This Sunday, April 17, Sky Blue FC takes on the Seattle Reign FC for both teams’ opening match of the 2016 NWSL season. The match, which will be played at Memorial Stadium in Seattle, will be one of the toughest challenges for Sky Blue all season.
The Reign is coming off another Shield-winning season and have yet to be beaten at Memorial, while Sky Blue has undergone a bit of an overhaul in the off and preseasons.
The Reign won four preseason matches, including winning a preseason tournament hosted by the Portland Thorns. In contrast, Sky Blue played just two preseason matches against collegiate teams at the start of the preseason.
While Sky Blue is the definite underdog in Sunday’s match-up, every sports fan knows that in sports, anything is possible.
In preparation for Sunday’s season opener, we traded three questions with our friend Susie from Sounder at Heart about the two teams and their 2016 seasons.
OaM: The Reign has won the Shield in back-to-back years but always falls just short of winning the league title. A lot of fans are predicting that 2016 will be the Reign’s year to finally get that ever-elusive title, but what obstacles could once again make that difficult for Laura Harvey and the Reign to obtain?
SaH: Ouch, that "always" hurts, but I suppose it's fair up to this point. If you thought the championship loss in 2014 was a heartbreaker, it was nothing compared to how the team and fans felt after last season’s 1-0 loss to FCKC. The team begins the season with nine of its 11 starters from last year, so Reign fans are feeling pretty optimistic about the team’s chances this year.
Our biggest obstacle? Honestly, I’d say it is focusing too much on the past. If the Reign play their game — possession-heavy, technical football — they are virtually unstoppable. The other unknown is along the left side of the field, with Megan Rapinoe recovering from an ACL tear and the retirement of Stephanie Cox at left back, one of the most underrated defenders in the league. It will be interesting to see how the Reign adjust to fill this hole. They have promising options, including first-round draft pick Carson Pickett, who in addition to being a strong defender has a beautifully dangerous left-footed cross.
OaM: Seattle Reign FC has suffered the least roster turnover in the offseason, although losing defender Stephanie Cox to retirement was a pretty sizable blow to the starting XI. Who of Seattle’s new roster additions do you think will bring the most to the Reign this season, and what contributions might they bring to the field?
SaH: Manon Melis, all-time leading scorer for the Netherlands who was considering retirement before Laura Harvey called her, should be a huge addition this year. The 29-year-old brings something the Reign haven’t had: a speedy attacker who plays really direct soccer. Once the Reign figure out how to consistently get her the ball in dangerous positions, I expect she will score a lot of goals.
In addition to Pickett, who I mention above, Havana Solaun should have a breakout season. She missed last year with a broken ankle, but has recently earned consistent minutes with the U-23 USWNT. I expect Solaun to start the season as one of the first subs either up top or in the midfield, although I wouldn’t be surprised if Solaun plays her way into a starting role by the end of the season.
OaM: Speaking of the roster, Lauren Barnes was called up for the USWNT SheBelieves Cup back in March but wasn’t capped, and the Reign currently only has two regular USWNT players—Hope Solo and Megan Rapinoe—rostered. Some fans see a lack of USWNT players as a good thing for NWSL teams, especially in World Cup and Olympic years, but for other teams the lack of U.S. national teamers is a bit of a detriment. Is the low number of US national teamers more of a blessing or a curse for the Reign, and who, if any, players on the Reign do you feel could or should get a call up to the NT?
SaH: The stability in only losing two players to the World Cup was crucial for the Reign last year, but having recognizable stars is also really good for business. The fact that the Reign drew such low attendance numbers before the World Cup — between 2,000 and 3,000 — was pretty shocking. The team consistently sold out (or got close to it) post-World Cup, however, and it looks like that will continue this season, as the Reign have already tripled the number of season tickets sold from last year.
On your question about players who should get a call-up, I think Lauren Barnes should get another look. She was arguably one of the best defenders last year — leading a backline that gave up just 21 goals in 20 matches — and brings versatility in being able to play left back or centerback. In addition, Keelin Winters is the rock that holds the best midfield in the league together, and the national team lacks a true defensive holding midfielder. Winters is one of those players you don’t always notice. She has great positioning, is a strong tackler and can withstand pressure and quickly spring the offense.
Finally, Bev Yanez deserves at least one call-up. Sure, there’s already a ton of attacking talent on the USWNT, but Yanez is a great hold-up player who is lethal in front of the goal. She probably won’t be a regular, but with 9 goals in 17 matches, I think she’s proven herself worthy.
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SaH: Sky Blue has a new coach in former assistant Christy Holly, who has mentioned his goal is to make the team more versatile. What change does Holly bring that will help him accomplish this?
OaM: Holly is a breath of fresh air for the team, even if he’s been there as an assistant for the past few years. He’s got a lot of experience under his belt, including scouting players at all different levels of the game, so I think he’s very in tune with what coaches look for in players for certain positions or different styles of play. He’s able to assess both a player’s and talents and a team’s needs, and that makes it easier for him to move players into positions that maybe they’re not as used to playing, but definitely have the skill to. Honing those different skills will definitely make them more versatile, and just a handful of more versatile players on a team can completely enhance an entire team’s dynamic.
And let’s not forget he also has Kelley O’Hara on his team. She’s practically the definition of versatility, both at the club and national levels. She was a star college forward at Stanford who was then converted first to a middy and then an outside back in her time on the USWNT. She won the MAC Hermann trophy as a forward, has an Olympic gold medal as a defender and has a World Cup title as a midfielder. She is capable of playing all over the field, and having her as kind of a baseline for versatility will be beneficial to Holly as well.
SaH: Sky Blue got a fantastic first-round draft pick in Costa Rican international and Hermann Trophy winner Raquel Rodriguez. How much of an impact do you think she can make this year? And what other new signings do you expect will do big things?
OaM: Rocky was a great acquisition for Sky Blue, and I think everyone will be shocked if she doesn’t play a major part in our attack from the get go. She’s proven herself as solid performer at both the collegiate and international levels already, scoring the NCAA championship-winning goal and winning the MAC Hermann Trophy in her senior year at Penn State and scoring Costa Rica’s first ever World Cup goal. Some rookies have trouble adjusting to the speed of professional play, but that should in no way be a problem for Rocky. She definitely has the potential to step in and fill the hole left by Nadia Nadim’s exit, and Holly will probably turn to her to do just that.
Caroline Stanley also has the potential to do big things for the team. She trained alongside two of the best keepers in the league during her time with the Reign, and that no doubt gave her a wealth of knowledge that’ll be invaluable to her and Sky Blue. And of course we all expect big things out of Tasha Kai.
SaH: We were so excited to see Natasha Kai return to club soccer. A once-USWNT regular, Kai has the potential to be a big signing and has a lot to prove. What was the reaction like among Sky Blue fans around her return?
OaM: Sky Blue fans are thrilled to see Kai return to the game—how could we not be? She’s larger than life, both on and off the field, and that’s infectious. She’s the kind of bold, brash player that I think has been missing from the NWSL, and fans love her. Honestly, our team took a bit of a beating in the off season, so the announcement that she was returning to the game and to Sky Blue was exactly what we needed to inject some excitement and optimism back into the fan base. Kai was a major part of the 2009 team that won the WPS championship, and Sky Blue fans haven’t forgotten that. She’s proven herself in the past, and already she seems to be clicking on the field with our offense. I fully expect to see Kai wreaking havoc all over the field, and so should every goalkeeper in the league.
Sky Blue FC kicks off its fourth NWSL season on Sunday, April 17 at 7 p.m. EST and will be live streamed on the NWSL YouTube channel.