The Reign had spent two consecutive seasons as the dominant team in the NWSL, but about this time last year it became clear that Seattle wasn’t that team anymore. Forget about running away with the league like they’d done in 2014, or pretty much running away with it again in 2015. This was the new look Reign, a shell of whatever it was Laura Harvey had spent so much time building not that long ago.
The inaugural NWSL season was not kind to the Reign, and after finishing that season seventh in an eight-team league, Harvey went to work. When Seattle took the field to start the 2014 season, it was immediately clear that the Reign’s eventful offseason would pay off, and it did. A year after finishing with a 5-3-14 and not winning a single game until the end of June, Seattle looked unstoppable. The Reign didn’t lose a game until mid-July, and then lost only once more, finishing the season 13 points clear of second place FC Kansas City and claiming the NWSL Shield.
The following season, 2015, Seattle was again the team to beat. The Reign didn’t have quite as dominant a season, but your perspective can get a little skewed when the comparison is something almost perfect. Seattle lost just three times in 2015, claiming a second consecutive NWSL Shield and eventually another trip to the championship game. Of course, Seattle would go on to lose the title game, the one piece of hardware that had eluded them in 2014 slipping away again. Still, the Reign were one of this young league’s first truly great teams, and there was no reason to think that Seattle wouldn’t be back in that spot again, taking another crack at it next year.
Except they weren’t.
By most standards, what Seattle did in 2016 wouldn’t be considered bad. Perpetual bad luck, or just, you know, bad teams — the Bostons and Houstons and new kids Orlando would have loved to have the season the Reign did. And if Boston or Houston or Orlando had had that season — a fifth place finish and an 8-6-6 record — it’d be impressive. Admirable, even. But for Seattle, that finish, not making the playoffs, not getting another chance at the championship trophy, was a major letdown.
What made Seattle’s 2016 even more confusing was that not really that much had changed from the years before. Most of the key pieces were still there, and Harvey was still in charge. The one major loss for Seattle was Jess Fishlock, who fractured her tibia in the second game of the season. The impact of Fishlock’s absence, beyond bringing a less confusing hair situation to the midfield, was massive and immediate — Seattle lost two of the four games she missed.
Fishlock wasn’t the only player the Reign got back midway through the 2016 season, though. Nahomi Kawasumi, who’d been an integral part of the Reign’s attack while on loan to the club in 2014, signed a contract that brought her back to Seattle full time. Kawasumi had returned to Japan at the end of her loan, missing the entire 2015 NWSL season, and though the Reign got along just fine without her, Naho’s return brought another dimension back to Seattle’s game.
This season, that Kawasumi is still around is even more important. Unlike in 2015, when the difference was hard to pin down, this year’s version of the Reign is definitely, glaringly, missing one big piece.
That, of course, is Kim Little, Seattle’s all-time leading scorer (and the league’s all-time leading scorer until two weeks ago, when Jess McDonald took over that particular honor). Little had been one of the players Harvey brought to Seattle during the great rebuilding of 2014 and for three seasons, she’d help run the Reign’s attack. But ahead of this season, Little returned to Arsenal, ending, at least for now, her NWSL career.
Between the loss of Little and the fact that Seattle, aside from the 2014 season, has historically been a team that starts slow, the Reign going 1-1-2 entering Saturday’s meeting with the Spirit wasn't exactly surprising.
The Reign had started to show flashes of the kind of stuff that had once made them one of the league’s most dominant teams when they beat Houston, 5-1, in Week 2, but then it was also easy to write off that win as at least halfway Houston’s fault. The Dash, through both bizarre roster decisions from Randy Waldrum and some comically bad defending, had played themselves out of that game as much as Seattle had outplayed them.
And that the Reign came out the following week and lost 3-0 to Boston only furthered those suspicions — that Seattle just isn’t the team it once was, and the previous week’s win was as much about how bad the Dash looked as how good the Reign might be.
After this weekend’s performance, though, it’s harder to jump to that same conclusion. Seattle beat Washington, 6-2, and though it’s again, at least in part, another case of one of the big teams beating up on the little guy — Washington’s struggled quite a bit defensively all season — it’s also hard to ignore just how good Seattle looked on Saturday.
The biggest part of Saturday’s win, which vaulted Seattle into second, was of course Kawasumi, who put up one of the most impressive individual performances in NWSL history. Naho was responsible for five of Seattle’s six goals, scoring one and registering assists on the other four. The only goal of Seattle’s six that Kawasumi isn't on the scoresheet for was a 79th minute tally from Megan Rapinoe, and even that one came from a sequence that Kawasumi started.
Naho’s never been the flashiest player — in her first season with the Reign she’d been second on the team in scoring, though she was rarely the first person you’d mention when talking about Seattle. Saturday, though, it was hard to ignore Naho.
Seattle’s first goal against the Spirit, which gave the Reign a 1-0 lead just 20 minutes into the game, came from a sequence started by Kawasumi intercepting the ball and carrying it back into the Spirit box before laying it off to Beverly Yanez. From there, Naho continued toward goal, got the ball back from Yanez, tried to turn her defender, realized she didn’t have the angle, and laid the ball off again, this time to Christine Nairn, who put the shot away. All this happened within eight seconds, the Reign completely baffling the Spirit defense.
Seattle’s second goal, in the 35th minute, again featured the trio of Naho, Yanez, and Christine Nairn. This time, it’s Kawasumi who gets open out wide and then sends a fairly harmless looking low cross back towards goal for Yanez to deflect in. Again, the sequence is so quick that the Spirit defense is left mostly to watch.
The third goal, the one Kawasumi scored, is actually the least impressive. She’s just making a run at the far post, and left unmarked able to redirect the ball in. The fourth goal is again mostly the result of some flat-footed defending from Washington, with Rapinoe and Kawasumi going 2-on-1 and just kind of playing monkey in the middle until Rapinoe gets the shot off. The fifth goal, the only one Kawasumi doesn’t get some kind of official credit for, starts again with her carrying the ball into the box and just kind of rolling a low cross that Katlyn Johnson redirects for Rapinoe to again put away. Before the first of these three goals, the game is still close at 2-1. In less than 10 minutes, Seattle has a 5-1 lead.
The last Seattle goal again come from Kawasumi, who was again somehow wide open at the back post. Kawasumi volleyed a long cross back into the center of the box, this time for Lindsay Elston, who only had to turn to one-touch the ball into the net.
In 2014, Kawasumi finished the season with five assists in 20 games. On Saturday alone, she picked up four. Along with the goal, they’re the first points Naho’s registered all season.
This win, while a big one and certainly the best Seattle’s looked all season, does have a little of the feeling the one against Houston did a few weeks ago, of course. Washington hasn’t been good defensively all season, repeatedly relying heavily on Stephanie Labbe to keep things close. Still, the way Seattle was moving the ball on the some of the goals, it’s hard to see how any team — especially with the early season struggles that have infected just about everyone — could defend against them. And running up scores against much weaker opponents isn’t something entirely new in the league, either. We saw the Flash do it against Boston last season, and things worked out pretty well for Western NY in 2016.
Before Saturday, Kawasumi had been having a relatively quiet season. Now, it looks like the Reign, thanks in large part to Naho, are starting to turn things around. They’ll take on the Pride next weekend in Seattle, and though the Pride did beat North Carolina on Sunday, Orlando’s been having a tough time defensively so far this season. All of that is more good news for Seattle, and if the Reign can get a result again against the Pride, things could suddenly get a lot more interesting at the top of the table.
Week 5 scores
FC Kansas City 0 - 0 Portland Thorns FC
You can find highlights of all games here, on NWSL’s website.