It’s harsh to say that ninety minutes undid all of the good work that Seattle did in the twenty-five matches that came before their final loss to FC Kansas City. But, inevitably, there had to have been a little hollowness after being he league’s dominant team for so many months and falling short at the final hurdle. Only time will tell if that loss was the beginning of a fall for the Reign, but the club’s offseason activity has revealed a faith in the course that Laura Harvey has set the club upon. While many questioned Harvey after the club’s woeful 2013 season, her decisive and total remodel of the Reign after that campaign paid immediate dividends, as Seattle turned into a dominant force. With the Reign seemingly tapering off at the end of last year though, some had to wonder if Seattle peaked too soon and ran out of steam at the end of the year when it counted most.
Where chaos has reigned over much of the league in the offseason with tons of turnover being the norm elsewhere, Seattle returns mostly intact from last season’s regular season winners. In fact, the starting defense and midfield look to be the same units that were so dominant last year. The frontline is where all the questions are. Naho’s loan ended, while Sydney Leroux was traded in a shocker at the end of the preseason. The cupboard isn’t bare, with Beverly Yanez and Megan Rapinoe joining midseason arrival Katrine Veje up top, but the frontline may be the one area in which Seattle looks a little vulnerable this year.
At least that’s what opponents of Seattle have to be saying to themselves. Because if that frontline doesn’t miss a beat, it could be a long year for everyone else in the NWSL. The Reign clobbered their brethren for almost all of 2014, and they’ll be favorites to do much of the same this year.
Laura Harvey enters her third season with the Reign hoping to finally win the big one. There had to be some degree of skepticism attached to Harvey after a brutally disappointing 2013 season which had been blighted by unexpected setbacks and poor player recruitment before that first season. Some also had to wonder if Harvey could motivate her charges after the club all but mailed it in in 2013 after being mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. A long-term contract extension after the season was a big vote of confidence, but Harvey entered 2014 with much to prove.
In large part, it was mission accomplished. For the most part, Harvey’s new signings to breathe some life into the club were a hit. On the pitch, the Reign were utterly dominant, crushing everyone in their path in the regular season to clinch one of the most dominant league campaigns in recent memory in American WoSo. But Harvey failed to erase the last lingering doubts with a win over FCKC in the final, a loss she and the club will be hoping doesn’t them down the road. Harvey’s mostly kept the faith with last year’s core, but the late preseason trade of Sydney Leroux will be another move that is scrutinized if the Reign don’t lift the big trophy at the end of this season.
Tactically, not much looks to have changed from last season, and not much is likely to change during the WWC. The back four with Stephanie Cox and Elli Reed out wide and Lauren Barnes and Kendall Fletcher in the middle is likely to continue undisturbed. Rachel Corsie’s role will be interesting to watch, as she likely didn’t move over to ride the bench all season. In midfield, Kim Little and Jessica Fishlock will again provide the forward thrust, with Keelin Winters anchoring the unit behind them. Where Amber Brooks settles is another big question, since the above three don’t look like budging from the lineup.
The only area of intrigue is up front, where the Reign have to rework their attack after the departure of Naho and the trade of Sydney Leroux. Megan Rapinoe is obviously a lock when she’s here, while Beverly Yanez is a pretty good bet to be on that frontline as well. The third spot will probably be filled by Dane Katrine Veje upon her arrival. During the WWC, who replaces Rapinoe is up in the air, though new acquisition Merritt Mathias looks a sight better than Kiersten Dallstream or Danielle Foxhoven in the role. There is the possibility that the club may bring in someone like Brooks or Corsie and operate with just two forwards up front or even use Kim Little as a shadow striker and an operator between the lines.
The Ballad of Hope Solo has been a tortured one over the past few seasons. Injured for a chunk of 2013 and bereft with off the field problems last season after her June arrest and subsequent incident earlier this season that led to a USWNT suspension, Solo has to be hoping for a less turbulent year in 2015.
