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Mid-season defensive changes pay off for Reign

Kendall Fletcher's move to right back has been successful for Seattle Reign FC. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Kendall Fletcher’s move to right back has been successful for Seattle Reign FC. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

For the second year in a row, Seattle Reign FC not only won the NWSL Shield, they ran away with it.

After a dodgy April that left Laura Harvey’s side 1-2-0, it recovered by playing the final 17 matches with only one loss. It looked pretty seamless too, so much so that a major shift in personnel went almost unnoticed. Newly-acquired Rachel Corsie forced her way into the lineup which pushed Kendall Fletcher from center back to right back, and moved Elli Reed from starting right back to all-purpose utility player.

“It just evolved really,” Harvey said, downplaying the significance of the change. “We just felt that the way we play, sometimes we need to be a little bit assured at the back. Having three sort of center backs in those positions, it just became a nice balance. I wouldn’t say I saw it as the long-term solution straight away. In fairness to all of those who have been playing, they have proven that they are a good mix and they work well together.”

The Reign had a strong back line in 2014 and returned all four starters for this season, all free of World Cup assignments—left back Stephanie Cox is the lone member not yet mentioned. Still, Harvey believed the group lacked flexibility. Enter Corsie who captained Notts County in 2014.

“When I spoke to her about coming over I was really honest and said that Lu (Lauren Barnes) and Kendall last year were exceptional,” Harvey said. Corsie accepted the challenge. Playing time was difficult to come by, though, and the 70-time capped Scottish defender saw the field for a single minute over the first five matches of the season. And then came a three-week break during which time the Reign hosted China in a friendly at Memorial Stadium.

“She played really well against China,” Harvey said. “That was probably the turning point for her where she showed herself probably more than anybody that she could play on this level.” In the league match a week later, Corsie replaced Reed in the 77th minute. She has been a fixture ever since playing every minute of every match.

“It was a huge move,” Harvey said of Corsie. “She took a lot of sacrifices to come here. I’m just pleased for her that she has been able to prove she can play and compete at this level.”

When Corsie became a starter, that’s when Fletcher pushed to right back and Reed was reduced to a role that normally leaves her out of the team photo. Harvey, though, praised Reed’s versatility and her contributions to this year’s club.

“For Elli, it was tough initially,” the coach said. “But as long as she’s felt like she’s had a role within the squad I think she could see what we’re trying to do. I think you’ve seen that Elli Reed’s got more to her game than just being an outside back.”

“If you look back over the season — which I haven’t done yet but I will do — the impact that she’s had when she’s come on in games and played higher up, I think it’s been vital to our season.”

Fletcher moved to the right back spot as fluidly as she moved into the Reign team and helped transform a poor back line in 2013 into one of the league’s best. “For Kendall, she loved it because she loves to get forward.” Harvey said. “It was like I took the reins off her. The fact is she can play anywhere really she’s such a huge competitor. But she loves going forward but playing in that outside back position has actually been something that she’s thrived on.”

Stephanie Cox is the best left back in the world, Laura Harvey says. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Stephanie Cox is the best left back in the world, Laura Harvey says. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

The left side of the Reign defense has remained unchanged. And it remains remarkably difficult to break them down. Barnes and Cox both played every minute of the season, both going about their business quietly and without much fanfare.

“(Lauren) is one of those players where you know week in and week out what you’re going to get from her,” Harvey said. “She’s developed a lot and learned a lot about herself and how far she can push herself. It’s nice that someone like Lu gets some recognition because she just goes on the field every week and gets on with her job. She’s never going to get MVP, she’s never going to be player of the match. But she just keeps her head down and quietly goes about her business. She’s up there with our most consistent players for sure.”

For all of the compliments Harvey heaped on her defenders, she may have reserved the biggest one for Cox. An Olympic gold medalist in 2008, Cox had hoped to get another chance with the national team ahead of the World Cup. But when she was dropped from U.S. Soccer’s group of subsidized players ahead of the 2015 season it became apparent that chance was slim to none.

“I can’t speak highly enough about Steph. It was a really tough year for her. The disappointment that someone like Crystal (Dunn) faced of getting so close to the World Cup—this is probably Steph’s last time and she didn’t get there. She knew a lot earlier than Crystal, but to know that that wasn’t going to be an opportunity for her this year, and still commit to the league the way she did, and play the way she has, is a huge testament to her. She could have easily retired.

“I remember going to see her when she was not allocated anymore and she was debating what she was going to do. She said she wanted to commit, she wanted to go for it. If you look back over some of the games we’ve played, some of the balls that she plays, some of the things she does to create goals for us, how steady she is at the back, she’s been phenomenal.

“In my opinion she’s the best left back in the world. Her distribution, her knowledge of the game, and fact that she’s not super quick very rarely is an issue for her. The left foot she has is something people dream of.”

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