Seattle Reign FC: Season 1 Postmortem

While women’s sports is a hard sell anywhere, there was a perception that soccer would sell itself in the Northwest.

Launching a League

When the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) was announced and the Pacific Northwest was represented by clubs in the two most soccer mad cities in the country there was a sense of expectation normally not placed on brand new clubs. The Pacific Northwest had been ignored in past incarnations of women’s professional soccer. This move seemed to be a smart shift in focus by the powers in charge.

While women’s sports is a hard sell anywhere, there was a perception that soccer would sell itself in the Northwest. A short stint by a few national team stars on the w-league team Seattle Sounders Women had been a sell out success leading up to the Olympics. Early ticket reservations through the Portland Timber‘s season ticket holder mailing list suggested similar. Prior to a single player signed they had upwards of 5k interested soccer fans. Not a lot of analysis was given to the advantages they had as an organization in having access to that mailing list in the first place. The bar was set.

Portland was the team all would be compared to for the rest of the season and as far as most were concerned the Pacific Northwest was a wind-up-and-go operation as soon as clubs were announced. More concern was given to newcomer Kansas City who despite a strong allocation was later given preference in college draft order. It was the beginning of the short sighted, reactionary posture that the league would take on and off for the rest of the season.

Teams like the Chicago Red Stars and Washington Spirit could only look at Portland and wonder what happened with the math.

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Dispersing the national team players across the league evenly was never going to be an easy task, but after an allocation that sent star strikers Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair (in addition to a playmaker, experienced defender, and NT level goalkeeper) to the Portland Thorns it would have been perhaps wiser to drop the pretense of balance and adopt the notion of a model home. Later reporting suggested that Portland’s owner had made Morgan a price of participation for an MLS related team. That was the kind of under-the-table dealings a new league didn’t need. Certainly not in the wake of the a league killing incident with the magicJack WPS team run by an owner with similar power to demand or simply do what he wanted outside of the scope of other owners. The pretense of distributing players using a fair mechanism was marred. Teams like the Chicago Red Stars and Washington Spirit could only look at Portland and wonder what happened with the math.

Portland was the model home for an inaugural season lacking in glamour and tasked with keeping costs down while trying to sell a new league. If that would turn out to be a Bluth family model home was yet to be seen. The media predictably used the Thorns in every write up with other teams as secondary characters. If that. A few articles even listed them as playing in the WMLS. It was an understandable mistake.

Take a Picture. It’ll last longer.
Next door to this model home was Seattle Reign FC. Much like Portland Seattle had, at least on the surface, received an allocation that should have seen them to the top of the standings and held up their end of the rivalry that naturally would be taken up. It didn’t consist of two star forwards, but there was at least a spread of talent. Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe, and Amy Rodriguez from the United States. Kaylyn Kyle and Emily Zurrer from Canada. Teresa Noyola and Jenny Ruiz from Mexico. That reality didn’t last as long as it took for the ink to dry.

The moving pieces during the team building process wasn’t uncommon to other teams, but for the Seattle it was almost comically playing out due to the shear number of them.

The first blow came when Seattle was allocated two players who were under contract elsewhere. Megan Rapinoe was known to be headed to French powerhouse Olympique Lyonnais until the end of May and extending into Champions League in June if need be. Seattle would be lacking the talented midfielder for half the season, but with Rodriguez and Solo rounding off their US allocation it was a loss that US Soccer apparently decided was fair. Seattle had been allocated another player who was under contract elsewhere. Noyola had been allocated to Seattle while she was still playing overseas. Arrangements had to be made to bring her back early and fortunately they were successful. Nevertheless, Seattle would have to address their midfield in the draft and free agency to account for Rapinoe.

When it became clear Hope Solo would be out all of preseason and through the months of April and May with wrist surgery to fix a longstanding injury Seattle would again have to use a roster spot on an extra goalkeeper. The moving pieces during the team building process wasn’t uncommon to other teams, but for the Seattle it was almost comically playing out due to the shear number of them. Despite constant setbacks they were ranked high enough to only get the seventh pick in the draft. Fortunately the top three projected pick in Christine Nairn dropped to them.