Much of that year, of course, is going to be spent away from the Reign with the USWNT as they push for a WWC title. Despite the above troubles, Solo is still the undisputed #1 for the U.S. and still arguably the world’s best goalkeeper. Even at the age of thirty-three, Solo’s staggering athleticism in the goal and command of her area hasn’t faded with age. With this realistically being her last chance at a WWC winner’s medal though, Solo’s attention will undoubtedly be on her international commitments until the later part of the season. Then, she’ll be looking to add a NWSL winner’s medal to her collection. Behind a talented and veteran backline, Solo could again be a real force in goal. The boost the Reign are likely to get with the difference making Solo coming in to bolster the team full-time later in the season cannot be underestimated when evaluating the club’s title hopes.
All of the above means that the role of backup goalkeeper is going to be more important than ever in 2015. Once more, Haley Kopmeyer will be filling that role for the Reign. Kopmeyer has showed promise in her two seasons with the club thus far, and Seattle was 3-0-1 in her four starts in 2014. Continued strong performances in goal will likely have some wondering whether the third-year pro has a future as a #1 in this league, be it in Seattle or elsewhere. The pressure will be higher than ever this season though, as Kopmeyer will likely end up playing most of the matches in net in lieu of Solo. If Kopmeyer shows well, it would add merit to the thought that the former Michigan keeper could eventual be Solo’s long-term replacement.
The backup when Solo is gone with the USWNT is likely to be USC rookie Caroline Stanley. Stanley was a highly touted prospect when she signed with Missouri some half a decade ago but never really lived up to her potential, even after transferring out to the Trojans. Harvey will be hoping she’s a diamond in the rough if called upon.
Much rests on how well Kopmeyer deals with the scrutiny of being in between the pipes of a title contender. Playing behind the league’s strongest backline certainly won’t hurt though and should give her some margin of error. When Solo’s in goal, putting goals up against this Reign side could be quite the chore indeed for opponents.
From a band of underachievers to the league’s stingiest defense, Seattle conceded less than a goal a game in the regular season and were six goals better than their next challenger on the goals allowed table. Amazingly, the Reign did it without a complete overhaul on defense. A full season of Stephanie Cox and the addition of Kendall Fletcher turned Seattle into a defensive juggernaut. The good news? All four starters return, with Rachel Corsie coming in to add strength in depth. There’s no reason to think the Reign won’t be tough to score on again in 2015.
The strong play from former USWNT player Stephanie Cox was perhaps one of the more unexpected success stories of the season. Cox had made a handful of appearances for the Reign in 2013 after returning from maternity leave, but it remained to be seen if the former Portland Pilot still had enough in the tank to star over the course of a grueling league season. Those questions were answered definitively, as Cox turned in an outstanding season that saw her named to the NWSL Best XI second team. Seemingly out of favor at international level, the USWNT’s loss is Seattle’s gain, with Cox likely to be with the team all season and also likely to be on the shortlist for NWSL Defender of the Year if she can replicate last year’s brilliant form on the left flank.
Once stuck on the scrap heap after an unsuccessful WPS stint in Philadelphia, Lauren Barnes has turned into one of the NWSL’s best defenders with the Reign. It wasn’t particularly apparent during Seattle’s woeful 2013 season, but the introduction of Kendall Fletcher and Stephanie Cox to the mix last season worked wonders, with Barnes and Fletcher turning into a great partnership in central defense. Barnes is also more than capable of turning out at left-back as well, and she often did so when Cox was absent from the lineup. With that looking mostly unlikely this season, Barnes should be in central defense full-time, where she can most impact the match.
While most of the headlines last season went to the acquisition of Kim Little, bringing veteran Kendall Fletcher in perhaps was just an important move for Seattle’s season. Fletcher stepped in and immediate plugged a big gap in the Seattle defense that had struggled to a large degree in 2013 and was a big factor in the Reign’s colossal turnaround last year. At thirty, it’s probably too late for a run in the USWNT for the veteran Fletcher, but it’s hard to envision her level of play dropping for a few years yet. With the added depth at center-back this season, Fletcher may even be able to get a little bit more of a rest throughout the season, as she was a workhorse for the Reign backline in 2014.
