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2016 NWSL Preview: Seattle Reign FC

Jess Fishlock is one of two players (w/ Becky Sauerbrunn) to be named to the NWSL Best XI all three seasons.

Jess Fishlock is one of two players (w/ Becky Sauerbrunn) to be named to the NWSL Best XI all three seasons.

Today’s NWSL preview looks at Seattle Reign FC, two-time defending Shield winners but losers of the last two NWSL Championships.

Last Season (13-3-4, 1st place; lost NWSL Championship): The oh-so-nearly team for the last two years, setting the pace in the regular season with two Shields, but falling at the final hurdle in 2014 and 2015 to FC Kansas City.

Coach Laura Harvey has huge faith and belief in her squad to overcome their previous post-season hoodoo, and that faith is returned by her players, with Harvey’s one-to-one management one of the best in the league.

Key Changes: When you’ve won two regular season titles, wholesale changes are not exactly top of your agenda, and that has very much been the case in Seattle.

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One area of the field the team has had to adjust is down the left side, with the ever reliable outside back Stephanie Cox retiring, and Megan Rapinoe set to miss a large part of the season with a torn ACL. Cox and Rapinoe not only offered width and international experience, but they offered quality into the box – some of the best in the league in fact. But, the Reign will have to make do without the former, and ease Rapinoe back when she overcomes her injury.

Sweden international Antonia Goransson was signed to replace Cox, but due to medical grounds, she has since been released without kicking a ball for the club. That could, and probably will, open up a spot for rookie defender, Carson Pickett, drafted out of Florida State University in the first round of the 2016 NWSL College Draft, with Laura Harvey saying in Baltimore that she did see Pickett as a first-team player.

Elsewhere, few changes have been made, with Harvey retaining the bulk of her squad from last year, losing only Amber Brooks to the Houston Dash in the merry-go-round trade that involved Megan Klingenberg, and third choice keeper Caroline Stanley, who has moved onto Sky Blue FC.

The one big addition to the Pacific North West club is Dutch forward, Manon Melis, who retired from the national team shortly after joining the Reign following her country’s failure to qualify for the Rio Olympics. Melis retires the Netherlands’ all-time record scorer, and their loss is very much Seattle’s gain, with the experienced forward bringing an abundance of pace, intelligence and goals.

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Strengths: The Reign have strength all over the field, scoring the most goals in 2015, and conceding the least, but the real strength they have is the form at Memorial Stadium. The club’s home ground has become something of a fortress over the last two years, with an unblemished record that has seen the team go undefeated since moving their from Starfire Stadium in 2014. (they were forced to return to Starfire for the 2014 NWSL Championship which they lost.)

On the field, defensively the Reign are solid and organized, which is thanks largely to two quality keepers in Hope Solo and Haley Kopmeyer, and a backline on the same wavelength that has developed a very close relationship.

When asked about those players at the back, Harvey was full of praise, saying: “The backline are vital to any team and our group have worked hard every year to be better. We have the best two goalkeepers in the league in my opinion and we have a backline of players that know what is expected of them.

“We have some selection headaches to come I’m sure but that’s why we have so many good players in those roles.”

Lauren Barnes is horribly underrated and her token call-up to the USWNT squad recently should not be a one-off, while in front of her, the midfield three of Keelin Winters, Jess Fishlock and Kim Little is the best in the league.

The differing styles of the three make the perfect combination with Winters the steel, Fishlock the energy and Little the creator – rarely does Harvey tinker with this setup.

The return from injury of U-23 international Havana Solaun will add depth to the midfield after she missed the entire campaign in 2015, while the work rate and importance of Bev Yanez and Merritt Mathias up front cannot be underestimated, with Harvey singling both out for praise during a seminar at the NSCAA convention in January.

When asked about her squad and where she sees the likes of Melis and Solaun fitting in, Harvey said: “I think that we have a good squad of players this year that can fill many roles.

“Manon gives us something different that we haven’t had before, and I think players like Havana will have big roles in different situations as the season progresses. I believe in continuity, but also that we needed some fresh faces and different voices in the locker room, and we for sure have that this season.”

Areas of Development: Harvey admitted that the left side of the field will have a different feel to it when the team turns out this season with the loss of Cox and Rapinoe, highlighting that the latter will play a key role when she returns close to the end of the season.

“The left side of the team will have a different feel for sure, but with the addition of Carson Pickett we believe we have someone who can fill the big shoes Steph Cox left.

“Pinoe is someone that we will miss for sure, but in the four years we have had her available to us, we have had to grow used to not having her around all the time. She will be huge for us in the back end of the season.”

As already discussed, personnel wise, there is not a lot of room for improvement at the Reign, with the stats and two regular season titles there to back that up. But where development could be vital is the mental strength to overcome those two heartbreaking defeats to FC Kansas City in the last two Championship games. While there is no question Seattle has all the right pieces of the puzzle in place, the one thing they have to try and prove is that they can get the job done when it really matters.

On those final defeats, Harvey said: “I think for us both finals were very different. I felt in 2014 that we played well enough to deserve to win the game, but in 2015 I think we under performed in many areas and that meant we couldn’t find our rhythm. So I don’t think there is a black and white answer (to why we lost). We just have to do all the right things to put us in a position to get the opportunity again this year.”

Point of Interest: Rarely do backup keepers get the praise that their performances and professionalism sometimes warrant, but you will find few stoppers more highly thought of than Haley Kopmeyer.

Drafted out of Michigan University in the fourth round of the 2013 NWSL college draft, Kopmeyer has clearly benefited from playing alongside national keeper Hope Solo, putting in a number of polished performances when Solo has been away, most notably during the World Cup last year.

She spent the off-season down in Australia in the W-League with Brisbane Roar, putting in a Player of the Match performance in the semi-finals of the play-offs to almost hand her team a shock win over undefeated Melbourne City FC (her team lost on penalties).

With Solo due to be away again this year at the Olympics, Kopmeyer will have an important role to play, and Harvey is fully behind the Michigan native.

“Haley has been excellent for us in both 2014 and 2015 when needed, and stepped up and played a huge role for us. Hope sets the bar so high for any goalkeeper, so to go in and take her place is a scary job, but Haley has pushed herself in the last 18 months to make sure that she can step into that role.

“She obviously had a fantastic off season in Australia and has come back sharper and stronger in a great position to step up whenever needed.”

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