After a disappointing 2016 season that saw one of the most talented squads fall short of the playoffs, this year’s Seattle Reign FC team is pushing to reclaim their spot in the championship match. Despite losing four key starters in the offseason, Laura Harvey’s squad is still in the hunt for the postseason. Seattle currently sits just two points out of fourth place — the final NWSL playoff spot — behind the Orlando Pride.
"I think last year, everybody thought with the roster and the experience that we had that it should have been ‘The Year.’ It wasn't, and so I think a lot of people look at us this year and might not think we're as strong," Reign FC goalkeeper Haley Kopmeyer told Sounder at Heart. "In reality, we're a very, very good team. We have people that are willing to fight for each other and grind out results."
Ask Kopmeyer and any other player on Seattle’s squad, and they’ll tell you that the grit that’s been a trademark of the Reign FC team this season wouldn’t be possible if they didn’t believe in Laura Harvey.
"Everyone is completely bought into what she brings to the table," said Reign FC midfielder Christine Nairn, who came to Seattle this year after playing for three seasons with the Washington Spirit. "When you talk to Laura, she’s so passionate about the game and she really just brings players in. No matter their story, she reignites that fire that they have inside of them and allows them love the game."
Nairn said that returning to Seattle this season was critical for her and her career. "I was kind of at a stand still, but just being here ... I want to get better again, I want to improve, I want to do everything I can to help the team. And that's because of the atmosphere that Laura built here. Everyone wants to come and play in Seattle, and she's the reason why."
Over the years, the term "players’ coach" has been tossed around by soccer supporters and analysts — a phrase used to explain those coaches who focus on empowering their players as individuals, both on and off the field. There’s perhaps no coach in the game that does that more effectively or earnestly than Harvey (another Seattle coach has a good case as well).
"For me, the philosophy that I’ve always had is that if you can get the best out of the individuals you have at your disposal, then you have a greater chance of being successful," Harvey said. "I think the biggest thing about players that sometimes people forget is that they're human beings. And when you get to the human being side of a player, you can see them for who they really are and what they can really bring to you."
For players like Nairn and Kopmeyer, who have both experienced unique journeys to become regular starters this season — Nairn returning to the team that drafted her in 2013, and Kopmeyer becoming the starting goalkeeper after years in Hope Solo’s shadow — Harvey’s support has been invaluable.
"She rewards players for trying new things and thinking outside of the box, and I think that's so rare in this league," Nairn shared. "She allows us to have personalities out on the field. That's a main reason why I came back to Seattle."
Harvey is one match away from earning 50 wins in the NWSL, and she’d be the first coach in the league to reach that milestone. Her approach to empowering players and getting the best out of them is a big reason for her successes, but it’s not the sole factor. She knows how to build a team that ensures every piece fits perfectly together. In fact, Harvey has gained such a reputation for her mastermind trades that everyone begins to whisper her name each time an impending trade is announced.
This season, she’s taken that one step further and has adapted the team’s shape and lineup to match opponents more strategically. Harvey, for example, rolled out a three-back formation against the North Carolina Courage on the road, starting Kiersten Dallstream and Merritt Mathias as wingbacks to help slow down North Carolina’s dangerous attack. It nearly earned the team a shutout.
Kopmeyer appreciates this side of Harvey’s coaching as much as she appreciates how the Reign FC coach treats her players. "I think Laura just generally has such a brilliant mind about the game. She really understands it, and she understands the nuances of it. She might have a preferred system, but she knows how to tailor that system to the players that she has."
As Seattle heads into the weekend, they’ll be without Megan Rapinoe, who was putting in an MVP-worthy season until picking up an injury that will keep her out more than a month. Thorns fans will be grateful for her absence, as Rapinoe carried the team on her back en route to a 2-0 defeat of the Thorns in July — scoring two goals and getting close to a third a few more times. But Portland supporters shouldn’t get too comfortable, as the beauty of this Reign squad is that every player is willing to step up when called upon.
Players like Elli Reed and Kiersten Dallstream have stuck with this team since the first season in 2013, despite the fact that they’re no longer regular starters. For Harvey, she knows how important these two are to the team, and her top priority is to be clear about her expectations for them and every other player on the squad.
"I think for people like Dave [Dallstream’s nickname], it's always having the carrot that they can come on and change the game. That's something that we've worked hard on, making sure she knows that there could be any given time that the game needs her. But it’s tough. There are weeks and days where they find it really difficult. I think just them feeling comfortable enough that they can have a conversation with me is a big part of what I think is important for the players."
Kopmeyer agreed when asked why she thinks Reign FC has more players than any other team who have been with the same team since 2013. "I think that shows how much people want to play for her. It's rare that people want to leave the club. They want to work hard to keep their spot, so they can play for her. All different stages of players have stuck around. It's not just the stars, it's everybody. And I think that's a testament to her and the culture that she's created — that no matter your spot on the team, people want to fight for her and for this club and for each other."
That fight should be on full display Saturday afternoon, when Seattle kicks off against Portland. With a raucous group of Riveters making the trip up from Portland, Memorial Stadium should be louder than ever. But fans in the stands will likely still hear one voice rise above the crowd: Laura Harvey’s bellows to her players — and occasionally the refs — giving her all for a team that is ready to do the same for her.