Reign right-back Elli Reed has come a long way since being an early preseason cut by the WNY Flash back in the days of WPS. Reed may have bounced around a little bit but has since settled fantastically with Seattle as their defensive solution on the right flank. Reed still isn’t a source of assists and is a bit foul happy at times, but she’s still improving by leaps and bounds and is on he path to becoming one of the league’s top full-backs. Taking a step towards the USWNT would appear to be the next order of business, though breaking into that hierarchy will be far from easy. On the league’s best backline though, Reed will have the perfect stage to state her case for the league favorites.
While getting the entire starting backline from last season back intact will be a big boost to Seattle’s hopes, improving the depth of the unit was probably a big priority coming into 2015. Harvey made an aggressive move in that respect by signing Scottish center-back Rachel Corsie, capped over seventy times for her country. Corsie was outstanding for Notts County in the English WSL last season and can also step in as a defensive midfielder if needed. Given Corsie’s quality, it hardly be a surprise if she forces her way into a starting role. The question may be who she replaces on the starting backline.
The club added full-back depth by signing yet another Portland Pilot, Michelle Cruz. Cruz didn’t make an NWSL roster coming out of college but was persistent and cut her teeth a bit in Cyprus with Apollon Limassol, gaining playing time at center-back with the Cypriot side. Cruz probably isn’t big enough for that at this level, but she’s an intriguing talent on the flanks. Harvey will hope she’s unearthed another late bloomer, as the other depth at full-back is marginal.
The depth’s not overwhelming, even with the addition of Corsie. Then again, if everyone stays healthy, it doesn’t need to be. With the starting four not going to the WWC, they should be here all season, which isn’t great for opposing offenses. It also means that the Reign are favorites to conceded the fewest goals in the league for the second straight season.
Seattle’s midfield triangle was simple and effective last year. Kim Little provided the firepower, Jessica Fishlock the energy, and Keelin Winters the steel. It worked wonderfully, and the three return intact going into 2015. The depth is mostly defensive based, with Mariah Nogueira and Amber Brooks here. Top draft pick Havana Solaun will be expected to provide an offensive punch, but there’s no question who the stars of the show are here.
Discussion of the Seattle midfield begins and ends with reigning league MVP Kim Little. While there were high hopes for the Scot coming into the 2014 season, few could have anticipated the type of season she would actually deliver in firing the Reign to the regular season title. Sixteen goals and seven assists was an incredible haul for a player lining up technically as an attacking midfielder and not an out and out forward. It’s also incredible for a player in her first year of pro ball in the U.S. considering how other highly touted attackers have struggled to gain a foothold early. Of course, most will now be wondering what Little can do for an encore for the Reign. She’s likely to be the betting favorite to repeat as MVP considering Seattle’s strength in depth and the absence of most of the league’s stars on international duty. With the club’s questions on the frontline when the WNT players are gone, Little will again be asked to score a whole lot for the Reign in 2015.
The success of 2014 was just desserts for Jessica Fishlock, who was one of the very few shining lights in Seattle’s miserable 2013 season. With Kim Little joining up to add some much needed forward impetus to the midfield, Fishlock flourished as a central midfield partner. Four goals and seven assists was a great return for the Welsh international who should be entering into the prime of her career. Fishlock spent the following months on loan in Germany with Frankfurt, and while her club career is flourishing, she’s also bizarrely fallen out of favor at international level with Wales. Now with even more motivation, Fishlock could be en route to a career best season with the Reign. On the rare occasions that Little is away on international duty, Fishlock could take a more offensive role at the head of the midfield.
Acting as the fulcrum to the midfield once again will be Keelin Winters. A season after being unceremoniously dropped from the USWNT’s allocation list, Winters rebounded nicely to become an integral part of the league’s most complete midfield trio. Her odds of breaking back into the USWNT don’t look especially rosy right now considering the current management’s obsession with playing without a defensive midfielder, but she’s grown into the role well at club level. She’s not the most mobile of central midfielders and can get a bit foul happy, but Winters is a great compliment for Little and Fishlock and should again do well for the Reign this season.
