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NWSL Week 16 in review: The Reign have turned it around, but are they out of time?

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With a win on Saturday, Seattle got one step closer to cracking the top four. But is the Reign’s late-season push for the postseason too little, too late?

Steve Dykes/Getty Images

When the season started, it didn't seem unreasonable to think that the table probably wouldn't look that different than in years past. There'd be a few changes, sure -- FC Kansas City looked like a shadow of its former self thanks to a bunch of retirements, Orlando was something of wild card as an expansion team, Portland had a new coach -- but mostly, things were status quo.

There is a growing disparity between the "good" teams, the ones consistently in the top four and competing for spots in the postseason, and everyone else. Teams like the Thorns and Reign are able to attract the big names, the apparent ability to sign just about anyone either could dream of making both -- Portland's 2015 season notwithstanding -- perennial contenders. Chicago and Washington seem to have systems in place to build from within, a decidedly different strategy focused on a solid core and minimal turnover rather than those big names, but one that's produced almost equally impressive results.

And then there's everyone else. Teams like Houston and Western NY locked into season after season of massive turnover, a seemingly endless swapping of players and parts in and out, like scrolling through all the fonts in Photoshop trying to find the one that looks the coolest, only to end up downloading a bunch of new ones and then not being totally happy with any of those, either.

Others -- Boston and Sky Blue -- seem mostly stuck, stagnant. Neither had lost too much, but they hadn't gained a lot either. Both content, because they have to be, because circumstance or the inability to attract players the way some of their counterparts could, or a litany of other reasons, dictate that they have to be. That's not to say that either couldn't have been a contender this season, but both have operated with a shrugging, sighing "this is what we have, and we'll just have to see what happens attitude" for a while now -- and long before this past April.

FC Kansas City and Orlando are the two exceptions here -- the latter as an expansion team, and the former as a team going through a serious rebuilding a year removed from a second consecutive championship. The Pride was this season's unknown, and though they were an expansion team and the one piece of historical evidence we've got in that department is the increasingly hapless Houston, Orlando seemed ready to buck that mini trend, signing players like Alex Morgan, Ashlyn Harris and Sarah Hagen and hiring Tom Sermanni as the team's first head coach. FC Kansas City, meanwhile, lost nine players, either to retirement, pregnancy or trade. And not just any players. Lauren Holiday, Amy LePeilbet, Jen Buczkowski, Leigh Ann Brown and Liz Bogus all retired, Amy Rodriguez and new signing Sydney Leroux were pregnant, and Rebecca Moros and Hagen were both traded.

So while opening day, or even the opening month or two of the season, is a time that always comes with a feeling of promise and endless possibility, that things have worked out the way they have isn't that surprising, really. That Washington is at the top of the table with four games to play isn't exactly a shock. That Chicago is a contender, that Portland could still claim the Shield, you will need something heavier than a feather to knock me over. That FC Kansas City, Boston and Houston are struggling, that Sky Blue is stuck somewhere in the middle of the table as a team permanently not good but not terrible? Excuse me while I feign surprise. Even that Western NY is in the top four isn't totally something that was outside the realm of possibility, because the Flash was exactly the kind of team that needed -- and got -- Paul Riley, and exactly the kind of team that Paul Riley, fresh off whatever it was that his two years in Portland were, needed, too.

The one surprise here, and there is always a surprise, is Seattle. That Seattle is the surprise is in some ways its own surprise, the matryoshka doll of confusion and wonder that is the Reign's 2016 season.

Seattle didn't experience much turnover in the offseason. Unlike the FCKC team they've met -- and lost to -- twice in the championship game, there was no spate of retirements. Unlike in so many other places, no one really fled for greener, or purple-er, or Mark Parsons-ier pastures. And unlike others, the Reign would have been fine had they remained stagnant, because there's really not many other places to go when you're already the two-time NWSL Shield winners and a perennial favorite.

That's not to say that Seattle's road to a third regular season title was paved with gold and pothole-less, because it wasn't. An offseason injury, and then the Olympics, left Megan Rapinoe unavailable to the Reign until this weekend. Jess Fishlock missed four games with a fractured tibia. Still though, there was no good reason that Seattle wouldn't have been able to cope with those things. The Reign had some of the best players not going to the Olympics, a coach that's maybe part magic and an uncanny ability to just find a way to win, even when nothing seems to be working.

