Seattle Reign FC opened their 2018 season in exciting fashion, defeating the Washington Spirit 2-1 at Memorial Stadium in a game that with far more action than the score line might suggest. The Reign were dominant in the first half, with 15 shots and two goals, while play was nearly mirrored in the second half as the Spirit peppered Seattle with 13 shots and scored one of their own.
Both teams had major roster overhauls during the off-season, with the Reign fielding five new players and the Spirit starting four new faces, including top draft pick Andi Sullivan. Despite the new personnel and new coach Vlatko Andonovski at the helm, the Reign used tactics fairly similar to those that Seattle fans watched under five years of Laura Harvey. Seattle played in a 4-3-3 formation, focused on defending from the front and building possession out of the back. Their outside backs pressed forward aggressively to cross balls into the box.
Play was a bit sloppy, as can be expected for the first game of the season and with most national team players for both sides getting minimal preseason minutes with their club teams due to international matches, but both teams showed that they made significant progress over the off-season. This game’s ratings take that rust into account and are based off of what I would expect for this point in the season; thus they might seem higher than would be expected if this was the 20th match of the season.
As a reminder, my rating system goes from 1-10, where 1 is a performance so poor that the player should not play again, 4 is a replacement level NWSL player, 6 is an average NWSL starter, 9 is an all-star performance, and 10 is an MVP-quality performance.
With that out of the way, let’s look back at how the Reign FC players performed in their opening day victory.
Michelle Betos (7; 8 saves, 1 goal conceded) – It took five years, but Michelle Betos finally earned her first win in a Reign FC uniform thanks to a solid effort and a strong first-half performance by her teammates. Betos had a couple of questionable moments early on, including an iffy charge out to challenge for a ball in the third minute, but settled down quickly and had some quality saves interspersed with more routine stops. Betos faced the second-most shots of any keeper in week 1 (the only GK to face more was her counterpart in net for Washington), but it’s too early to worry that we’ll see a repeat of the shellings that Reign keepers faced 2017.
Rumi Utsugi (6) – Utsugi was the one surprise for me in this lineup – I expected she would start in midfield since she hadn’t played outside back since 2016, but by moving her back Vlatko Andonovski had two Reign veterans on his backline to complement two newly acquired defenders who would be less accustomed to the nuances of Memorial Stadium’s turf. Utsugi didn’t have the most spectacular game as an outside back, but she did what was needed of her and kept the speedy pair of Mal Pugh and Estefani Banini off the score sheet. She had a great sliding block of a Banini shot in the 31st minute, contributed to the second Reign goal by winning a loose ball in midfield and quickly pushing it forward to Rapinoe for a counter, and was unlucky not to score herself in the 22nd minute after a nice give-and-go with Pinoe and a great shot that was blocked off the line by a Spirit defender.
On the negative, Utsugi got juked by Washington’s speedy forwards and wide players several times, leading to potentially dangerous crosses or plays in the box that her teammates were forced to clean up. Her passing was also mediocre, completing only 44% of her 34 attempts, although in large part that was due to her playing on the same side as Rapinoe for much of the game and them attempting a lot of unsuccessful long passes to split the Spirit defense.
Lauren Barnes (6) – Barnes had a fairly quiet game, which in part was a testament to how rampant Seattle was on offense in the first half and how well they did in keeping the Spirit pinned in their half even when Washington had possession. As the Spirit gained momentum in the second half and attacks intensified, Barnes was asked to do a lot more, and she ended with five tackles won and also won a foul, all while keeping her play clean. She was partially responsible on the Spirit goal, as the ball bounced around near her feet it appeared that she lost track of it and became disoriented, spinning around as Joanna Lohman grabbed it, spun past the two defenders, and fired off a quick shot before the Reign defense could react. Those sorts of issues should become less frequent as the new Reign defense becomes more comfortable with each another’s tendencies, but it was a frustrating moment.
