes, although all were successfully completed.
Elvis Osmanovic (8) – This was a reasonably well officiated game, and neither side was particularly dirty. Lynn Williams led all players with four fouls committed, although two of those were handballs. The early caution Stott was deserved, and I also had no complaints about Barnes’ yellow late in the game. I had only two minor quibbles. First, he probably should have whistled a foul on McCall Zerboni in the 42nd minute when she tackled the ball away from Christine Nairn; the tackle was mostly clean, but she clipped Nairn’s foot as she went through the ball. Second, the ball went into touch in the 69th minute off what was clearly a mishit by Naho, but both the AR and Osmanovic awarded Seattle the throw-in. Both were fairly small issues and didn’t significantly affect the game.
Who was your Reign FC player of the match?
This poll is closed
Other (note in comments)