(Stephen Brashear/USA TODAY Sports)
On Friday night, OL Reign will host more than 31,000 fans at Lumen Field to celebrate Seattle and the final regular season home match of USWNT legend Megan Rapinoe’s career. The entire evening will serve as an emotional tribute to Rapinoe’s impact on the game of football in Seattle.
But the game against the Washington Spirit will also be important to the Reign’s postseason prospects, as they are fighting for a spot in an incredibly tight playoff race with two games remaining. Only one point separates Reagan from Spirit, and a loss could hinder the team’s ability to send Rapinoe off on a high note.
It seems impossible to imagine that Rapinoe won’t see at least one playoff game in her final year, but Regan is on the verge of losing a wild postseason run. Seattle currently has 28 points, tied with the Orlando Pride for sixth, and only have a hold on the final playoff spot due to goal difference advantage. If things don’t go according to plan, this could be Rapinoe’s last chance to play on home soil.
Regan are an ultra-talented team, with a clear understanding of each other and their desired style of play. But if they want Rapinoe to get as many games as possible on her farewell tour, the match against Washington could prove to be season-defining.
question of perspective
Since July 1, the Reign have won only one of their last seven regular season games, and have dropped to sixth place in the NWSL standings. Their goal difference is very low, with 28 goals scored and 26 goals conceded, and they struggle to come back when their opponent scores first. Some of the tightness in the standings is out of Seattle’s control. This has been one of the most competitive NWSL seasons ever, but as the postseason approaches, the difficulty they had in closing out games will put even more pressure on the team.
Rennes are known as a team that can pass around their opponent, holding the ball to suppress the other team’s attack while looking for carefully placed openings at the other end of the pitch. They haven’t lost their identity in recent months, but they’re also leaning toward a conservative game plan that’s almost completely wrong.
The team’s struggles were evident during a 2–0 loss to the Portland Thorns on September 16. Head coach Laura Harvey built the team strong through its spine, without a ton of speed in the frontline to get behind Portland’s defense. When the Thorns struck first in the first half thanks to two quick goals from Hina Sugita and Morgan Weaver, Rigon looked unprepared to respond and managed only three shots on goal despite battling for possession.
a question from personnel
As stable as the trio of Rapinoe, Lauren Barnes and Jess Fishlock have been over the past few years, even a minor upheaval in the regime’s personnel approach could contribute to their tough situation in the playoff race. After starting goalkeeper Fallon Tullis-Joyce left for Manchester United last month, Reign have started rookie Claudia Dickie in her place.
Dickie has naturally experienced some growing pains in the new role which has affected the team’s defensive ability, especially on set pieces. Harvey is also moving away from her Shield-winning established centre-back pair of Sam Hyatt and Alana Cook, in favor of the combination of Hyatt Barnes and Phoebe McLernan. Just as Regan repeatedly tries to make games from a neutral game-state, personnel fluctuations on the team’s backline could threaten to undermine Harvey’s approach. No changes will be immediate: Cook, the mainstay of the defense, will be unavailable Friday Reasons for red card suspension,
Rapinoe has logged the most domestic minutes of her career, having played at least 80 minutes during the regular season since the beginning of September. Her dead-ball delivery has renewed that lightness of touch — she assisted the Reign’s goal against North Carolina last weekend — but Harvey has at times left game-changers like Alyse Bennett and Tajiara King on the bench for long periods. Will give, even as the team is chasing a result. The team is also missing the playmaking ability of Rose Lavelle, who is out with an injury.
Ol’ set piece perfection.
Rapinoe ➡️ Balcer for lead pic.twitter.com/zeq1xTZu0s
– National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) 2 October 2023
Of course, all is not lost for Rennes, who can easily win the playoffs in their final two matches. Moving Emily Sonnett into defensive midfield has been a revelation for the club, and the combination of Jordan Huitema and Bethany Balcer on attacking set pieces has been difficult for other teams to stop.
And despite the changes in the backline, when Reagan shows his mental toughness he is very difficult to beat. After going down to 10 men in their most recent game against North Carolina, the team’s veteran players remained calm and determined to prevent the Courage from taking all three points in a 1-1 tie. That ethos may be the most important thing carrying them forward.
Rennes’ roster also has the ability to change tempo and execute a defensive press at a moment’s notice, making their current form less relevant for games ahead. If the team utilizes its depth chart and the defense remains stable, the Reign have all the chances in the world to ensure the Rapinoe celebrations continue into the autumn.
Claire Watkins is a staff writer at Just Women Sports. Follow him on Twitter @scoutripley,