Megan Oyster (6) – Oyster was the more active of the two center backs, at least in terms of stepping into passing channels and disrupting play. This was in large part due to the Spirit opting to send much of their attacking play up the left side before cutting in or crossing balls into the box. In the 10th minute she nearly got burned after not tracking Ashley Hatch, who found herself wide open on the receiving end of a Taylor Smith through ball, but fortunately Betos read the play well and charged out to block the ensuing shot. Oyster had the best passing accuracy and attempted the most passes (76% on 49 attempts) of any player in the Reign back four, but also had by far the fewest tackles.
Theresa Nielsen (6) – Nielsen was a breath of fresh air for Reign fans who have watched the team struggle to find consistency at the right back position in recent years. From the opening whistle she was aggressive and showed comfort with the ball at her feet, lobbing in a number of quality crosses and showing a willingness to be physical on defense to stand up to attacks. She was unlucky not to earn an assist in the 22nd minute when she lofted a great cross to a wide-open Rapinoe on the opposite side, but the ensuing shot fizzed wide.
As the game progressed the Spirit tended to overload her side of the field, and she often was left on an island to defend two attackers with minimal support from either the center back on her side (typically Oyster) or the forward on her side (Naho for most of the game, then Rapinoe after the first sub). That led to several Spirit attacking chances off dangerous crosses into the box as the second half progressed. Those issues aren’t strictly Nielsen’s fault, but she and her teammates will need to find ways to deal with those dangers more effectively in future games.
Allie Long (7) – Long has had an interesting road to this point in her career. In Portland she wore the #10 and started her time there in an attacking role, before gradually dropping further back for both club and when she started receiving call-ups from Jill Ellis. That culminated with several games at centerback for the US Women’s National Team, an experiment that was almost universally panned by outside observers. Since that time she has mostly played a defensive mid role with mixed success, including on Saturday in her first outing with the Reign. This time she performed admirably, primarily setting up in the space ahead of the defense and controlling that critical spot in the middle of the field where Seattle consistently struggled last year. She showed good vision and saw what the Spirit wanted to do in midfield, and more often than not was able to step up and disrupt play, either by intercepting passes or pressuring Washington players into back passes or errors.
When Seattle had possession, she frequently dropped back almost as a third central back to help build play out of the back through smart, short passes (she finished with a team high 50 passes with 82% accuracy), and then would make late runs behind the attacking band once the ball was upfield, picking up rebounds and providing a second target for crosses at the top of the box. It was on one of these runs that she recovered a loose ball and was fouled, leading to the first Reign goal. At the very end of the game she made another smart step, intercepted a ball at midfield, and started a 2-v-1 counter attack that nearly saw Rapinoe score a second goal. If she can keep up this quality of play in this role, Seattle’s midfield will be much more settled this season.
Jess Fishlock (7) – Of the three Reign midfielders, Fishlock had the most versatile role, acting as a box-to-box mid shuttling between the defensive and attacking bands depending on the phase of play. She finished tied for the team high with six tackles and had three shots, including a knuckling ball from distance in 34th minute. As the game progressed she looked a bit tired, which could be expected given her arduous schedule and nearly non-stop travel thanks to playing in Australia and having international matches through early March. In the 78th minute she lost track of Estefania Banini about 20 yards out from the Seattle goal, leading to an open shot that forced a Betos save, and Fishlock also committed a game-high four fouls and was probably lucky to escape without a caution.
Beverly Yanez (7; off 77’) – Yanez had one of her best outings as a midfielder, after struggling there at times last season. In this match she was able to stay fairly high on the pitch, sometimes playing almost as a withdrawn forward behind Jodie Taylor. She was aggressive, winning five tackles, and forced the Spirit to play wide through the midfield. She had only a couple of poor touches all game.