The knockout punch came on the last day of free agency when national team forward Rodriguez announced she was pregnant and would be missing the entire 2013 season. There were never a lot of free agent strikers on the market, and the task of replacing Rodriguez in one day was insurmountable. The request to have an extension to fill that role was denied. It was a stunning denial by a league which had and would continue to make exceptions for other teams throughout the season.

Unlike many clubs who played college teams during the preaseason, Seattle flew out to Japan to take on the top Japanese club INAC  Kobe Leonessa as well as another D1 club and D2 club.

Seattle was to debut with none of their US national team players and no proven striker. In an effort to bolster their roster, they traded their 2014 first round draft pick for an allocated fringe national team pool player Keelin Winters to add leadership and experience to a young team and a much needed physical presence in the midfield. Along with the draft pick they also promised to return that fourth allocation spot she represented the next year.

Other players of note were free agent Welsh national team captain Jess Fishlock, University of Washington star Kate Deines, and unproven forwards Tiffany Cameron from Canada and Lindsay Taylor. Both had been selected to support Rodriguez , not carry the scoring load of the team.

A Tale of Two Leagues

The preseason started ambitiously for Seattle. Under former Arsenal manager Laura Harvey the team had quickly come together and would just as quickly be leaving the United States. Unlike many clubs who played college teams during the preaseason, Seattle flew out to Japan to take on the top Japanese club INAC  Kobe Leonessa as well as another D1 club and D2 club.

Many criticized the move citing everything from expense to not giving players enough time to settle into their new city. In retrospect though it forced the team to quickly bond in their early isolation (and near airplane disaster) and that self reliance was something they would draw from in what turned out to be an early grueling road trip, offensive drought, and winless streak that would plague them half the season.

The Death March
After drawing with the Chicago Red Stars 1-1 in their opening match, Seattle would go on to lose nine straight games. Many thought Seattle would have a puncher’s luck at stealing some points along the way. If they were to have any hope at all for the playoffs they would have to collect a few points before Solo and Rapinoe’s return.

Her celebration was punctuated with a fist to the booing crowed and would turn out to be one of the defining images of the young league.

In game two Seattle Reign took on the Portland Thorns in Portland’s home opener in front of a  hostile crowd of 16k+. The Thorns had earned a draw against Kansas City earlier and were largely outplayed in that match. They needed to prove their superiority against a depleted Seattle roster.

It would have been easy for Seattle to bend under the weight of star power and an intimidating stadium, but early on it was clear that even without their national team stars Seattle wouldn’t be subjected to blowouts. Two moments showed their determination to fight through the difficult part of the season. Kate Deines made a goal line save denying Alex Morgan an open net. It was such a strike and perfect defensive positioning it was still hard to believe even on replay.

Then in the 74th minute, Jess Fishlock took a careening ball from just outside the box and slammed it into the net past a diving Karina LeBlanc. Her celebration was punctuated with a fist to the booing crowed and would turn out to be one of the defining images of the young league. Seattle went on to lose 2-1 and would continue to fail to put a complete game together despite brilliant moments scattered throughout the first half of the season.

Their eighth match saw the earlier than expected return of Hope Solo against the Portland Thorns. Solo and the defense kept the game close until a PK decision awarded to Portland late in the game gave the Thorns a one point advantage that would hold the remaining minutes of the game. It was one of the more bizarre decisions seen in a league full of numerous refereeing problems. It was so questionable Coach Harvey received the first fine of the new league due to comments after the game. Later that week a tape was sent to the reviewing board confirming there had been a mistake made.

Too little too late. Seattle would continue with one point until match eleven against Western New York Flash. Despite another strange decision by the official, this time benefiting Abby Wambach, Winter’s early goal proved enough to hold a draw. Half way through the season Seattle was in last place with only two points.

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“If we weren’t making strides forward I think the morale would be a bit lower. But I think we think that we’re gradually getting better. We are also aware that it is not good enough. In fairness to all the players, they accept that they are accountable to that. They come to training every day and work really hard to try to change it. From a coach’s point of view you really can’t ask for more than that.”