The Reign did not make many offseason additions, but they did trade for FC Kansas City attacker Merritt Mathias to add to their ranks. An invaluable utility player for FCKC over the past two seasons, Mathias has played both as a left-winger and as a left-back in addition to a more central midfield role for the defending league champs, and undoubtedly, that versatility might be one of reasons the Reign brought her into the fold. With much of the depth in central midfield seemingly well accounted for with the club’s returnees, Mathias might be best used as a winger to provide invaluable cover when many of the club’s frontline players are away on international duty. Otherwise, she’s a talented jack of all trades that should only increase the strength in depth in Seattle.
Midfield hammer Mariah Nogueira returns to the Reign after a successful first season with the club following a trade from Boston. The former Stanford player couldn’t break through into Seattle’s first team for much of the year but is building a reputation for herself as one of the best defensive midfield subs in the league, a specialist used to close out matches. Considering the club went 7-1-2 in matches where Nogueira came in as a sub after the sixty-fifth minute, it’s hard to argue with her efficacy in the closer role. It’ll be interesting to see if Nogueira can ever grow into something more here, as the Reign went just 1-2-3 in matches Nogueira started last season.
Amber Brooks arrives from WNY via Portland with much to prove after an uneven season with the Thorns in 2014. Brooks arrived to the Thorns with a reasonable amount of fanfare after scoring goals for fun for FC Bayern in 2013 but was unable to recreate much of that form for Portland in her first season in the NWSL. A key cog in the Thorns’ much maligned midfield, Brooks nonetheless found herself on the outs at the end of the season, traded to the Flash with Kathryn Williamson and McCall Zerboni sent the other way. Before playing a competitive match for WNY though, Brooks was sent back west to Seattle in a shocking trade. Brooks has also fallen out of favor at international level, and you wonder if she’ll be given enough chances with the Reign to show she deserves a chance back with the USWNT for the next WWC cycle. Flush with defensive midfield depth, you wonder where minutes for Brooks are going to come from.
You don’t figure that Seattle’s going to need too many minutes from its reserve midfielders this season, but the club at least added some depth in the form of their top draft pick, Havana Solaun. Solaun inherited the #10 position from Erika Tymrak in Florida’s 4-2-3-1, leaving her some rather massive boots to fill. She just about did it though, even managing to come back from an ACL injury late in her junior season to push the Gators to the brink of the College Cup. It’s presumptuous to say that Solaun will be in Tymrak’s class as a pro, but she certainly should add some spice to the Reign attack when she’s on the pitch. Just how much that’ll be as a rookie is a question though considering the starting trio looks pretty much set in stone.
This again will be one of the league’s premier units. You’d hope there was perhaps one more proven attacking midfielder, but there’s plenty of defensive mettle and depth. If Solaun can play beyond her years, this group has no holes in it and could lead the Reign to glory in September.
The Reign effectively tore up the script at the end of the preseason, when, prompted by a trade request, they dealt Sydney Leroux to Western New York. On the one hand, the club traded away a USWNT forward and got a player who may never play for them (and Amber Brooks and a draft pick) in return. On the other hand, Leroux underachieved with Seattle last season and never really seemed to fit in with the Reign’s system. But with Naho’s loan coming to an end, the Reign are suddenly short on big name talent up top, likely causing them to lean heavily on Megan Rapinoe this season when she’s not with the USWNT.
At times, Megan Rapinoe has struggled to replicate her international form at club level, but the dynamic winger was a breath of fresh air in 2014 after 2013’s woes. As has too often been the case, Rapinoe would miss almost three months of the season last year through injury before returning in some style for the Reign. Five goals and two assists was the tally in just ten matches, showing why Seattle really needs the winger as healthy as possible when she’s not with the USWNT. But Rapinoe also suffered another knee injury right after the new year, and only really got back to full speed at the recent New Zealand friendly, where she picked up an assist. This is probably Rapinoe’s last chance at a WWC, so she’ll want to enter the competition in form and in good health. But Seattle will also be hoping the former Portland Pilot is still ready to star upon her return, as she’s going to be key for any run towards a title.
