In their final home game of the 2018 regular season, Seattle Reign FC welcomed the North Carolina Courage back to Memorial Stadium looking to avenge their worst loss of the season back in June. With a number of injuries, including the late announcement that Megan Rapinoe would be unavailable due to a rib fracture, Seattle focused heavily on defensive shape, keeping their midfielders deep and relying instead on long passes and through balls to spring attacks instead of building slow possession from the back.
Reign FC head coach Vlatko Andonovski leaned heavily on his starters, many of whom were making their second start in four days; only one Seattle sub was used, and that wasn’t until second-half stoppage time.
Between the tactics and an world-class performance by Lydia Williams in net, the Reign bent but did not break through the 90 minutes of regulation, extending their shutout streak to a league-record 519 minutes before finally conceding in second-half stoppage time to settle for a 1-1 draw. This was a tricky game to rate because Seattle’s tactical plan was so different from usual, but considering the opponent and execution, overall it was a successful performance and the ratings reflect that.
Lydia Williams (goal conceded 90+6’, 12 saves; 10; PotM) – I’ve been a bit more stingy this year in awarding perfect ratings, but if ever there was a performance that deserved one it was Williams’ heroic effort to keep a clean sheet against the most prolific goal-scoring team the league has seen since the 2014 Reign. She made a dozen saves, with a significant number of those presenting a high degree of difficulty on point-blank shots from close range. Even on the Courage goal, the initial shot was denied by a diving fingertip save that Williams pushed wide, but unfortunately she was still recovering when the follow-up scramble and shot caromed off the post and in. If she had managed to keep that one out as well it might have gone down as the best goalkeeping performance in league history; as it stands it will just have to settle for being the best of the season.
Steph Catley (off 90+2’; 7) – With North Carolina employing an even more aggressive high press than even Seattle, the Reign were forced to move the ball upfield much more quickly than usual. This meant a combination of long balls and pushing play out wide as Courage fullbacks retreated. As a result Catley finished with the most touches of anyone on the Reign (75), far more than her teammates along the back line, and worked well to connect passes through a congested midfield.
Lauren Barnes (6) & Megan Oyster (7) – Barnes and Oyster had their hands full this week with the towering menaces of Lynn Williams and Jess McDonald in North Carolina’s attack. To deal with this, Seattle defended in numbers, packed the box, and generally tried to clog channels and prevent open looks on goal as much as possible. With the Courage it’s not about preventing shots, but about reducing their danger. A number of balls still got through, but between scrambled clearances and heroics in goal the Reign held strong for 96 minutes, before fatigue caught up in the closing seconds. Barnes also had a decent look on goal in the opening moments of the game, smartly heading down a corner kick that Katelyn Rowland smothered. The one big downside for both was that their possession and passing numbers were way down due to the high press, with Barnes notably only connecting on half of her pass attempts, instead of the more typical 70-80%.
Theresa Nielsen (goal 67’; 7) – Nielsen had an interesting game. She had two crucial defensive clearances to prevent goals — the first in the 7th minute when Oyster and Lydia Williams collided and the ball trickled past them, but Nielsen cleared the ball into the stands, and the second in the 88th minute when a Courage shot was destined for goal but Nielsen headed the ball off the line and out of danger.
She spent a lot of the game tucked inside when the Courage had the ball on the opposite side of the field, almost as a third centerback, helping to mark North Carolina’s dangerous forwards. However, she also struggled to stay marked on them when play moved more quickly, and was responsible for not tracking players on a few of the Courage’s point-blank scoring opportunities. Her goal was a bit flukey — a headed ball from distance back across the goal to recycle an overhit Reign corner, which was probably meant to find another Seattle player but instead bounced all the way in at the far post.
Kristen McNabb (7) & Morgan Andrews (7) – McNabb earned another start as Seattle’s defensive midfielder, while Andrews was asked to play very deep and almost serve as a second defensive midfielder in a double-pivot with her, rather than further up as has been typical in other games. They were often positioned at the top of the Reign box just ahead of the centerbacks to further clog up the middle and prevent loose balls in the area for the Courage to pounce on. McNabb finished with almost as many defensive actions in the box as Oyster and Barnes, with three clearances and two blocked shots in the area. At some point in the first half she apparently fractured her hand, but came out for the second half with a wrist brace and worked just as hard. Andrews was the best passer for Seattle on the night, completing 72% of her efforts.
