Here are four reasons to be impressed with the Reign’s 6-0-0 start to the season.
THEY GELLED QUICKLY: One of the question marks surrounding the Reign when the season began was how quickly all of the new faces would mesh to form a cohesive unit of 11. The answer was immediately. Right from the opening kick the Reign have darted and swarmed around the field like a group that has been together closer to six years than what is now six games.
BEATING THE SCHEDULE: Winning the first three in Seattle was one thing, but each of the three subsequent away victories has been impressive in its own right. The first was after a cross-country flight on short rest when they played Sky Blue, and they were greeted by an all-day rainstorm that made for anything but ideal conditions. Having elected to fly to Washington the next day the team ran into flight delays that turned the trip into twice the time it would have taken to drive it. And the Spirit became the first team to take a lead on the Reign, a situation that lasted all of two minutes before the Reign equalized and eventually won. Saturday night’s win in Portland speaks for itself.
MIDFIELD IS DOMINATING: Laura Harvey said before the season that she thought her team would be dominant in midfield. The early results have to be exceeding even her expectations. Kim Little has earned many of the plaudits for her five goals and deft touch, but to me the best player on the club has been Jess Fishlock. No returning player has benefited more from the influx of talent and the Welsh international is now free to focus more on winning balls and making selective but aggressive runs.
EVERYONE DEFENDS: Another preseason comment from Harvey was that she wanted the team to be difficult to play against. Mission accomplished. The Reign defend everywhere on the field and challenge just about every ball. When play works its way into their defensive third, Fishlock and Keelin Winters are there to clean up most messes. And as for their no-star back line, it has not only held up well but thrived. Is there a better center back duo in NWSL right now than Lauren Barnes and Kendall Fletcher? And Elli Reed is quietly climbing the ranks of right backs.
Are there any concerns?
An eight-point lead is a lot for this early in the season even if the Flash have a match in hand. Their depth was tested a bit in Portland and neither of their replacements, Kiersten Dallstream and Danielle Foxhoven, distinguished themselves. Stephanie Cox was injured in national team camp but the injury turned out not to be as serious as originally feared. Haley Kopmeyer remains a question mark as Hope Solo’s understudy, but so long as Solo is healthy for the playoffs it should be a moot issue.
The other 8 teams
Western New York Flash (3-1-1, 10 points)
Reasons for Optimism: An understated part of the Aaran Lines empire in Rochester, N.Y., is that he has rarely missed on an important acquisition. His new Spanish duo of Vicky Losada and Sonia Bermudez have both been impressive and the team has yet to have Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd available for the same game. Rookie Kelsey Wys had a shutout and an assist in her NWSL debut.
Causes for Concern: The back four remains a work in progress with Lines still trying to figure out how to replace Estelle Johnson and the tandem of Alex Sahlen/Sarah Huffman. That said, the team has conceded four goals in five games, so the learning curve must be high.
FC Kansas City (3-3-1, 10 points)
Reasons for Optimism: Amy Rodriguez and Jenna Richmond. Rodriguez is currently the best finishing form of her career and has been the league’s best forward so far. It is no secret the Blues were missing that element in 2013. Richmond has been an adequate replacement for Desiree Scott and although she and Jen Buczkowski seem to get in each other’s way from time to time, Richmond was a find with the 16th overall pick.
Causes for Concern: Erika Tymrak is hurt and the flare of the 2013 club has not quite been seen yet. Maybe they’ll peak at the right time this season after being at their best a bit too early a year ago.
Portland Thorns FC (2-1-2, 8 points)
Reasons for Optimism: In five matches the Thorns have gradually looked more and more comfortable under Paul Riley and look like a much looser team than last year’s version. They are also getting a quality season from Allie Long and young defenders Courtney Niemiec and Emily Menges have been more than okay subbing for injured and unavailable players.
Causes for Concern: Through five matches they still only have goals from two players—Long and Jess McDonald. The most glaring omission is Christine Sinclair, who has been her usual fundamentally sound self but not so dangerous around the goal box.
Chicago Red Stars (2-2-1, 7 points)
Reasons for Optimism: They have conceded only three times in five matches and Julie Johnston looks like the real deal in central defense.
Causes for Concern: They have scored only three times in five matches. The good news is Melissa Tancredi is in and Christen Press is on the way, along with Australian Emily Van Egmond and New Zealand center back Abby Erceg.
Washington Spirit (2-4-0, 6 points)
Reasons for Optimism: The record is not great, but this is a totally different team from last season. They are much more composed on the ball and in possession and what could be a very good midfield is slowly rounding into form.
Causes for Concern: Jodie Taylor and Renae Cuellar have played a combined 640 minutes without a goal or assist. Talking about chances or holdup play is okay for a game or three, but the season is one-quarter of the way over now. The team needs goals from its forwards. Also, they have conceded three goals within four minutes of scoring either an equalizer or go-ahead goal and gave away a penalty that would have been a fourth if not for an Ashlyn Harris save.
Sky Blue FC (1-3-3, 6 points)
Reasons for Optimism: They’re pretty good and pretty deep defensively and have two very good, very different options in goal in Jillian Loyden and Brittany Cameron. Despite the slow start they have a coach with a proven track record of patience.
Causes for Concern: Scoring. It was flagged as the big problem before the season and it has proven to be the case through seven games. Not only are the forwards struggling, the midfield is struggling to put them in dangerous positions. If Taylor Lytle is out for any length of time it will only make matters worse.