Team Reignbows
An ongoing issue with the league was the lack of proven offense distributed among the teams. Allocation had taken all of the national team level offense from three contributing countries off the market but it had not redistributed them to the teams evenly. With a low salary cap and only two international spots available on each team if your team was not allocated offense (and you failed to land Australian national team forward Lisa De Vanna) there were no readily available options. To add insult to injury, Portland, who was mysteriously allocated both Morgan and Sinclair, had decided to use Sinclair as a midfielder. The allocation had created an imbalance that would be hard to overcome during the first season of the new league and a legacy of imbalance for the years to come due to contracts.

Despite adversity from every front, all signs showed an internal stability not every club could claim.

Seattle, Washington, and Chicago failed to receive offense in allocation. All three teams would struggle to score goals despite excelling in other parts of the field. Without being rewarded on the scoreboard or in the standings it would be easy to let bad habits and finger pointing begin. Both Washington and Boston saw coaching changes mid season and Washington and Portland showed signs of internal issues and media missteps hinting at even more behind the scenes drama.

Seattle struggled through the final third and a league high losing streak. They were facing opponents that could rely on players like Holiday, Wambach, and De Vanna to give them experience and a talent edge. Off the field they had early issues with a disgruntled Sounders Women ownership that had lost the bid for the pro team but had not taken the high road and instead muddied the market with near nationalistic disdain for the new club. Seattle’s GM was let go before a minute of soccer was played. Duties went to Coach Harvey who had previous experience with much of the responsibilities as manager in England.

Disappointing for all was the fact they did not have the sell out crowds they hoped for in the stands. Nor were they even close. As a new club they had little preparation to form a squad even before the rest of the preparation was taken into account. Marketing efforts had started off strong with an attractive crest and gear, but a skeleton website remained all season and most communications came through social media like Facebook and twitter. There were a few highlights. Seattle had a league best streaming broadcast by Bootstrapper Studios and commentary frequented by University of Washington coach Lesle Gallimore. They had a successful Pride campaign with merchandise available and was the first team to support the You Can Play Project. Home matches at the beautiful, soccer-specific Starfire stadium set Seattle apart from many of the multi-purpose fields around the league.

“There’s a camaraderie among our team that I haven’t felt in a long time. It’s not playing for the paycheck… These athletes are working hard. I like our defenders. We don’t seem like a losing team. Yes, I know our record sucks. But we don’t seem like a losing team and it makes me want to play for them.”

Despite adversity from every front, all signs showed an internal stability not every club could claim. The tone was set by Coach Harvey and players like Winters and Fishlock. Solo mentioned being motivated because of the character she saw in her teammates. Rapinoe also joined up with the team on their road trip as soon as she returned from France instead of resting and rendezvousing back in Seattle at a more convenient time. Everyone was on board as soon as they caught a glimpse of the culture forming in Seattle. While it would be difficult not to see the results they wanted they were ready and waiting for their moment.

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The Transfer Window
The framework of a good team had been in place all season, but the talent gap had been too difficult to deal with for ninety minutes. The more allocated players you had on the field during the season the better your record was. Being allocated a forward would help teams as well. Seattle Reign were short on both, but made a number of adjustments mid season to compensate.

They waived free agent Cameron who had been unproductive as a forward and Haley Kopmeyer who had become a luxury as a third keeper. Their other free agent forward Taylor went to Washington for a 2nd round draft pick (an important move as they had lost their first round pick to Chicago to get Winters and it would likely become the 9th pick) and Kennya Cordner was brought in for a few weeks from the reserve team to fill the gap. Then Noyola went to Kansas City for Mexican forward Renae Cuellar who had been on the Kansas City injury list after being taken out by a nasty tackle by Portland’s Rachel Buehler. They also picked up Jessica McDonald who had been waived by the Red Stars, Stephanie Cox joined the defense, and their final acquisition before the deadline was Australian national team co-captain Emily van Egmond joining the midfield.

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While none of those moves directly addressed their lack offense they did regain a draft pick, made some lateral changes for position, and got rid of players that didn’t quite fit their long term vision. Team building had been a strange process with all of the drafts. Only four players had actually been acquired in the traditional free agent fashion the first year. Seattle was finally able to make some moves to set themselves up for the future.

During the month of July Seattle Reign became the team no other team wanted to play.

