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Reignbow Reflections: Starting the season off right

Saturday’s home opener was fun.

Photo: MikeRussellFoto

After failing to win its home opener the last two seasons, and losing the previous three matches at Memorial Stadium, Seattle Reign FC started the 2018 NWSL season on a more positive note — defeating the Washington Spirit 2-1.

Megan Rapinoe and Jodie Taylor were the goal-scorers for Reign FC, but they were not the only ones creating chances. Seattle peppered the Spirit with 15 shots in the first half alone, and eight of those were on goal. Those first 45 minutes felt like a relentless Reign FC attack and showed what this team is capable of when things are firing on all cylinders.

The second half — and especially the last 30 minutes — was far more even. Washington had numerous chances to work their way back into the match. Although they only scored one goal, they easily could have put in one or two more. Whether it was tired legs, first-match jitters, or a sign of a larger trend, it is hard to say after one game. The good news is that Seattle was able to keep the match contained and earn three points at home.

Here are a few more reflections on the match.

Depth and Versatility

With the team’s ideal starting lineup still not fully available — Steph Catley and Lydia Williams are with Australia preparing for the Asian Cup — Reign coach Vlatko Andonovski moved a few players around, asking them to take on slightly different roles. The squad’s versatility was on full display, and despite some players feeling out of position, they did not disappoint.

Rumi Utsugi started at left back, a position she played a few times to close out 2016 but didn’t touch in 2017. Utsugi’s stats from the match don’t look fantastic on paper. She had a team low 44 percent passing rate among Reign FC starters. According to Chris Henderson of All White Kit, Utsugi also lost seven tackles and went 14 of 22 in her challenges. These stats ignore one major factor: for much of the game, Utsugi was asked to mark Mallory Pugh — not an easy task for even the most experienced defenders. While Pugh certainly had an impact in the second half, she was kept off the score sheet.

“I thought that she helped us a lot with our build up, and her creativity,” Andonovski said after the match. “Her connection with Pinoe was incredible and the reason why Pinoe was as good as she was.”

When Catley returns in a month, Utsugi should slot back into her more natural role as a holding midfielder — a position that earned her team MVP honors in 2017 (as voted by her teammates). In the meantime, Allie Long was really strong in that role, breaking up Spirit passes and quickly connecting with teammates to push the attack forward. Long finished with four chances created and a team high 82 percent passing accuracy.

Bev Yanez was asked to play as an attacking midfielder, a role she stepped into on occasion these last two seasons. Her physicality and relentless pressure caused Washington all sorts of trouble in the first half. Yanez had five tackles and quickly jumped into defensive mode when the Spirit won the ball — cutting off passing lanes in addition to dispossessing her opponents. In fact, if you watch this video highlight of Andi Sullivan’s rookie debut for Washington, you’ll notice how many times Yanez pressures Sullivan into a backpass or mistake.

Megan Rapinoe, meet Jodie Taylor

Let’s talk about that Reign FC attack. In a game where Naho Kawasumi felt uncharacteristically absent — due in large part to the stronger play on the left side of Washington’s defense — it was refreshing to still feel like the team had plenty of strong service and attacking options.

The two players that rose to the top of this list, however, were Rapinoe and Taylor, who combined for 15 shots, and eight of those were on goal. Rapinoe’s one goal and one assist earned her Player of the Week honors.

Under Andonovski, Rapinoe may get more time on the ball than ever, and it feels like that can only be a good thing. Andonovski created a structure at FC Kansas City that gave Lauren Holiday as much space with the ball as possible. He knew what kind of opportunities she could create. That structure saw KC win two NWSL Championships (it still hurts). If the team continues to do the same for Rapinoe, the rest of the league should be scared.

Taylor, meanwhile, showed what she is capable of last weekend. Not only does she make smart, relentless runs into the box — one of which resulted in a goal — she is also willing to put in the effort defensively to win the ball back for her team. For the whole match, Taylor was urging her team to press high and often, and along with Yanez, she was a key reason for Washington’s struggles to get out their half to start off the match.

Defensive woes? It’s too early to tell ...

Despite the win and the fantastic first half, fans saw a little glimpse of the 2017 Reign FC during the last 30 minutes of the game — with a number of poor clearances and scrambles in the box on defense. I think this was more the result of players still feeling each other out than a sign of what’s to come.

As I watched the match live, what was most worrisome to me was how much space Seattle provided Washington on the back side. Too many players were getting sucked in to stop Pugh on the left side of defense, leaving Theresa Nielsen and the right flank completely exposed. Washington couldn’t capitalize on it, but another team might.

Still, this backline should be one of the strongest in the league, and Andonovski has always been a coach that stressed defensive organization. That’s why I’m not too worried — yet. There is plenty of time over the next few weeks to gel and figure out how the midfield and defenders support each other and move as a unit.

Seattle doesn’t play this week, and the league takes the following week off for a FIFA international break. That gives the team plenty of time to extend the preseason, build off their first match, and get even stronger before they face Sky Blue FC on the road on April 15. If the opening game is any indication, this team should be fun to follow this season.

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