But Seattle's season hasn't gone that way at all. Right from the beginning, a home loss -- the Reign's first ever at Memorial Stadium, and to Sky Blue -- told us that this year would be different. But this different? With four games to play, the Reign is in fifth. It's the lowest Seattle's been since the 2013 season, when Harvey hadn't yet discovered her powers, when Kim Little and Naho were just far off names in far off places, when Rapinoe was the Reign's best hope at anything good but still finishing out her contract in France, when Seattle finished seventh in an eight-team league.

That the Reign was struggling at the start of this season seemed at first like nothing more than a fluke. Seattle had had slow starts before, as recently as last season, and still they'd manage to pull the thing off, winning the regular season title, running through the playoffs, making it to the title game. But a few months into this season, things hadn't changed, and that slow start was starting to seem like a way of life. The Reign's scoring is way down, their losses are way up. Seattle scored 50 goals in 2014 and 41 in 2015. This season, with 16 games played, the Reign has scored just 21 times. Seattle's also lost five times this season, which is how many times they lost in those two Shield-winning seasons, combined.

Part of the answer, of course, is that this is just how sports work. Sometimes, you can do everything right and it still just doesn't come. Sometimes it's getting bit by the injury bug, or that as good as you were - and still are - everyone else has just started to catch up, figuring out your secret to success or branding a new one. Sometimes it's that the league makes you play a game on a field that's been zapped by Rick Moranis' Honey I Shrunk the Kids gun while all the players stayed regular size. And Seattle has, indeed, fallen victim to all of those things, even with all the talent, even with the history, even with Harvey still at the helm. Nothing lasts forever, and no one - team or player - is invincible.

But for all of that, and for the Reign's slow start turned season story, something's started to change lately. Seattle's lost just two of the last six games, and turned a slow climb out of the basement into a full-on sprint for the top four.

Even so, a week ago, Seattle was still in sixth, looking closer to elimination than a postseason run. But on Saturday the Reign took a big step towards turning that around. The Reign, playing host to a Portland team they lost to three weeks ago in the last game before the break, topped the Thorns 3-1. Rapinoe made her season debut, scoring a goal despite getting just 11 minutes. Haley Kopmeyer made six saves as the Reign continue deal with the next chapter in the ongoing saga that is having Hope Solo on your roster. Manon Melis scored twice to take over as the Reign's scoring leader, with five goals now for the season. And more importantly, and with a little help from Chicago's win in New Jersey, Seattle was able to move into fifth, and just four points off the final playoff spot.

But Seattle, and everyone except Houston and Boston, who play each other Wednesday, also only has four games remaining. That's a possible 12 points, and that's if Seattle can win all of its remaining games. And those games won't be easy. Seattle's September schedule reads like the definition of "a blessing and a curse," with two games against Washington, and one each against Houston and Chicago. The blessing: three of those games are against teams above them in the table. The meeting with Chicago next weekend is especially important - the Red Stars are the team currently in fourth, meaning a win for the Reign at Toyota Park would narrow the gap between the postseason and not to a single point. Of course, there is also the curse, and it is this: three of those games are against teams in the top four, and Seattle's had only mixed results in that category. In the previous meeting between the Reign and Red Stars, it was Chicago that won. And Seattle, somehow, hasn't even played Washington yet this season, and with the Spirit locked in a tough battle for the regular season title, Jim Gabarra's club has a lot to play for. Seattle did beat Houston earlier this season, but by only a single goal, and that was a Dash team without Carli Lloyd.

That's a pretty precarious position to be in for any team, but especially one that's grown accustomed to running away with the title. But it's also a puzzle that no team is perhaps better equipped to solve than the Reign. For Seattle now, the question is if they've got enough time to do it.

Scores

Friday

Orlando Pride 1 - 2 Washington Spirit

Saturday

Seattle Reign FC 3 - 1 Portland Thorns FC
Western NY Flash 2 - 2 Houston Dash
Sky Blue FC 1 - 3 Chicago Red Stars

Sunday

FC Kansas City 0 - 2 Boston Breakers