They also made some lineup changes along the way. Particularly with their Canadians. Defender Zurrer and midfielder Kyle were benched. Almost immediately Kate Deines seriously injured her ankle and Reed was out injured as well. With the roster short Coach Harvey was forced to be creative so she put Kyle in front of Solo. Kyle wasn’t quick enough for the midfield, but her calm demeanor and timely tackling steadied the defense. With Solo pulling the strings the defense finally had an identity even if it still was plagued with injury and cards.

Team Targaryen
The winds finally turned in Seattle’s favor. During the month of July Seattle Reign became the team no other team wanted to play. With Solo and Rapinoe added to the line up they finally had the an edge that had been lacking.

From the end of June through the end of July they went on to win five times and draw two. Rapinoe added goals and creativity to the final third while some of their new additions like McDonald contributed on the score board for a few games. First round draft pick Nairn who was quietly having a good season was able to be more of the impact player she was capable of being. Jess Fishlock finally had someone to run with in Rapinoe and was able to see to her own game after carrying so much of the load for half the season. In fact many of the season ills were from players trying to do too much or fill too many shoes. With the fresh additions everything just snapped into place.

A trio that stood out were the three blondes. Jess Fishlock, Kaylyn Kyle, and Megan Rapinoe. They were called both the Blonde Ambition and Team Targaryen (a Game of Thrones reference) for their platinum looks but more importantly because of how electric they were on the field. Rapinoe and Fishlock in particular got on well despite the short lead in. People questioned how Rapinoe would welcome coming to Seattle after a star studded stint at Lyon and not getting her first choice of Portland, but to her credit she hit the ground running.

“We’ve put the foundation in place and have a group of players that we can build around. I fully expect that the results of our hard work this year will show up on the pitch next season.”

Rapinoe’s ongoing issue would be less her effort but rather her absence. NWSL would never be a league where coming back from behind could be considered an easy thing to do. Between expending roster spots and energy early on to compensate for her loss and the grind of a compressed schedule with long road trips it would be too much to ask. How Seattle decide to handle her career choices will be as difficult as dealing with the lack of forwards in the league.

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Next Season: My Take

With the extreme situations Seattle Reign were put through this season I do not envy the task the management has in deciding the fate of their players. Clearly improvements are needed, holes must be filled, and when you trade you often need to trade a good player for a good player. So it will not just be under performing players that could get sent away.

Here are the eleven that I would protect for next season:

  1. Hope Solo (GK): With the injury behind her and a full preseason to train with her backline I fully expect the rust to be gone for next season.
  2. Lauren Barnes (DF): She was minutes leader for the team and the one constant for the backline. Her goal line save against Boston where she literally ran faster than the ball to retrieve it from the line is her statement moment.
  3. Kate Deines (DF/MF): Despite being sidelined with injury for half the season it was clear during her healthier times she provided much needed height and defense on set pieces and could deliver perfectly weighted balls forward. She has a reputation for being one of the more cerebral players and reads the game well. Despite being a young member of the squad she was made captain on a number of occasions.
  4. Liz Bogus (FW): While I was regularly critical of her age and ability as a forward at this level she often proved me wrong by starting many goal scoring plays throughout the season. As a veteran and dressing room presence she could be worth keeping around another season.
  5. Kaylyn Kyle (MF/DF): As a midfielder she seemed lackadaisical, but as a defender some of those molasses-like qualities seemed to calm things down and let her appear smooth with her tackles. Her defense against Alex Morgan alone easily erases some of those early side-eyes I gave her. Now only if she hadn’t bumped Deines from the backline…
  6. Elli Reed (DF): She’s relatively young but already has a number of pro seasons under her belt including a stint with Duisburg. She was also someone who was sidelined with injury, but had shown early promise.
  7. Jessica Fishlock (MF): Already MVP of the team I predict she’ll only be better now that she knows what to expect of the league and how to keep herself up physically for a whole season. This time she will hopefully get some help carrying the team while Rapinoe is away with Solo and Rodriguez projected to play full seasons.
  8. Christine Nairn (MF): She had been a great find late in the first round of the draft and quietly put together a good rookie season on a sickly team. On a healthier team I expect her to have a loud season and more assists with Rodriguez at the end of her numerous crosses and scoring from free kicks.
  9. Emily van Egmond (MF): She was a late addition and is taking up a coveted international slot, but I really liked what I saw from this Australian. She has a unique build for the sport with good ball skills and the size needed to take on the Portland and WNY Flashes of the league. She hesitates a bit near the goal, but still showed a lot even with coming in cold for the last road trip. They had scouted her and waited for her to finish with national team duty so hopefully they’ll give her another chance. Outside of a sure thing international forward I’d say give the spot to EVE.
  10. Renae Cuellar (F): She got off to a hot start with Kansas City but was taken out by a terrible tackle and never quite found her form again there or with the Reign. If she were a regular player I might not take the risk, but as an “off the books” Mexican allocated player she is a low risk / high rewards roster spot. If they have a role for her in mind and are willing to give her the time on the field she needs to grow I’d like to see her come back to Seattle.
  11. Keelin Winters (MF): As an allocated player she would probably be the person I’d send back to Chicago. Not because she’s a bad player, but because we need Solo, Rapinoe and Rodriguez more. If she lost her allocation spot and could stick around as a free agent I’d have her in a second. She wore the captain’s armband for most of the season, showed constant effort, and was one of our few threats for set pieces. I’ll be sad if she doesn’t come back.

