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.