Megan Rapinoe (8; goal 7’, assist 35’, caution 64’; PotM) – Rapinoe started her 2018 the way she left off 2017, running rampant all over the field. The Spirit, and outside back Taylor Smith in particular, didn’t know what to do with her in the first half and struggled to contain her. Rapinoe had seven shots in the first half, and finished the game with more shots on goal herself than six entire teams had in week 1. Her curling free kick for the first goal was the stuff of highlight reels, and she was unlucky not to score at least one or two more, particularly on a well-placed shot in the waning moments of the game. She also placed a very well-weighted pass to Jodie Taylor for the second goal, pushing it past the Spirit defender but not too far that Aubrey Bledsoe could rush out to smother it.
In the second half the Spirit adjusted their tactics and Rapinoe was far less effective, but she still managed four shots. She seemed to try to force things a bit as the game progressed, trying some shots and passes that were ill-advised and picking up a silly yellow card for encroachment on a Spirit free kick near midfield where the Reign defense was already back and well positioned. Rapinoe has a tendency to pick up cards through the season, so hopefully this caution doesn’t come back to haunt the team due to an accumulation suspension at an inopportune time.
Jodie Taylor (7; goal 35’) – Taylor brought a lot of positives to her first game in the black and blue. She was an aggressive ball chaser up front, providing a lot of the same bulldog mentality that the team had with Merritt Mathias in that role in years past, but she was also far more dangerous with the ball at her feet. Taylor made some great runs off the last defender, looking for through balls that were often hit just a little too hard or at the wrong angle, but she was rewarded with a goal off one such run in the 35th minute and ended with four shots. On her goal she had the foresight to look up and identify that Bledsoe was charging out, and hit the ball toward the near post to compensate. She also ended with 70% passing accuracy on 30 attempts, which is a great number for an attacker doing hold-up play to help her team maintain possession into the attacking third.
Nahomi Kawasumi (6; off 62’) – With the dominance of Rapinoe on the opposite side of the pitch, Naho saw far less of the ball, but she still stayed active and helped shuttle play forward through the middle of the park. She had one nice shot on goal just after half, but otherwise was more limited to interplay with Nielsen and crosses into the box. In the second half she needed to support Nielsen a bit more as the Spirit overloaded that side of the field in attack, and in particular there was an attack in the 49th minute where Caprice Dydasco got free along the end line after Naho chose a bad path to track her and got caught up with other players making runs into the box. Fortunately, Hatch whiffed on Dydasco’s dangerous cross, but later in the season those sorts of opportunities will be deadly.
Jasmyne Spencer (6; on 62’) – On nearly her first touch of the game Spencer dribbled herself into trouble and needlessly lost the ball, but did very well to spin around, recover the ball, and dish a great cross to Rapinoe. Through the final half-hour of the match, she provided some fresh energy and speed to the game and provided some strong challenges and recovery runs to support the beleaguered Reign defense. In the 87th minute she had the vision to identify a questionable pass to Bledsoe into the Spirit box by Dydasco, and nearly intercepted the ball for a simple tap-in. If Rapinoe or Kawasumi are unavailable for a game, Spencer looks like she should have no problems slotting in and providing the same energy in a starting role.
Morgan Andrews (incomplete; on 77’, caution 90’) – Andrews came on for Bev Yanez, but played a more box-to-box role in the final quarter hour as Seattle bunkered down in the face of an ongoing barrage of Spirit attacks. Andrews had some strong clearances to take pressure off Seattle’s back line, and pushed forward a few times to challenge for the ball further up field. It was on one of these forays that she picked up her caution for kicking the ball away after getting whistled for a handball. The card seemed a little harsh given the timing of the whistle and the kick.
Katja Koroleva (6) – Overall the game seemed reasonably well officiated, especially compared to some of the other NWSL games in week 1. I had no problem with the Rapinoe caution, and the Andrews card was borderline but within reason. There also an amusing moment in the 39th minute when Jess Fishlock couldn’t quite run down a through ball near the Spirit end line as it was escorted out by Estelle Johnson, and gave a modest shove to Johnson out of frustration, which caused Johnson to touch the ball out for a Reign corner. Both Koroleva and the assistant referee on that side had a great view of the incident but opted not to call anything.
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