The Chicago Red Stars and the Seattle Reign head into tonight’s clash with more questions than answers. The visitors come to Toyota Park tonight to face a vulnerable Chicago team who have won just one game in their last five. This is a huge opportunity for them to climb into the Top 4 with the playoff race heading into the home stretch. But they’re going to have to do it without their star player. It’s anyone’s guess how tonight is going to shake out.
Hot Time In Old Town: Megan Rapinoe came back from international duty with a knee injury and will be out for over a month while she recovers from surgery. With the NWSL playoff race heading into the home stretch, this is exceptionally bad timing for her club team. How will the Reign cope without her? (Bonus Q: how pissed is everyone at Jill Ellis right now?)
Sounder At Heart: I'll answer your bonus question first: we are really freaking annoyed at Ellis. She said the Tournament of Nations was a time to experiment with new players and test them out. Megan Rapinoe is 32, has claimed a World Cup title and Olympic gold medal, and has more than 120 USWNT caps. What is there left to test out? Pinoe was one of the best U.S. players at the ToN, certainly, but there was no reason to play her 90 minutes, 90 minutes, and 73 minutes over the course of a week. I don't know what Ellis learned in that time period, except that Pinoe is still a star, but do know that Rapinoe left with knee pain and a five-week absence. Oh, Jill.
What Rapinoe brings to the Reign attack is unpredictability. She tries stuff. Think she's going to cross the ball? She'll probably take a shot. Think she stopped that run? There she goes sneaking behind you. Seattle really needs to figure out how to bring that grit and unpredictability that Rapinoe contributes every time she steps on the field. I think they can do it, but it might take a few more games to figure out.
HTIOT: Tell me about Jess Fishlock and how important she's been to this team in 2017.
SAH: Fishlock is simply irreplaceable. What she's brought in all 4+ seasons with Reign FC is a grit and determination that is infectious. You know when Fishlock steps onto the field, she's going to do whatever she must to help Seattle win. She challenges those around her to be better, stronger, and more intense. I think if Seattle had Fishlock in the midfield last weekend against North Carolina, the team would have won. She's the epitome of a quality box-to-box midfielder. She can contribute so much on the offensive and defensive end, and her ability to quickly spark a counter attack will certainly help the team against Chicago.
HTIOT: The Reign are only two points out of a playoff spot with a game in hand over Orlando. How confident are you that Seattle will be able to finish in the Top 4?
SAH: I wish I could say I was really confident. I have a ton of faith in Laura Harvey and this team, but what makes me nervous is that five of their final seven matches are on the road. And those teams Reign FC must face away from Memorial Stadium include Chicago, Sky Blue, and Orlando, which are all fighting for playoff positions. On the flip side, that means Seattle controls its own destiny. Take down teams above them on the league table, and Reign FC can move up. What makes me perhaps the most optimistic is that the team seems to be less vulnerable on defense. Just a week ago, they limited North Carolina to one goal in Cary, and last weekend they allowed the Courage just two shots on goal (which both went in, unfortunately). If that trend continues, I think Reign FC has a real shot.
SAH: Chicago has been one of the hardest teams to break down, but managed to let in three goals against Portland last weekend. What happened?
HTIOT: God, I wish I knew. Giving up two goals in ten minutes was painful. They've been so solid all season but Portland just cut through Chicago's defense like it was nothing. I don't think I can pin this on one person-- there was just a systemic breakdown. I feel like Alyssa Naeher is going to shoulder most of the blame, and I really don't think that's fair, but that's just how things go. I wish I could say this was just a bad day or Portland got lucky, but if Seattle manage to do the same thing tonight-- and they well might-- I think it'll be a pretty clear indication that something is very, very wrong.
SAH: Last time Seattle faced Chicago, Laura Harvey sent Maddie Bauer into the game with one charge: don't let Julie Ertz get the ball. How important is Ertz to the success of the Red Stars?
HTIOT: I think she's been absolutely crucial to this team's setup. She's done a tremendous job of shielding the backline and snuffing out problems before they start while also locking down the center of the park and denying space to the opposition. As I told Katelyn last week, Ertz really is the key to this team. If you can figure out how to beat her, you can probably beat the Red Stars. If the Reign want to get the win tonight, that's how they can do it.
SAH: The dynamic duo of Sofia Huerta and Christen Press has been terrorizing defenses all season. Yuki Nagasato just earned her first minutes with the team against Portland. What does she add to the attack?
HTIOT: That's a very good question. Most of what I've seen of her was with Japan, and I haven't seen much of what she does with her clubs. My understanding is her style of play got way more physical after playing in Europe, and I suspect that will serve her well in the NWSL. My easy (and somewhat cop-out) answer is that she adds another option, and that's certainly true. But I think we're probably not going to see her best work until she starts to gel with her teammates, and that could take some time. When the Red Stars have gone behind in the score in recent games the response from Rory Dames was to throw in another striker or two to flood the opposition's box, and I suspect that's how Nagasato will be used until she finds her rhythm with the team and carves out a niche for herself. I think long-term she could end up forming part of a powerful strike partnership with Press (or Huerta), but for right now I think she's more likely to come off the bench around the 60th minute with the Red Stars trailing and be tasked with trying to get her side back in it.