The stunning trade of Sydney Leroux at the end of the preseason inevitably means a larger role in the offense for Beverly Yanez. Initially on loan from Japanese side INAC Kobe Leonessa last year, Yanez signed permanently for the Reign after a solid 2014 season for the club. Though she wasn’t the featured performer on the frontline, Yanez still netted five goals and three assists for the Reign. The question is how well Yanez deals with the pressure of leading the line this year. Naho has not returned, while Leroux, as mentioned above, is now in Rochester. With Rapinoe likely to be gone for a giant chunk of the season as well, it’s probably going to be up to Yanez to provide the goods on the frontline. She clearly showed scoring ability last season, but Yanez also wasn’t a particularly efficient forward considering the number of shots she took to get those goals. A less wasteful Yanez in front of goal could mean big things for the Reign in 2015.
Many eyes will be on Dane Katrine Veje, the club’s big offseason signing in the attack. Despite being just twenty-three years old, Veje has a glittering trophy case thanks to a three year stint with Rosengard in Sweden. Already a fixture at international level, Veje has proven to be a versatile option on the frontline, playing on the left flank for club and on the right for country while also showing an ability to play center-forward if need be. At 5’9″, Veje may be needed as a center-forward up top if the club goes with two up front, though the Dane may be cycled around depending on other available personnel. Veje netted just eight goals in forty-seven domestic appearances for Rosengard though, so she’s far from a sure thing. Veje won’t join until July 1 at any rate either, as she has to finish out her contract with Brondby in her homeland.
Danielle Foxhoven will be entering her second season with the Reign after being acquired from Portland before last season. A player who grew a reputation of being a super sub as a rookie with the Thorns, Foxhoven struggled to make an impact last year. Foxhoven played in just half of Seattle’s matches and took just two shots in those twelve matches, not scoring a single goal. If Seattle had added some more competition for places for a roster spot, you’d probably wonder if Foxhoven’s job was in jeopardy, but considering the club really just added Katrine Veje up top, Foxhoven figures to have at least one more season to figure it out with the Reign.
Providing depth is Kiersten Dallstream, now approaching veteran status in the ever shifting tides of American pro WoSo. Dallstream saw time for the Reign both as a left-back and as a left-winger, though she might be preferred in the latter role for much of this season considering how thin the club will be on numbers for stretches in which players will be away on international duty. She’s very much the definition of a replacement level player in attack though and hasn’t really shown a predilection for big contributions to the offense thus far in her pro career. More than likely, Dallstream will continue to be a jack-of-all-trades type reserve off the bench on both defense and offense.
The loss of Naho probably resonates more than Leroux’s departure given their respective production last season. While securing the permanent signing of Yanez was a big step for continuity’s sake, a lot is going to be asked from her when Rapinoe is gone with the USWNT. Veje is an intriguing prospect with a lot of scoring potential, but the depth here isn’t that great with Foxhoven and Dallstream little more than replacement level players at this point. Even though this unit is still better than many in the league, it’s still the clear weak link on a stacked team.
The Reign will be the betting favorite to win it all as the season opens. It’s not hard to see why. Seattle returns the world’s best goalkeeper, a backline that dominated opponents for most of last season, and a midfield that includes the reigning MVP, Kim Little. There are definitely questions on the frontline after the trade of Leroux, but even those might not matter much if the other three lines on the pitch fulfill their potential. Additionally, Seattle isn’t hit as hard as some of their rivals by the WWC, meaning the club shouldn’t suffer any midseason blips in form.
But the pressure of expectation will be heavy on Harvey and the Reign in 2015. There simply aren’t any excuses for anything but a title after coming so close last season. They will be wary of the example set by the WNY Flash, who also won the regular season title and fell short in the final in 2013, only to fall from grace as their talented core withered in front of their very eyes. Never say never, but Seattle looks capable of avoiding that fate and delivering a title to the fans who were left shocked by their final defeat just a season ago.