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Seattle Reign FC season preview: “This is my club”

Seattle, Washington - Saturday, July 2nd, 2016: Seattle Reign FC forward Nahomi Kawasumi (36) during a regular season National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) match between the Seattle Reign FC and the Boston Breakers at Memorial Stadium. Seattle won 2-0. (ISI Photo)
Nahomi Kawasum. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Nahomi Kawasum. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

2016 record: 8-6-6, 30 pts (5th place)
Playoffs: did not qualify
Head Coach: Laura Harvey
Home Ground: Memorial Stadium

The story of ’16

Seattle Reign FC missed out on the 2016 playoffs by two points for an underwhelming fifth place finish, after winning the NWSL shield back-to-back in 2014 and 2015. The team did well at home with a 6-2-2 record, but as most NWSL teams do, struggled on the road with a 2-4-4 record. They did have some big wins in the back half of the season at Memorial, including a 5-2 stomping of the Orlando Pride and a meaningful return from the Olympic break when they beat Portland 3-1.

“I remember, towards the end of the season, just thinking, ‘Is it me?’” Laura Harvey said in a video produced by the team. “And then it was really good at the end of the year, which is the positive of not being in the playoffs.”

Ultimately, Harvey concluded last season that the work wasn’t done. She said: “This is my club. This is where we’re going.”

What happened over the winter

Seattle lost key pieces this offseason—chief among them midfielder Kim Little. While her 2016 stats weren’t the output most were used to for Little (6 goals, 2 assists), she started all 20 games for the Reign last year. Add in the retirements of midfielder Keelin Winters and forward Manon Melis, and defender Kendall Fletcher’s departure, and Harvey had a lot of major gaps to fill for 2017.

It says a lot that Hope Solo’s shoulder surgery—eliminating any chance of return to the pitch at Memorial Stadium this season—is merely an afterthought when describing the winter in Seattle.

That said, Harvey has been busy working on the roster. The team has also put its faith in her long-term, as she signed a contract extension through 2020.

Harvey has made the most out of the Australian W-League’s unofficial but perfect relationship with the NWSL, picking up some new additions from Melbourne City FC: defender Rebekah Stott of New Zealand and forward Larissa Crummer of Australia. Harvey also made the most of the Washington Spirit fire sale, picking up three players via two trades with DC. Christine Nairn returns—a huge pick-up for the Reign’s changing midfield. Diana Matheson was also clearly going to be a piece of the puzzle as well, until she tore her ACL, resulting in her missing what will likely be most, if not all, of the 2017 season.

Seattle had a solid, if slightly quiet draft compared to some of the other squads. Stanford defender Maddie Bauer went with the 6th pick, and Harvey said after the draft, “She fills a position of need for us. I think she can help us on the backline and in the midfield.” The No. 16 pick, USC forward Katie Johnson, just signed her official pro contract this past week.

Player to Watch

Goalkeeper Haley Kopmeyer is stepping into the starting keeper role to kick off 2017, after having started 11 matches last season and splitting that time with Hope Solo. She’s been with the team since 2013, drafted with the 31st overall pick by Laura Harvey, briefly cut for roster space, then re-signed in 2014 to back-up Solo.

As someone who’s been there since the beginning, Kopmeyer can speak to the emotional state of the team heading into 2017. “We kind of have that chip on our shoulder mentality. We went into last season thinking it really was our year,” she told The Equalizer last Wednesday. “So to come up short of playoffs and a league title again and all that, we absolutely were really disappointed.”

It’s more than just Kopmeyer stepping into a bigger role this season. The whole team is changing into a new-look Reign. “To lose such integral pieces of our team in Kim and Keelin and Kendall and players like that, for us, it’s a really exciting time for a fresh spin on our style of play,” Kopmeyer promised. “We’re now going to feature different players, we have different personnel. It’s now going to be us playing to new strengths, and us playing a different style of soccer.”

Best Case Scenario

Without needing to worry so much about the chemistry, if Seattle gets out to that quick start this year, they are certainly a playoff-contender down the line in September/October. Portland, Chicago, and North Carolina will all be in solid positions to replicate their playoff success once again in 2017, but that fourth spot will certainly be up for grabs in 2017. Harvey’s put the right pieces in play to make a run for it.

Notably, Kopmeyer also said that there’s been a lot of work being put in out in Seattle for something the team hasn’t usually been known for. “Pre-season, we’ve put more emphasis on fitness than we ever have, so I think you’ll see a really fit team.” 

Cause for Pause

In addition to the midfield, as Dan noted in February, there’s also going to be more questions about the backline thanks to turnover. Seattle sorely missed the constant presence of Steph Cox in 2016, and without Fletcher—who also started all 20 games last season—the team will need big contributions from reigning Defender of the Year Lauren Barnes and Rachel Corsie.

Harvey has already tried to get ahead of this by signing Rebekah Stott of New Zealand, and it’s clear that she could have plenty asked of her this season. “Rebekah has experience playing in multiple positions,” Harvey said back in January, “which is something we need across the backline.”

Final Outlook

As with any preseason assessment, there are a lot of ifs this team is staring down in the days before their April 15th start against Sky Blue FC. If they can successfully reconfigure the midfield without Kim Little and Keelin Winters, if Kopmeyer is ready for a true starting role in this league, if they can get a handle on that tough schedule.

It should be noted that this team still has Jess Fishlock and Megan Rapinoe. And Beverly Yanez. And Naho Kawasumi. And, perhaps still the most important piece of the puzzle in Seattle: Laura Harvey, the head coach and general manager who has developed arguably the best team culture in the National Women’s Soccer League.

If anyone is going to assemble a team that outperforms how the roster looks on paper, it’s Laura Harvey.

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