My Fan Perspective
All in all it was an exhausting season for a fan. I’m not sure how the team made it physically or emotionally as I was drained by the end of it. I felt isolated and marginalized by the league from the start and as a long time sports fan it wasn’t merely enough to have a league and shut up. There were certain things I expected from day one and many of those things the league failed on.

Giving a team the ability to retain extra talent that would otherwise move on for more money elsewhere gives them an edge over other teams not getting that additional financial support.

Transparency was a major issue. What happened in allocation is something that will plague certain teams for years and benefit others for years so having it so woefully handled isn’t just a momentary annoyance.  The fact it seems Portland had requirements for entry into the league that other owners would have been laughed off the phone for asking does not sit well with me.

Later moves like Kansas City rookie Kristen Mewis receiving extra money from the US Soccer is another issue. Giving a team the ability to retain extra talent that would otherwise move on for more money elsewhere gives them an edge over other teams not getting that additional financial support. The fact we only found out about this mid-season change in status at the end of the season is troubling as well.

The officials did a lot to contribute to the level of physicality that only seemed to grow as the season went on.

Smash and Dash
The physical nature of the league is another major problem. I watch a lot of women’s soccer from other countries so I am not fooled by the notion that whatever America puts out is automatically the best in the world. America’s smash and dash soccer is not the soccer of the future or even the soccer of right now. It isn’t the style we want to see come into the national team.

In fact the players that least exhibit those American “skills” are the ones the national team appears to be targeting. Quintessential American style players like Portland Thorns’ Allie Long might excel at what wins games in this ankle hacking league, but it isn’t going to get too far beyond our borders.

The officials did a lot to contribute to the level of physicality that only seemed to grow as the season went on. Many games got out of control. Players with a yellow card could foul with impunity since no one wanted to send them off. Tackles that would be cards in other leagues were often not even fouls. Players adjusted their game to higher levels of violence and met with little pushback from the refs.

There is no easy solution to fixing this. It will take everyone from the officials to the coaches to the players themselves to hold themselves accountable and promote a more attractive form of soccer. Rewarding the Portland Thorns of the league or even the Chicago Red Stars who bridged the talent gap through physical and disruptive play only attracts more of that until players get hurt and the beautiful game can’t shine through. When teams like Kansas City can easily be taken out by that kind of play it is just sad. They could have lowered their standards and been brutes back, but didn’t. Hopefully they won’t be tempted to become like that next year in order to “compete”.

In the end they were not the sweetheart team of the league, the skilled team, the come back team, or even the blue collar team.

Stop Trying to Make BAON Happen
I hope with the first year under our belts the Portland Thorns experiment can end. Their “heartwarming” sports story of a team overcoming all of their advantages to win the championship was about as thrilling to watch as that sounded. Seeing everyone scramble to make a story around them all season was just painful.

