Ahead of the Red Stars’ crucial showdown against fellow Top Four rivals Seattle, we sat down with Susie Rantz from Sounder At Heart to get the skinny
Hot Time: So first things first, we at the Red Stars desk at Hot Time were really worried for Rachel Daly last week (and outraged at all the "suck it up, buttercup!" responses). How is she doing?
Sounder At Heart: It was absolutely horrible to see Daly go down the way she did. That heat was brutal. It sounds like she has fully recovered, though only time will tell. Daly had a great match for Houston -- being asked to steady the inconsistent back line, and doing so admirably. She is one of those players who gives everything on the field, and it showed last weekend. Just seconds before she collapsed, she helped spark a big opportunity for Houston in the box. I hope Daly doesn't have to go through something like that again. In fact, I hope no player has to deal with those conditions at the hottest portion of the day in Texas.
Hot Time: The Daly incident notwithstanding, the Reign nailed down a huge 2-0 win in Houston last week. They're firmly in contention for a playoff place, despite the huge offseason losses. Who do you think has been key for the Reign keeping things together so far?
Sounder At Heart: Early on this season, Laura Harvey stressed two things: 1) fitness and 2) finishing scoring chances. The Reign came in stronger than ever from a fitness perspective, which helped them grind out some results early in the season. Megan Rapinoe's fitness level, in particular, has been really impressive. She worked hard in the offseason to fully recover from her ACL tear, and the technical components of her game keep getting better and better. The Reign also worked hard to ensure their opportunities near the goal didn't go wasted. When that works well, like against Houston and Washington, Seattle looks unstoppable.
Harvey also focuses a lot on being a player-coach and respecting each player as a person. While that doesn't naturally correlate with results on the pitch, having players who feel respected and want to play for Harvey and their teammates goes a long way. When you combine this with the talent this team has, I think the Reign have the potential to contend in the playoffs again.
Hot Time: What do you think will be Seattle's biggest challenge heading into their match with the Red Stars?
Sounder At Heart: Defense continues to be the biggest challenge for Seattle. It's not that the Reign lack the defensive talent. Rather, they haven't been organized and consistent for all 90 minutes. Last week was Seattle's first shutout of the season, and Houston still had plenty of chances to score. Seattle is particularly vulnerable out wide defensively. The backline hasn't had a lot of time together, and in the long run I don't have significant concerns. But having to face players like Christen Press and Sophia Huerta while Seattle's defenders are still figuring each other out makes me a little nervous.
In addition, the Reign need to prove themselves against better teams. Big wins against Houston and Washington are encouraging, but Seattle needs to prove itself against a team like Chicago to get taken seriously.
Sounder At Heart: The Red Stars are giving up just one goal a game, on average, which is good for second lowest in the league. Why is Chicago so effective at limiting opponents?
Hot Time: The short answer is Julie Ertz. She's just an absolute rock, whether in central defense or as a holding midfielder. I would go so far as to say that we seem to struggle most on defense when she's pulled out of position or when she's instructed to play outside of those roles (as was the case earlier in the season when she was made to play as a #10). Our current central defense pairing of Naughton and Johnson are finally finding their rhythm together, and our outside backs in Gilliland and (especially) Short have been tremendous.
Sounder At Heart: Rory Dames has built a squad based on his knowledge of the college and youth development systems, and he has been quite effective in this approach. I've always had the impression that Dames gets unfairly left off conversations about the best coaches in the NWSL. Where would you rank Dames and his coaching style in comparison to other coaches in the league?
Hot Time: Part of it is because he prefers a very direct style of football. For all the technical prowess in the squad, the Red Stars frequently end up resorting to Route 1 soccer as soon as things stop going their way. It's fine having that in your toolbox, but it seems sometimes like that's our only fallback plan, and if it doesn't work out, then, oh well. So Dames does have a glaring weakness in his game, and that's a lack of tactical depth and a degree of inflexibility. There's an obvious Plan A (cycle the ball in midfield until you can get it to Press), an obvious Plan B (boot it up high and hope someone can get on the other end of it), and nothing beyond that. It's worked well enough so far, in that the Red Stars manage to win games and are perennial playoff contenders, but there's a hard ceiling in terms of what Dames' strategy can yield, and I think that's why he doesn't rank as high as, say, Laura Harvey.
Sounder At Heart: Chicago is looking like a pretty complete team right now. But if you had to identify one weakness on this squad, what would it be?
Hot Time: I think it's the aforementioned inflexibility and lack of tactical depth. Also, the past few games notwithstanding, when the Red Stars win it tends to be a 1-0 sort of thing. Score really early, or really late, and hang on for dear life. That's fine when it works, but sometimes it doesn't, and when it doesn't there isn't a sufficient contingency plan in place to get the result anyway. So it's really tough to break them down, but if you do, you've got 'em, and there's just not a lot they're able to do to recover.