Over the winter, Seattle coach/GM Laura Harvey was elevated to mystical status. Soft-spoken and youthful, the veteran of England’s top-level game somehow pulled off deal after deal.
Women’s soccer fans joked that Harvey was making another deal at every waking moment. On a panel with Spirit coach Mark Parsons? Surely offering her backup right back for Diana Matheson. Reading the paper? Surely perusing more trade options. Ordering at Panera? Maybe they would take a fourth-round draft pick for Erika Tymrak and some soup in a bread bowl.
Those were the jokes when we didn’t see how all these deals would pay off. What can we say now that the Reign have won their first five games?
The fifth was in many respects the most fortunate of those wins. After all, this was the first game Seattle has won by less than two goals. The Washington Spirit had Seattle on its heels for portions of the game, causing some confusion in central defense. One defender nearly kicked Hope Solo in the head on a muddled clearance. And for the first time this season, the Reign — please sit down and brace yourself — surrendered a goal in the run of play. (Washington has scored both goals Seattle has given up this year — the first was a penalty kick in their prior meeting in Seattle.)
But Seattle never backed away from its simple strategy.
“The old adage of ‘attack’s the best form of defense’ is something we definitely employ,” Harvey said.
And the lineup was attack-minded in every sense. Maybe you could call it a 4-2-3-1, with Jess Fishlock and Keelin Winters at holding mid and Beverly Goebel, Nahoma Kawasumi and Kim Little buzzing around behind target forward Sydney Leroux. But it really looked a bit more like a 4-1-2-3. And if that wasn’t enough for the attack, right back Elli Reed constantly streaked up the flank and put in dangerous crosses while defenders were occupied with everyone else.
“As an outside back, it’s pretty much expected of you today to get forward and get crosses off,” Reed said. “This is a nice big field, so it allowed me to get forward a bit more.”
Five, six, maybe seven attackers at once. Could Harvey explain that concept to Chelsea’s Jose Mourinho, Europe’s best-paid bus-parking attendant? The former Arsenal women’s coach laughed. “You can’t knock him — he still might win the Premier League!”
It’s fun to watch, especially against a team like the Spirit that’s willing to go toe-to-toe with the Reign. And that style attracts players.
NWSL Player of the Month Kim Little: “I know Laura very well. I worked with her for three years at Arsenal. I love the way that she wants to play football.”
Spirit coach Mark Parsons countered with a novel move, playing the irrepressible Crystal Dunn at attacking midfield to tie up Fishlock and Winters. Sounds crazy, but he was right. Fishlock was involved in some chippiness in midfield but wasn’t much of a factor, nor was Winters.
That just left room for Seattle to press on the wings.
“Yes, Seattle were tired on a long trip, but they’ve got sheer quality everywhere,” Parsons said. “They’re a Dream Team. They’re an absolute Dream Team all over the pitch.”
And apparently quite fit. Seattle has played four games in 11 days — two at home, one in atrocious conditions in New Jersey, then last night’s game. (At least the threatened rain never materialized — the evening was pleasant.) A lot of coaches would rotate players in those circumstances.
Not Harvey. Six Reign players have played all 450 minutes this season. Three more have played at least 440. Take away the one change Harvey has made in her starting lineup (Megan Rapinoe went 90 in the one game for which she has been healthy and available), and non-starters on the team have played a total of 79 minutes.
Harvey: “The reason why I haven’t rotated the side yet is that when you’re winning games, it’s hard to.”
Like Yoda, this coach is.
Leroux scored her first goal of the season last night, pouncing on a Spirit giveaway and getting just enough space past Tori Huster to fire far post past Ashlyn Harris. She doesn’t mind seeing seven teammates open their scoring tally before she did.
“It felt, in Boston, a little bit like me and Heather (O’Reilly) and a few others had to really be on point. With this team, I feel like we have so much depth. Every single player on the field is unbelievable. That’s no discredit to Boston at all, but I do feel Seattle is the team to beat right now, for sure.”
Harvey, looking ahead to the next game in a tough schedule in May, disagrees.
“Portland-Seattle is a great rivalry. Portland are champions. They are who they are for a reason. They were the best team in the league last season, and for me, they’re the favorites for the league this season no matter what results have been so far.”
Yes, that next game is in Portland. The Northwest rivalry. Defending champ vs. unbeaten team. No. 1 vs. No. 2.
(Opens Google Calendar — makes appointment for 10 p.m. ET Saturday.)