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Reign Season in Review, Part I: The Bad Part

The first installment of a post-mortem on the inaugural Reign season.

Now that we’re well into the NWSL offseason, I’m going to review their eventful first season in the league. In the first part I’ll cover the first preseason and the first half of the season. . so the bad parts. I’ll cover the second half of the season in another installment, and then move on to giving out some (highly coveted!) season awards and look forward to the rest of the offseason and the preparation for season 2.

Since 2009, when the Seattle Sounders emerged in MLS as a fully formed powerhouse at the gate and in the national soccer culture — like Athena being born by leaping from Zeus’ forehead armed and armored — and after the Timbers followed shortly thereafter with their own passionate fanbase and financial success, the center of gravity of soccer culture in the US has drifted slowly and inexorably northwest.

There’ve been a lot of individual signs of that movement, from the league’s attempts to market the Cascadia Cup, to the increased number of nationally broadcast MLS games from the area, to the meaningful national team match that the area was finally allowed to host this summer (the success of which instantly and permanently changed the conversation about where national team matches should be played in the future). But for fans of women’s soccer, it was just as much a seismic change in the geography of US soccer when the latest attempt at a pro women’s league in this country announced that it would play its first season with no teams in California. . CALIFORNIA, the largest soccer state in the country . . but with a team in Seattle and a team in Portland.

For fans of the Seattle team, that was the only piece of good news we’d get for some time. Okay, not the ONLY piece. There were positive developments. Poaching manager Laura Harvey from Arsenal, where she’d dominated the Women’s Premier League for years, was a bit of a coup for a league that was promising lean budgets to stay financially solvent. And after a brief flirtation with the ‘Sirens’ name, the FO settled on the much better Reign and introduced a logo that’s the best in the league. And they reached an agreement to play at Starfire. I have my qualms about a pro ‘Seattle’ team so eagerly playing in Tukwila, but it still gave the team a professional quality, well-managed venue in a league where many of the teams are playing on college football fields.

The common factor among those positive developments was that they were all under the control of the front office. It’s when we got to factors outside the team’s control that things started to go bad. The first and most important decision after which cities got teams at all, was where the US allocated players would play. In a league that wasn’t aspiring to go get (and pay) the Martas and Louisa Necibs of the world, the US allocated players would be the most talented collection of players in the league. And where they went largely defined the success of the teams in the first season.

After hosting a good chunk of the US national team on the amateur Seattle Sounders Women the previous season after the collapse of WPS, there were (maybe reasonable, maybe not) expectations that some of those players would be returning with the new league. In particular Alex Morgan, easily the prize of the allocation, played for that Sounders team and had a personal relationship (named Servando Carrasco) with the city. Sydney Leroux played with the Sounders and was from nearby BC. From the Mexican allocation, Veronica Perez played with the Sounders and played and coached at the UW.

But when the dust settled, none of those players were on the Reign. We had Hope Solo, who was almost an automatic after being the face of women’s soccer in the area for years. But she would miss the first third of the season with a wrist injury. We had Megan Rapinoe, arguably one of the best in the world, but a player who wouldn’t even be playing in the league until midseason. And we had Amy Rodriguez, a good rotational forward for the national team, who shortly after the allocation announced she’d be missing the entire season to have a child.

It did not help that our neighbors to the south (and our designated ‘rivals’, to whatever extent there can be a rivalry between two teams that have never played a match, much less each other) were given an absurd allocation that included two of the best five forwards in the world (one of whom was Morgan) and dynamic playmaker Tobin Heath.

It’s a testament to how important the allocation was that the consensus rankings of the allocation results (once adjusted for injuries and availability) came close to predicting the entire season. The Thorns, who overwhelmingly had the best allocation with the best player from the US and the best player from Canada, would go on to win the championship. The Flash and Kansas City also had well-regarded allocations. They finished in the playoffs. The only team that really defied expectations was Sky Blue, who also made the playoffs despite a mediocre allocation. Seattle, who effectively had no allocation for much of the season, and the Spirit, who had a generally poor allocation, finished as the bottom two teams in the league. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In addition to Solo, Rapinoe, and Rodriguez, the team got Kaylyn Kyle — a holding midfielder — and Emily Zurrer — a central defender who wasn’t getting a lot of national team playing time — from Canada. And they got Jenny Ruiz — a reserve defender — and Teresa Noyola — a Hermann trophy winning midfielder — from Mexico. Noyola was a bit of good news, as she was one of the few players likely to be an every-day player in the league from the Mexican allocation. In free agency, the team added Wales captain Jessica Fishlock, who Harvey was familiar with from her time in England. Along with Kyle and Noyola (and eventually Rapinoe) that created a solid midfield core and the team spent most of their remaining energy in the draft and free agency solidifying the defense and attack.

And it made their strangest decision of the preseason all the stranger. They traded their first round 2014 draft pick.. likely a top 4 or 5 pick in a very strong draft year in a league where a majority of the talent will be coming from the college draft.. to Chicago for Keelin Winters, a rotational national team defensive midfielder. Winters had played with the Sounders Women along with the other national teamers in 2012 and was a solid player, but midfield was not where Seattle needed help. And the final remaining bump in the preseason came when GM Amy Carnell left the team suddenly just before the season started with no explanation.

The season opened with a promising draw at Chicago. In the first half, Christine Nairn ran onto a lofted Liz Bogus cross from the wing and headed in for the first ever Reign goal and their first lead. They couldn’t hold the lead and Lori Chalupny eventually equalized, but it was a solid draw on the road. We still knew the team was thin in defense and thin in attack and playing its backup goalkeeper, but we could still get points. Or so we thought.

The team didn’t get another point for over two months, losing their next 9 consecutive matches. Detailing the manner of their losses would be tedious and depressing, so I won’t. There was a lot of bad luck (in the form of bad bounces and goalframes), there were a lot (a lot) of bad refereeing decisions, mostly involving phantom penalties.. a couple of of which were even questioned by the official refereeing organization. But mostly there was just being outplayed. The team had very little offensive threat and was shut out in 7 of those 9 matches. Neither Tiffany Cameron nor Lindsay Taylor proved themselves capable of playing the lone forward in Harvey’s 4-3-3 and without a scoring threat the team faced opposing midfielders and fullbacks who could move forward with impunity. And the thin, young defense (also struggling with injuries to Elli Reed and Kate Deines) was incapable of shutting down opposing attackers. The team didn’t earn a shutout during that stretch and in fact wasn’t able to earn a shutout the entire season — the only team in the league to achieve that particular honor. It didn’t help that the schedule was so imbalanced, with a majority of their first half games scheduled against teams that would finish in the playoffs.

The defense was so thin that it was mostly populated by midfielders. Zurrer, the only natural center back on the team, was benched early in the season and never returned to regular play. The center back pairing became UCLA fullback Lauren Barnes and the midfielder Kyle, who did an admirable job under significant pressure, but struggled all season to learn the position on the job. The forward was also a midfielder for much of the season, as Nairn, Bogus, and Fishlock would take occasional turns leading the line when it became apparent Cameron and Taylor weren’t working. So effectively we had a team of 8 or 9 very good midfielders trying to populate the entire field. And it worked out about as well as you’d expect. Morale suffered, attendance suffered, and there was really no light at the end of the tunnel for this season, given that even the introduction of Rapinoe would just add a player (admittedly a tremendously good player) at a position where they were already deep.

But on June 23, Rapinoe’s first game on a team that was mired deep in last place, the Reign did something they hadn’t done in months. They managed to not lose. And that kicked off a rather more promising second half of the season, which I’ll cover in part 2.

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