Take a look at the NWSL table and you'll immediately see that there's one huge difference between this season and the previous two. Unlike in 2014 and 2015, no one appears to be running away with the regular season title this time around. Eleven weeks in, Portland is the only unbeaten team in the league, and though the Thorns have now built a five-point lead over the second place Flash, that they'll still be the top team come October hardly seems like a foregone conclusion. Running away with the thing? Briskly walking away with it, maybe.
Western NY is, perhaps a little surprisingly, suddenly very good. Chicago's stumbled a little lately, but the Red Stars are historically a very streaky team and that they'll put together another string of wins seems inevitable. Washington led the league for the first several weeks of the season, and though the Spirit's fallen off the pace a bit, they too have continued to find ways to win enough to hold on to third place. Orlando is still only three points out of a playoff spot, and the expansion Pride didn't even play this week. And Seattle, the team that did run away with the regular season titles the previous two years? After some early season struggles, the Reign has climbed all the way into fifth, and with a win on Saturday against the Breakers, Seattle is suddenly looking more like its old self again.
The Reign has had slow starts before. The slowest of all came in 2013, when the first win came 12 games into the season. That year, Seattle finished seventh out of eight teams. The next came last year, when the Reign lost two of the first three games of the season. Seattle, of course, did go on to lose just once more through the remaining 17 games, claiming a second consecutive NWSL Shield along the way, but when you're coming off a 2014 season that started with a 16-game unbeaten run, the definition of slow start gets a little skewed.
Then there's this year, where Seattle lost three times in the first six games of the season. Watching them, it didn't feel like you were watching the same dominant team of years past. Seattle hasn't gone through any sort of major personnel changes, but they have struggled with injuries, most notably to Megan Rapinoe and Jess Fishlock. Rapinoe hasn't played yet for Seattle this season as she continues to recover from a knee injury -- though she was called into the most recent USWNT camp for evaluation purposes -- and Fishlock missed four games with a fractured tibia. Perhaps more than that though, it's that other teams are starting to catch up.
It wasn't that surprising then, when the Reign announced in mid-June that they'd made a major singing. Seattle had made big signings before. Remember when Laura Harvey was making player moves by what seemed like the minute ahead of the 2014 season? But this one was different, coming mid-season, something that's always a risky proposition, and something that's -- save for Nadia Nadim joining Sky Blue towards the end of the 2014 season -- largely been a bust for NWSL teams who've tried it in the past.
This big signing was a little different though, mostly in that the player Harvey was bringing into the Reign was one that had been there before, and one that had been not only a fan and teammate favorite, but also a major contributor to Seattle's success in 2014. That player is Japanese international Nahomi Kawasumi, known by fans and teammates alike simply as Naho.
Kawasumi came to the Reign on loan from INAC Kobe in 2014. She played just one season with the club before returning to Japan, but it was a memorable one. In her 20 games with Seattle in 2014, Kawasumi registered nine goals and 20 assists, helping bring Seattle from that seventh place finish in 2013 to the top of the table and an appearance in the NWSL Championship game.
On Saturday, three weeks after the Reign announced that she was coming back, Kawasumi finally made the first appearance of her second stint with the team. And Naho made sure to announce her return in big way, scoring both of Seattle's goals in a 2-0 victory over Boston at Memorial Stadium.
With nine games to go, the Reign is now two points out of a playoff spot, and Seattle's July schedule features a home-and-home with Western NY, a meeting with Orlando and a trip to Portland, all huge games with major playoff implications. Seattle had already been making a move up the table - they're unbeaten since Fishlock returned - but the addition of Kawasumi may have just turned that slow climb into a full on sprint.