Jess Fishlock (assist 67’; 7) – Fishlock had a big task asked of her in this game, covering a ton of ground in midfield due to her partners staying so deep to protect against counterattacks. She was just about perfect in the defensive half of the field, but struggled a bit more to link up with the Reign forwards. Ironically her assist came off one of her rare miscues, a corner kick that she overhit by a significant amount to the far top corner of the 18 yard box, but Nielsen chased it down to send it back into danger. Also, at one point she did this.
Elizabeth Addo (6) – Although she was listed in the lineup as a right winger, Addo spent considerable time all over the pitch, frequently popping up along the left touch line and sometimes centrally as she tried to find pockets of space and create. She also dropped back a lot and helped Fishlock cover the midfield band. As such she finished with the second-most touches on the team (70) and had some exciting defensive plays where she surprised Courage players and poached the ball to spring Reign counterattacks.
Addo’s trademark skill in tight spaces shone through again, but her passes left a bit to be desired as she and her attacking teammates didn’t quite seem to be in sync, perhaps because they were shifting around the pitch a lot more than usual. Very late in the game she made a fantastic move to roast a defender along the end line and put in a cross that struck Abby Dahlkemper’s arm, but no call was forthcoming.
Jodie Taylor (caution 79’; 6) – Taylor didn’t see much of the ball in this game, with only 17 touches, and most of those out wide, but she made the most of her limited opportunities and helped stretch the Courage defense and keep them from pushing too far up field by making runs off their shoulder, even if several were called back for offside (one of which led to her booking after she took a shot anyway). She had only one shot on goal, but it was a quality look in the 66th minute where she jumped on a loose ball near the corner of the box and fired a hard shot toward the near post that forced Rowland into a diving save for a corner, which ultimately led to Seattle’s goal. On the goal itself, Taylor drew Rowland’s attention as she leapt trying to connect with Nielsen’s header, which caused the ball to sneak over both of them and into the net. On the down side, Taylor led the Reign with four fouls committed, although none in a particularly dangerous spot.
Jasmyne Spencer (7) – Although Addo and Taylor roamed a lot, Spencer mostly stuck on the left flank and was the primary source of high pressure for the Reign. Her speed was on display a lot in this match, with a long dribble coast-to-coast following a failed Courage attacking free kick in the 20th minute, and again a minute later when the Courage had a counter and she chased down Lynn Williams all the way in the Seattle corner and forced a weak cross before any other NC players could get into the box. Addo set her up with a fantastic through ball into the box the 30th minute, but unfortunately she couldn’t recover after a poor first touch. Spencer’s willingness to chase down and challenge for balls also frustrated Merritt Mathias late in the game and earned the former Reign player a yellow for her troubles.
Christen Westphal (on 90+2’; incomplete) – Westphal was an extremely late sub and had only two touches.
Ramy Touchan (3) – Let’s start at the end of the match.
That sure looks like an arm in an unnatural position, which is the current guidance for determining whether to whistle for a handball, regardless of whether Dahlkemper was facing the ball or not at the moment it happened (and the only reason she wasn’t facing the ball was that she flinched, expecting to be hit by the cross.) More frustrating is that Touchan called nearly the same play a handball on Crystal Dunn in the 6th minute.
Regardless of the impact of that specific (non)call, the rest of the game was a mess as well. There was a lot of physical play, especially in midfield, which he let go either with questionable advantage calls or more often, no indication that he felt anything was amiss. Fortunately the play didn’t devolve into a hack-fest, but that was more due to the willingness of the players to brush it off and keep focused on the game rather than anything Touchan did to keep the match under control. I do appreciate that he was at least willing to go to his book reasonably early and book for tactical fouls early and often, but that doesn’t compensate for the significance of the decision at the end.
Who was your Reign FC player of the match?
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