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Reignbow Reflections: The Great Road Trip of 2018

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Seattle Reign FC show some character during a tough four-game road trip.

Reign vs Spirit MikeRussellFoto

While the season kicked off at a glacial speed for Seattle Reign FC — with just four matches over 42 days — the team has gotten off to a decent start, especially considering the fact the three of those four games have come on the road. As the club heads into another road battle against Portland Thorns FC on Saturday, they hold a respectable 2-1-1 record — good for fourth in the league with games in hand.

The matches have not always been easy, and in many ways Reign FC still looks to be coming into form, but the squad has demonstrated strong depth and defensive organization that felt like it was lacking for a large portion of last season.

Seattle’s most recent match, a 1-1 draw in Orlando, felt as close to three points as an actual victory. For large parts of the match, Reign FC was in charge of the tempo and was the team creating better chances. All the while, the backline kept Alex Morgan and Marta at bay (aside from that gorgeous Marta free kick that equalized, that is).

Here are three things that stood out to me in Seattle’s most recent road matches.

Rotating backline? No problem

Last Saturday, Reign FC Head Coach Vlatko Andonovski rolled out a backline of Steph Catley, Kristen McNabb, Megan Oyster, and Christen Westphal. Two of those players — Catley and McNabb — were getting their first starts of the season. It was also the fourth different defensive combination in four matches.

While defense had been a struggle for Reign FC in recent seasons, this year’s squad might have the most defensive depth in the league. Certainly, consistency is crucial over the long term, and I suspect that Andonovski will use a more regular backline as the season progresses, but the fact that he is able to make adjustments based on injuries, illnesses, fitness and the opponent at hand is a huge positive.

Against the North Carolina Courage, who put in the most crosses and have the highest cross accuracy rate in the league, Andonovski elected to start Yael Averbuch — her first minutes of the season. In the first half, you could clearly understand his reasoning. The Courage struggled to win headers in the box and weren’t as dominant on the flanks as usual. It wasn’t until the combination of heat and limited rest kicked in that North Carolina began to bombard Seattle with pressure.

I am not sure why Lauren Barnes didn’t get the start against the Orlando Pride. My guess is that Andonovski was concerned about the speed of players like Morgan, Marta, and Sydney Leroux — and brought in the combination of McNabb and Oyster to deal with them. Both performed admirably on defense, organizing their line and putting in some timely, potentially goal-saving tackles.

Regardless of the reasons for rotation, it is reassuring to see that not only can Seattle make tactical adjustments in response to their opponent, they can remain organized while doing so. The club has given up just 3 goals in four matches and, despite the rotation, looks organized and composed for the most part (we can put that second half against the Courage behind us, yes?)

The Long — Utsugi partnership

Last weekend, Rumi Utsugi returned from the Asian Cup — along with Naho Kawasumi, Catley, and Lydia Williams — and slotted into her more familiar role in the midfield. Fans haven’t had the opportunity to see Utsugi there this season; her lone start before heading off to World Cup qualifiers came at left back, where she did better than most NWSL defenders in quelling the dangerous Mallory Pugh.

Against Orlando, Utsugi and Allie Long were, in my opinion, the best Reign FC players on the field. They worked off each other like a pendulum and looked as though they had been playing with one another for much longer than one match. For the most part, Long was the more withdrawn midfielder. But if she was up in the attack, Utsugi would slot in behind her to provide cover in the midfield.

I’ll let Steve cover their match performances in more detail with his Valkyratings, but I want to call out two stats that highlight this duo’s influence: Utsugi came away with a team-high nine tackles — breaking up any attack that came through the midfield. The pair also led the team in touches, demonstrating not just their influence on defense, but their involvement in Seattle’s build-up.

The one other noticeable tactic coming from the midfield was their defensive approach. It appeared Seattle was willing to cede possession on the wings, while putting more bodies into the middle of the field, where Marta often likes to find pockets of space. Not only would Long and Utsugi crowd the middle, but wide players on the opposite side of the action would tuck in to provide cover. It proved rather effective in limiting Orlando’s chances and continued to show how this team is able to adjust under Andonovski.

Should we worry about the goals?

While a draw against Orlando was certainly promising, Seattle could have returned to the Pacific Northwest with three points. But the team just doesn’t look the same in the attack without Megan Rapinoe, who has been out two matches with a hamstring strain.

Would Rapinoe have made the difference? It’s hard to say for certain. But if Seattle wants to compete for a playoff spot — during a year where the league has more talent and depth than ever across teams — they are going to have to create chances without her. A stingy Portland Thorns defense will be a good opportunity to prove themselves this weekend. Rapinoe could be available for the match, but she and Jess Fishlock remain questionable at the moment.

Still, despite Pinoe’s noticeable absence, there were a lot of promising pieces in the Reign attack. Kawasumi created five chances, Jodie Taylor had two strong shots on goal, and Utsugi snuck into the box to get off a shot that unfortunately went straight to goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris.

If you had asked me at the start of the season if I would be happy with seven points in four games — with three of those matches coming on the road — I would have said yes. It might not feel like Seattle Reign FC is playing with dominance at this point, but they are in a good position to compete for a playoff spot later this year. Andonovski’s FC Kansas City teams often peaked late in the season, which bodes well for Seattle’s progression throughout the year.

With that all said, I’d be elated if Reign FC returned home from Portland this weekend with a victory. If the pieces all click, the team has certainly shown they are capable.