Megan Rapinoe made her long-awaited debut for the Seattle Reign in their 11th match of the season, meeting up with the struggling team on a long trip to the East Coast to face the hottest team in the league. Western New York hadn't lost in their last 8 matches and were buzzing after their talisman Abby Wambach had just passed Mia Hamm to become the all time leading international scorer, both for the US and for the world.
A season-high 6,347 were in the stands to welcome Wambach home, see Rapinoe and Hope Solo in action, and presumably pick some points off of a team that hadn't done anything but lose since their first match in the middle of April. Fortunately for the Reign, and despite yet another questionable refereeing decision, it didn't work out that way.
In addition to Rapinoe, the match was also the debut of Tobagonian striker Kennya Cordner, who had just signed with the team but was tasked with starting the match as lone forward. In addition to Rapinoe and Cordner, the new-look attacking band of three included Teresa Noyola. The midfield three was composed of Christine Nairn and holders Keelin Winters and Jessica Fishlock, just back from national team duty with Wales. Early on, the new personnel and positions seemed to be bearing fruit as Seattle was clearly the better team through the first half. Fishlock bossed the midfield as we've come to expect and Rapinoe's passing vision was opening up the attacking third in ways we've rarely seen this season. Keeper Adrianna French kept the Flash in the match early with a number of tough saves, the highlight being a diving stop when Noyola took a layoff from Fishlock and shot it for the bottom corner where Franch got her fingertips on it. Off the ensuing corner, Cordner got a sliding shot off that Franch saved again, though it was called back for offside. Less than 10 minutes later a Fishlock ball to Cordner cut through the defense, eventually fell to Noyola and she laid it off to Winters for a shot that deflected past Franch for Seattle's fifth goal of the season and a well-earned lead. The Flash had a few chances of their own, but none nearly as dangerous and despite being a winless team on a long road in triple-digit temperatures, Seattle was the better team.
Seattle's advantage continued into the second half. In the 47th minute Cordner used her considerable speed to get around the edge of the Flash defense and cut into goal to take a shot that went off the far post and then nearly off a defender and in for an own goal before Franch could get back and make another great save.
That advantage was largely ended by another controversial refereeing decision. It's easy to complain about calls that go against your team, but Seattle have had a number of calls that impartial observers — and in some cases even partisans for the opponent — agree were bad. In the 56th minute, Kiersten Dallstream — who's quietly been one of the most important players for Seattle this season — was called for a foul on Wambach in the box and given her second yellow. The foul was marginal, and even the Flash broadcast team was surprised about it being a yellow card, which would send Dallstream off and force the Reign to play down a player for the last 34 minutes plus of the match. On the other hand, it was Dallstream's poor touch in the box that handed the ball off to the Flash, so she wasn't blameless. Wambach hit the penalty in off the bottom of the crossbar to tie the match and then the Flash would predictably control the run of play for the rest of the match.
Seattle still had chances, including another wide open Winters shot that went straight to Franch, but with the disadvantage and Cordner subbed out to bring in Jenny Ruiz to replace Dallstream in defense they were few and far between. They had to survive a flurry of Flash attacks, including one sequence in which Solo had to punch the ball away four times in the span of a couple of minutes. Still, unlike in previous matches this season, Seattle held on late.
There were plenty of positives to take away beyond the point. Cordner looked very dangerous as Reign forwards rarely have this season. They need a player who defenders have to work to track and who can create a chance for themselves a few times a game. And even though Rapinoe wasn't directly involved in any of Seattle's best chances, she was excellent in possession, a reliable passer, and provided good service on set pieces. Noyola was much more involved in the attack and looked more like the Hermann Trophy winning attacker she was for Stanford.
And there are optimistic signs in the long view as well. We've now reached the halfway point of the season, and while 2 points and 5 goals is well below even the most pessimistic expectations coming into the first year, we can be confident the team will improve in the second half. The roster that started today is one that can consistently get wins and draws, even away from home. They were inches from getting 2 or 3 goals in a tough environment and wouldn't have felt particularly lucky doing it. And in retrospect the schedule has been incredibly front-loaded for difficulty. The top teams in the league the standings are Portland and Sky Blue; and FCKC are one of the most talented teams, even if they're only midtable in the standings currently. Eight of Seattle's first eleven matches were against those three teams. Including the Flash game today, Nine of their first eleven have been against teams in the top half of the table. The second half schedule is loaded up with games against the Spirit, the Red Stars, and the Breakers, and those are games where a healthy Seattle team should be consistently getting points.
The playoffs are still unlikely (to be generous), but it's entirely possible for the team to finish the season on a high note and out of the basement.