The last time the two teams faced off was in the 2016 season opener played at Memorial Stadium in Seattle back in April. Surprisingly, Sky Blue--very much the underdogs going into the game--handed the Reign their first loss of the season and their first-ever loss at Memorial.
Coming into Sunday's match, the two teams are much more evenly matched than most fans would have predicted at this point in the season. Sky Blue currently has a 2-3-3 record and 9 points, landing them seventh on the table, while Seattle sits just one spot ahead of them with a 3-3-2 record and 11 points.
Both SBFC and the Reign have had to deal with several of the same obstacles this season, but the return of key players to the teams has given both a boost in recent weeks.
In advance of Sunday's rematch between the two teams, we once again traded three questions with our friend Susie at Sounder at Heart about the two teams and their seasons so far.
OaM: Last season Seattle had 17 goals in the first eight games, but this year the Reign has only had eight. What accounts for the Reign’s offensive struggles this season?
SaH: Opponents have narrowed their game plans against the Reign to focus on shutting down Seattle’s midfield, which has been a big factor in the goal shortage. If you can disrupt the trio of Jess Fishlock, Kim Little and Keelin Winters, you can stop a good percentage of goal-dangerous opportunities. Sky Blue did that quite well in the home opener. The absence of both Fishlock and Megan Rapinoe has made it even worse. Rapinoe, in particular, provides unpredictability, which Seattle could really use right now. You never know what run she’s going to make or pass she’ll try.
Finally, for whatever reason, the team has taken much longer this year to jell as a unit. This feels particularly strange, given how few players the team lost in the off-season. The reasons are kind of inexplicable, but their last performance gave us a glimpse of the Reign we know and love.
OaM: Jess Fishlock returned to play a full 90 at home for the first time last weekend against the Dash, and the midfield arguably looked the best it has all season. What is it about Fishlock that makes her such a dynamic force on the field for Seattle?
SaH: Fishlock is truly one-of-a-kind. Not only is she a never-ending engine on the field, she has the unique ability to quickly spring an attack from deep in Seattle’s defensive half. In her absence, while the Reign certainly held their own defensively, they struggled to move the ball forward – often opting to move it back and forth along the backline or near the middle of the field. The team seemed to lack a sense of urgency, even late in the match, without Fishlock in there.
In addition, Fishlock’s connection with Kim Little is unparalleled. The two link up so well, and we saw a little of the Little-Fishlock magic in their last match against Houston. No goal came from their long balls and runs into the box, but they were a lot more dangerous than at any other point this season.
OaM: The season opener between Seattle and Sky Blue didn’t go the way most people expected it to. What changes can fans expect to see from the Reign when the teams play this weekend?
SaH: Reign players looked completely stunned and discouraged after the home opener. I suspect the biggest thing that fans will notice is a much higher level of energy from the squad. They’re going to want to control the pace and tempo of the game. On top of that, Reign players have been working on their runs off the ball. If Kim Little gets the ball in the midfield, we know she’ll be swarmed immediately. That means space and players should open up all around her. The trick is finding those pockets quickly, something Seattle has struggled with this season.
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SaH: Sky Blue's high pressure had Seattle Reign players flustered in the season opener. Has Sky Blue continued this style of play against other teams?
OaM: That has been one of the major strategies for the season, but the Seattle match is probably the game where it was most effective. That match also stands apart from all the others so far this season because I think the team knew going into it that everyone already had Seattle written into the win column, so they had nothing to lose. That allowed them to play their game, and that caught Seattle off guard and resulted in three points for Sky Blue. I think it was also pretty successful against Houston and even Chicago, resulting in draws against both teams, but opponents are expecting it now and injuries have forced Sky Blue to go with different tactics at times.
SaH: Sky Blue is tied with Boston for the most goals given up this year (12). What are some reasons for the defensive struggles?
OaM: The Sky Blue back line has had two rookies, Erin Simon and Erica Skroski, on it for most of the season. Both have played phenomenally against some tough opponents, but there are times when their inexperience shows. Coach Holly made some changes to the back line the last two games, shifting Skroski out to right back and starting Kristin Grubka in the center, so hopefully that’ll beef up the defense some.
The outside backs have also been playing more of a fullback position, and that’s allowed Kelley O’Hara especially to be a major contributing force to the Sky Blue attack. While that’s great when she’s moving the ball down the field and creating opportunities for goals, it’s not so great when there’s a turnover and there’s a hole left on one side of the field. O’Hara’s one of the fastest, fittest players around, but 90+ minutes of running end line to end line is enough to wear out even the best players, and that affects her ability to get back on defense and prevent shots.
SaH: Australian winger Sam Kerr is back from injury! How much does her return impact the squad?
OaM: So much. Our front third has been plagued by injuries this season, and what the team has really lacked is a consistent goal scorer. While you can get draws without goals, you can’t get wins without them, and Sky Blue needs wins. Despite only playing in nine games last season because of her time with the Australian WNT, Kerr was tied for most goals for the team and was the team’s Golden Boot winner. She also has great chemistry with O’Hara on the field, and that created a lot of opportunities on goal for Sky Blue last season. Having her in the attack would also allow O’Hara to not have to push up quite as high, which would simultaneously strengthen the defense. So, all in all, Kerr’s return is huge.
Sky Blue FC plays the Seattle Reign FC on Sunday, June 19 at 6 p.m. EST. The game, which is also Sky Blue's Pride Night, will be streamed live on the NWSL Soccer channel on YouTube.