The constant droning about their fans and atmosphere superseded their soccer for most of the season as they moped, flopped, and bashed their way through the season. Retroactively declaring any advantage they received in allocation as earned through fans showing up or Morgan being saved from “slumming it” elsewhere is just a sad, circular argument and the entitlement is alarming. Enough of the “for the good of the league” arguments to explain what’s happened. There should have been no propped up team. No advantage given.

In the end they were not the sweetheart team of the league, the skilled team, the come back team, or even the blue collar team. Merritt Paulson will have to write me out a check personally if I’m expected to like them. Even if the league, media, and all of the lay-back-and-think-of-England / just-be-glad-there-is-a-league apologists demand it.

Rock Bottom
As the season wore on my interest in the league as a whole started to drift. I admit it. I was either raging or disinterested and I’m not sure which was worse. It wasn’t my team or players at fault. Team Reignbows wasn’t just a pun. Something special happened in Seattle even if it didn’t show up in the standings and the few and the loyal bunkered down and tried to make the best of the season. For the most part we did.

Don’t read the comments. Don’t read the comments. And don’t read the comments.

The apathy and marginalization was a process once started didn’t seem to have an off button for me though and I kept feeding it by going to news sites to read the latest outrages. Sticking up for a team perceptually at the bottom of the standings was like a full time commitment. Following the latest league faceplants was becoming a form of self harm. Listening to everyone complain about why Reign got the opening national broadcast over Portland was particularly disappointing. Apparently my team wasn’t even worth watching. It was like there were two leagues running.

It was like a CONCACAF game. Crushing tackles, ball in the air, and no flow. So that’s what I watched for 90 minutes.

In retrospect it didn’t matter. Nothing done online would help what was happening on the field and when it comes to the media and online communities you have to eventually realize you can’t fix stupid. Don’t read the comments. Don’t read the comments. And don’t read the comments.

The nail in the coffin came in August. While visiting relatives I managed to see the Reign vs Red Stars game in Chicago. It was probably the worst soccer game I’ve seen in person. Chicago’s lack of talent due to allocation woes and injury had given them no hope for a win but through physical play and disruption. It was like a CONCACAF game. Crushing tackles, ball in the air, and no flow. So that’s what I watched for 90 minutes.

The person I went to the the game with had gone to games in the past with me and about half way through she turned to me and said, “this isn’t like the other games you took me to.” Nope. It wasn’t. By the end I was just glad my players could walk off the field under their own power. My team had lost. Something I was used to at the point. The game itself was somehow worse this time though. It was either the worst soccer match I had witnessed or the best lacrosse game. I wasn’t sure and the lines on the field didn’t help.

The Off Season
After my team was out of the playoffs I found myself looking forward to European leagues. I’ve followed them to various degrees the last three years and it’s a regular part of my sports scene now. I’ve already watched a number of games the last few weeks and the lack of dangerous fouling and constant complaining was refreshing. If a player got beat they didn’t always stick their foot out late to see if they could go 50/50 on a foul as the ref can’t call everything. They simply got back on the play and did better next time. If someone was taken to the ground they didn’t always complain or get in the refs face. There weren’t phantom PKs called in every other game. I had no fear Lotta Schelin or Christen Press were going to body slam a defender to the turf (Morgan *cough* Broon *cough*) and make me regret being a fan.

It isn’t as though the games aren’t physical either. It’s just a different dance out there. One that I am coming to prefer. One that I see as being successful long term and as far as the national team trajectory goes I believe whoever finds a way of merging skill with just a touch of physicality will have cracked the code. I see the leagues in Europe producing that for their national teams much sooner than the NWSL will if this is the evidence I’m looking at.

For next season I think that a much more narrow focus is needed for me to be a fan. You can’t be annoyed with what you don’t know about after all. Besides, I feel like there is a good culture in Seattle and with the team in the hands of a European coach like Harvey perhaps there is a small chance the style of soccer will be beautiful and the expectations on the players will lean more towards skill and creativity than physicality and long ball.

That didn’t win Kansas City anything, but look which team is getting the national team call ups. Doing it the right way will pay off down the road if not right now and it will definitely keep me as a fan.

Deposit all hate mail into the fireplace where it will be forwarded to my next address. But if you really want to talk to me I’m @hercircumstance on twitter.