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The Lowdown: Healthy, in-form Megan Rapinoe has Reign looking like contenders

Megan Rapinoe has the Reign pointed in the right direction after an epic performance against the Thorns (Photo Copyright Meg Linehan for The Equalizer)

Megan Rapinoe has the Reign pointed in the right direction after an epic performance against the Thorns (Photo Copyright Meg Linehan for The Equalizer)

One of the oddest, and most important moments of the NWSL season happened in the opening moments of FC Kansas City’s visit to Seattle. The stream came on late that evening and issues were still being worked out when the cross hairs that were on the screen through nearly the entire first half had Lauren Barnes and Shea Groom in their sites. It was one of Barnes’s worst moments in NWSL. First a bad touch that allowed Groom the ball with nothing but open space between her and Haley Kopmeyer. Barnes then compounded the mistake by dragging Groom down from behind. Straight red card. It was the 4th minute.

“When it first happened I was like, ‘Sh*t, it’s like the fourth minute! One of our captains and center backs goes down against one of the best teams, this has turned into a much tougher night than we thought.’”

At that time the Reign were 3-2-4. It was a respectable record, but it included a 3-0 hammering in Boston and a 1-0 loss in Chicago during which the Red Stars frustrated the Reign for almost every one of the 90 minutes. Laura Harvey’s club was looking up at the playoff line.

“I think it did change something,” Rapinoe said of the moment Barnes was sent off, which meant not only playing 86 minute a woman down but also without Barnes four days later against the Red Stars. “I think we’ve been getting close with our performances and playing pretty well, we just haven’t put it all together. We haven’t had that moment when the real focus was to just dig in.”

Of the first three Reign wins in 2017, one was a 5-1 trouncing of the Dash and another was a 6-2 beat down of the Spirit. In other words, to echo Rapinoe, there were not too many results that were grinded out. Considering last season’s disappointing playoff miss and the departures of Kim Little and Keelin Winters that followed, there were no sure things heading into this season for the two-time Shield winners.

“Right away it was like, ‘We’re not giving up points at home,’” Rapinoe continued. “We really value and try to protect our home field. It was just one of those moments that we just absolutely have to bust our ass. Obviously we all knew that it was the front end of a pretty crazy week, but I think that gave us a lot of confidence to know that we could do it.”

By the time the FC Kansas City match was over, the Reign had recovered from going down a goal not long after Barnes went off, to dominating stretches of the second half, leaving Harvey sounding almost like she was disappointed with a single point.

In the Wednesday match, the Reign rallied again, beating Chicago 2-1 on a pair of Rapinoe penalties. And then came Saturday against the Thorns. Rapinoe scored both of the goals again, but the performance was much more than that. She controlled the match from the left flank, dominating the area and any Thorn that dare tried to stop her.

“I’m just kind of feeling 100% coming back from the knee,” she said, a reference to the ACL tear she suffered in December 2015. “I always said, I knew that for a while that my soccer form wasn’t there, but I just hadn’t played. I just needed to play kind of through the beginning of this year.”

Rapinoe famously rushed back from the ACL injury to win a spot on the U.S. Olympic roster but was not even fit enough to play in the group stage. She finally returned for the quarterfinals and played, most ineffectively, in what turned out to be a loss on penalties to Sweden. The now 32-year old (literally now – her birthday is July 5 meaning she won the World Cup the day she turned 30) said she has no regrets about how hard she worked or about making the Olympic team but acknowledged that perhaps U.S. coach Jill Ellis might do things differently if given a mulligan.

A year later Rapinoe has been able to train on her own and hit the weight room. She has also tweaked her diet. The results, especially over the last few weeks, have been stunning. In her first extended stay in NWSL where neither injuries nor national team callups have broken any momentum, Rapinoe has been among the very best players in the league.

“Leading into NWSL season, I knew I was fit and strong and in a better place than I was in before. I just knew that once I got games and training under my belt, I knew I was going to be back to a good place to help this team win.”

If it all culminated in the victory over Portland, there was no better game for that to happen. Not only did the win give the Reign 7 of 9 points from the three-game stretch that began with a red card to Barnes, it drew the Pacific Northwest Derby level at 6-6-3. It is the first time the rivalry series has ever been on even terms after the Thorns won all four against an over-matched Reign side in 2013.

“It’s real as hell for us,” Rapinoe snapped when asked if the players shared the same enthusiasm for the Seattle-Portland rivalry as the fans do. “Those are 100% games for us all the time. I don’t care if we’re playing checkers against them. Whatever it is, that’s a huge game for us. It’s pretty cool. I don’t think there’s any other rivalry like that in our league.