Houston Dash (1-3-0, 3 points)
Reasons for Optimism: Becky Edwards. She was not great in Chicago on the weekend, but she is quickly reestablishing herself as one of the best defensive midfielders in the game. Other reinforcements are coming, but it must get tiring waiting around for Whitney Engen and Meghan Klingenberg.
Causes for Concern: Youth and injuries. The back four has been torn apart by everything from late arrivals and injuries to trades and red cards. And there really is no player on the roster who can consistently score. It could be new signing Nina Burger once she settles in, or Kealia Ohai if she can stay on the field, but right now it’s slim pickings in the final third.
Boston Breakers (1-3-0, 3 points)
Reasons for Optimism: The team speed has been dangerous at times, particularly in the lone win against Sky Blue. Kristie Mewis is expected to play Thursday, which will give them even more speed and ability to widen the field.
Causes for Concern: There are far too many shots being sent towards Alyssa Naeher and while Ashley Grove is a good depth defender, the hole at center back remains.
Week 5 Takeaways
Here are a few soccer-related takeaways from Week 5:
— Saturday’s Reign-Thorns match had every element you can ask for of a big match starting with a large, vocal crowd. The game was wide open—especially in the 2nd half—with great chances, great saves, and some intense, physical play. The match even had a dramatic finish with Kim Little scoring the 90th minute game-winner for the Reign. And when it was over there was plenty of chatter, starting with Thorns’ owner Merritt Paulson tweeting his displeasure about how the Reign celebrated the win. Next stop, July 27 at Memorial Stadium.
— Lots of talk during the U.S.-Canada friendly about Sunil Gulati effectively ruling out Randy Waldrum and Paul Riley as the next head coach for the U.S. The reason cited by the president of U.S. Soccer was their NWSL commitments. Yet no one at U.S. Soccer has a problem pulling some of the best players out of league matches on a regular basis. Then again it could have been a nice way of saying thanks but no thanks to both guys.
— Jen Hoy is eventually going to score a bunch of goals in NWSL. She finally got her first of the season on Sunday when she beat Bianca Henninger with a nifty chip. Four days earlier she had a chance to score a late goal to break a tie against Sky Blue but she hit the underside of the crossbar.
–This week’s Player of the Week vote went to Amy Rodriguez.
Sky Blue FC (Wednesday): 604
Western New York Flash (Wednesday): 2,463
Portland Thorns FC: 14,128
Western New York Flash: 3,107
FC Kansas City: 1,797
Chicago Red Stars: 1,039
Total: 23,138 (YTD, 101,530)
Average: 3,856 (YTD, 4,061)
— Sky Blue’s attendance on Wednesday is the lowest in NWSL history
— FC Kansas City has now drawn less than 2,000 in two straight matches; their low attendance in 2013 was 3,057
— Credit Thorns fans (yet again) for a marvelous turnout even though the match was moved up three hours in fairly short notice so as not to conflict with the Trail Blazers playoff game.
— The most distinguished of the 14,128 at Providence Park on Saturday was Super Bowl winning quarterback Russell Wilson. The Seahawks’ QB met some of the Reign brain trust on an airplane and asked to attend a game. He went to Portland for the Trail Blazers’ game and decided to take in the NWSL match as well.
— It was disappointing to hear the news that Jeff Husted will no longer be working with FC Kansas City. A friend to The Lowdown, Husted was extremely helpful during the last year and a half since the club launched. He will be missed.
— My answer to anyone displeased with an opponents’ celebration is simple – beat them. Teams should celebrate however they see fit.
— Asked about being one of two players not to miss an NWSL minute, CoCo Goodson laughed, and then said, “No. I just want to be out there playing.” Goodson and Jen Buczkowski both played a pair of full 90s to extend their regular season streaks to 29 matches and 2,610 minutes.
— The Red Stars have signed Australian midfielder Emily Van Egmond. The 20-year old will join the club following the Asian Cup. She had a brief tenure with the Seattle Reign last season and before that was in Western New York where she helped the Flash win the 2012 WPSL Elite title.
— Kelsey Wys had quite a debut for the Flash on Sunday. The first goalkeeper taken in the draft kept a clean sheet and nearly recorded the first ever assist for an NWSL keeper when her booming punt found Abby Wambach for the put-away goal in a 2-0 victory over Sky Blue FC. After originally awarding Wys an assist on the goal, NWSL later determined Ashley Nick played it with her head, making it an unassisted goal for Wambach.
— 2014 seems to be the year of the travel issue. It took the Dash a reported six hours to get to Chicago last weekend and the week before the it took the Reign about twice as long to fly from New Jersey to Washington as it would have to drive.
— Last season, only the Thorns and Reign did not have the result of a match changed in the 90th minute or stoppage time. There were seven such games, led by the Red Stars who were involved in four, all on the positive side (1-0-3.) Saturday was the first match of that sort in 2014 and it means all eight original teams have now been involved in such a finish.
— Someone needs to reign in Ella Masar. Her aggressive play has been over the line this season. She already has three yellow cards — five is a suspension with no make-good policy — and could have at least a few more.
— Beverly Goebel on being converted to forward during her time in Japan: “It’s kind of like when you sit in a new seat in a classroom. You just get a completely different view of the field (because) you’ve never really been in that spot before.”
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