Reign FC’s first match of the 2019 NWSL season will take place on the road against the Houston Dash in what should be a warm affair, at least by Pacific Northwest standards for this time of year. The weather is forecast to be sunny and close to 70 degrees.
The season opener kicks off at 3 PM PT on Sunday, April 14 and will stream on Yahoo! Sports.
Like most teams across the league, the Dash didn’t have a major roster overhaul in the offseason. The club did, however, focus on significant coaching and front office changes. After finishing with their best-ever record in 2018 (9-10-5), the Dash removed coach Vera Pauw — bringing on James Clarkson, who has more than a decade of experience in the Dynamo system.
Clarkson spent 2007-2018 with the Houston Dynamo Academy, most recently as director of youth development. He helped launch Brazos Valley Cavalry FC, Houston’s Premier Development League affiliate, and served as head coach of the team from 2017 to 2018. While he doesn’t have NWSL or women’s soccer experience, whispers from inside sources indicate this is a smart move for the Dash. While the team performed well in 2018, the players did not mesh with Pauw’s coaching style.
Houston also brought in Monica Gonzalez as an assistant coach. Gonzalez was one of the founding members of the Mexican Women’s National Team in 1998 — captaining the team from 2003 to 2007. She represented Mexico at the 1999 World Cup and 2004 Olympic Games. Gonzalez played professionally for the Boston Breakers from 2002-2003, where she earned WUSA All-Star honors.
In five seasons, the club has gone through four head coaches and never finished higher than fifth in the league standings. Clarkson is a known and supported resource within the Dynamo organization, and combined with a new commitment of staff and marketing resources from ownership, the club hopes to be set up for some growth in attendance and improved performance on the field.
A Look at the Roster
Aside from front-office changes, what can Reign FC fans expect from the Houston players who step onto the field this Sunday?
The Dash had a strong attack last year, scoring 35 goals in 24 matches — eight more than Reign FC. Houston beat the Reign for the first time in their history last May thanks to Veronica Latsko’s stoppage time game-winner. Latsko is coming off a stellar W-League season with Adelaide United, where she scored nine of the team’s 17 goals.
Also returning are the one-two punch of Rachel Daly and Kealia Ohai. Daly notched 10 goals last season, despite playing some matches at right back. Ohai was still working her way back after an ACL tear in 2017, but managed to score five goals and assist on four others. She is determined to make her mark in 2019. Unafraid to take players on 1-v-1 on the wing, Ohai has a wicked cross and the ability to score from distance. Her, Daly, Latsko and Nichelle Prince provide a speedy attack that can be lethal on the counter.
It was in the defensive end where the team struggled last year, conceding 39 times. Houston has made some moves to shore up the defense. Amber Brooks returns to the club along with international players like Canadians Allysha Chapman and Lindsey Agnew and Australian centerback Claire Polkinghorne to support her along the backline. Taylor Comeau is another solid right back who brought some stability to the defense after being acquired in a mid-season trade with the Chicago Red Stars last year.
Houston also signed Mexican international Ari Romero and Satara Murray, who most recently played for Liverpool, this offseason. How it all comes together under Clarkson remains to be seen, but the team has more defensive options than ever.
One reason for Houston’s struggles on the defensive side has to do with the support they had in the midfield. They lacked a true holding midfielder for most of the season, with players like Brooks and Polkinghorne sometimes jumping into that position out of necessity. Haley Hanson should be prepared to take on a more significant role in the midfield and will be joined by Canadian international Sophie Schmidt, two-time Reign FC player Christine Nairn, and attacking midfielder Sofia Huerta.
Don’t sleep on Kristie Mewis, either; she can also play left back but was establishing herself as one of the stronger holding midfielders in the league last season before she tore her ACL.
Style of Play
Clarkson has indicated a desire to shift the team from one that conceded possession and looked for counter-attacking opportunities to one focused more on dictating play through intentional possession to break teams down.
I’m not sure the team has the players to accomplish this, especially not as the season kicks off. They’ll likely line up in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, and while Nairn and Schmidt bring more possession in the midfield, this is still a team with speed and a backline that seems more comfortable playing direct with long balls.
Against Reign FC, I’d expect them to attempt more long balls — as the Dash won’t have much time on the ball if their opponents manage to play their pressing style effectively.
Players to Watch
- Rachel Daly: It’s the obvious choice, but Daly is aggressive in the attack and puts herself in great goal-scoring positions in the box. Expect to see her make late runs into the box to get herself on the end of crosses. She is another player who can turn and score from deep. Reign players will need to step to her quickly.
- Sophie Schmidt: Fans already know what Nairn and Huerta are capable of. Schmidt has significant international experience and is an important connector in the middle of the field, but she doesn’t have a lot of speed. If the Reign are relentless in their pressure to win the ball back quickly, Schmidt could be one person they target.
- Both CBs: Brooks and Polkinghorne, the assumed starting centerbacks, are solid defenders but are vulnerable in the space between the midfield and backline. Whoever starts as the attacking midfielder for Reign FC will be an important pressing partner to Jodie Taylor up top — helping win balls quickly and find that exposed space around the centerbacks.
OUT: Meleana Shim (Left ankle) Kyah Simon (Right Ankle)
QUESTIONABLE: Kristie Mewis (Left Knee)
OUT: Megan Rapinoe (calf strain), Steph Catley (calf strain), Beverly Yanez (concussion)
How to Watch
Date/Time: Sunday, April 14, 3:00 PM PT
Location: BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston, TX
Online: Yahoo! Sports (U.S. viewers), NWSLsoccer.com (international viewers) — How to stream NWSL matches in 2019