“Those games are the best. Those are the games you circle on your calendar, the games when everyone’s family visits. We love playing down there. We love playing them at home. We just revel in playing against them–especially when we can send them home without any points.”

There is no time to bask in beating the Thorns though. The next step in the evolution of the new Seattle Reign is to get results on the road. As good as last week was, being home rendered them unable to build on their 1-2-2 away mark. This weekend especially will offer a multitude of challenges. Not only are the North Carolina Courage the top side in the league and NWSL Championship holders, but they play on a pitch that is much different from the one at Memorial Stadium.

“Our field is much smaller than some of the other fields. I know Carolina has a pretty big field so that will be an adjustment for us,” Rapinoe said, adding that besides Portland, there are no quick road trips for the Reign. No excuses though.

“Bottom line, especially on the road, we have to bring that fight and bring that energy and that work rate first. You’re definitely not just going to go into somebody else’s place and romp on them. That really doesn’t happen in this league very often. I think we’ve figured out a little bit that that needs to happen first, and then we can see where we can get joy in the game.

“We have to bring that fight first and earn the right to play on their field and kind of see what opens up from there.”

Rapinoe believes the Reign are finally getting a firm hold on how they need to play with the different personnel that has come in—and out—of the team over the last two seasons. Nahomi Kawasumi has returned to be Rapinoe’s mirror on the right flank, a presence she says is noticeable because “it’s tough for defenses, what do you give up?”

“I still think we’re trying to get into the same areas,” Rapinoe said of the 2017 Reign compared to the 2014 and 2015 teams, “it just looks a little bit different. We’re using the width. In a way we sort of had to figure out how we wanted to play.”

If the Reign can get that figured out in venues outside Memorial Stadium, the rest of NWSL should serve notice. They’re already on notice that Megan Rapinoe is healthy and possibly in the top form of her life.

Stray Observations from Week 10

-My Player of the Week ballot: 1) Megan Rapinoe – because she was absolutely the best player in the world last week; 2) Sam Kerr – it’s not easy for a bicycle kick goal, game-winning goal, drawn penalty, and other overall brilliance plays second fiddle; 3) Marta – she makes so much look so easy that it is sometimes easy to overlook how good she is.

-I really wanted to squeeze Kristen McNabb into my top three but too many other players were just too good. McNabb is a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate though now that Rose Lavelle’s injury has thrown things into chaos.

-If you want to watch two world-class players doing battle, scoring goals and creating space for teammates, watch last Wednesday’s Sky Blue-Pride match. Sam Kerr and Marta were both sites to behold.

Sam Kerr is finally healthy, much to the dismay of opposing defenses around NWSL (photo copyright Katie Cahalin for The Equalizer)

Sam Kerr is finally healthy, much to the dismay of opposing defenses around NWSL (photo copyright Katie Cahalin for The Equalizer)

-I’m not the first to point this out, but the Red Stars narrowly avoided serious injury to Taylor Comeau and Danielle Colaprico. That could be important when September and October roll around.

-Speaking of Colaprico, she was in the right place at the right time—again—to deny Aubrey Bledsoe her Michelle Betos moment on Saturday.

-The opposite side of the Rapinoe/Reign story above is that FC Kansas City went the other way after the red. They were thumped in Portand on Wednesday and gave up another lead in Houston on Sunday in a 2-1 loss. Where the Reign took 7 of 9 points from the week, the Blue took 1 of 9.

-I’m liking what I have seen lately from Morgan Andrews.

-The Courage are banged up and were without several regulars, but when the Shield is handed out this fall you have to wonder if they will regret dropping all 3 points when they were rested and at home against a Sky Blue side that played midweek and then traveled.

News, notes, and nuance

-Condolences to Ryan Wood and family on the passing of Ryan’s father last week. Ryan is the Breakers communications manager, former contributor to Our Game Magazine, and a good guy. Some NWSL teams are easier to cover than others. Ryan, dating back to WPS, has always made the Breakers one of the easiest.

-The beat goes on for Abby Dahlkemper who has extended her league record streak of consecutive minutes played to 4,500. She has also started 52 straight games since being drafted No. 3 overall in 2015.

-The Reign congratulated Lauren Barnes and Christine Nairn on their 100th appearances on Saturday night. But those include four playoff appearances for each. Those games most certainly count, but this space tracks regular season stats unless otherwise specified. Barnes and Nairn do lead the way in the #RaceTo100 with 96 regular season appearances each.

-Speaking of the #RaceTo100, Sky Blue will play their 100th NWSL match on Saturday night against FC Kansas City. Since they have played more games than any other team this season they will be the first team to reach the milestone and the only one to do it this weekend.

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