The secret behind Seattle Reign's success
The Seattle Reign didn't need a player who could change a team as much as they needed someone who could complete one.
Kim Little had some things to figure out when she made the move from Arsenal to the Reign this season, the Scottish midfielder's first in North America. In a country where Seattle and San Francisco are still more than 200 miles farther apart than Aberdeen in the north of Scotland and London in the south of England, the first hurdle was managing the scale of travel involved in a league that stretches from the Chesapeake Bay to the Puget Sound.
The second was the weather. When even Seattle is warmer in the summer months than London, where Little lived and played at Arsenal for more than five years, and is a veritable cauldron compared to Aberdeen, where she grew up, running for 90 minutes in the summer saunas of cities such as Houston, Kansas City and Washington would be a test.
Yet it's the rest of the league that has been left exhausted by her arrival.
Little figured out a plan for rest and hydration. Opponents are still trying to figure out a plan for how to stop her.
"When we play teams now, they literally either have to man-mark Kim, that's how worried they are about her, or they change their whole system for Kim and our team," Reign teammate Lauren Barnes said. "You see teams doing it all the time when we play them now, and she's just created this respect where everyone knows how good she is."
To this point in the National Women's Soccer League season, most of those plans have looked less "Ocean's Eleven" and more Wile E. Coyote. After Sunday's emphatic 5-0 victory against defending champion and Interstate 5 rival Portland Thorns FC, a nine-point cushion separates the first-place Reign from second-place FC Kansas City. No other team is within 16 points of the top of the table, and clinching home-field advantage throughout the playoffs is a formality. Little's part in pulling away from the rest of the league likely will merit MVP honors. She leads the league with 12 goals, already more than any two Seattle players combined scored all of last season, and is one assist off the league lead in that category after setting up a pair of goals against the Thorns.
As she continues to thwart plans opponents devise to contain her, she validates the plan Seattle coach Laura Harvey stuck to through tough times a season ago. The one that just needed the right Scot to provide the finishing touch.
The current state of affairs is a far cry from this time in 2013, when survival, rather than long-term strategy, seemed the order of the day for Harvey's team. The only one of the league's original coaches who had not previously worked in the United States, she left a string of titles with Arsenal for a long summer with the deck stacked against her in the Pacific Northwest.
Megan Rapinoe, one of Seattle's initial allocations from the United States national team, spent half the season fulfilling prior contractual obligations to Lyon in France. Amy Rodriguez, another potential source of goals, was allocated to the Reign but missed the entire season while pregnant with her first child. The team caught few breaks at either end of the field, as recovery from wrist surgery limited allocated goalkeeper and hometown favorite Hope Solo to 14 appearances, but the paucity of goals was glaring, particularly before Rapinoe returned from abroad.
The Reign finished next to last, 12 points in the standings and nine goals removed from any teams ahead of them.
"We felt we were a hard team to play against last season," Harvey said. "But we didn't feel we were a real threat going forward until we got Megan Rapinoe back."
Fixing that was the obvious offseason priority. First came the deal that brought Sydney Leroux from Boston. The Reign also subsequently secured the services of Beverly Goebel and World Cup winner Nahomi Kawasumi from INAC Kobe Leonessa in Japan. Even though goals haven't come at quite the same rate for Leroux as they did for Boston a season ago or continue to for the United States, those three players alone have added 15 goals and eight assists this season, including three goals in Sunday's game, valuable contributions with Rapinoe again unavailable for much of the season, this time because of injury. But what proved the biggest move came when the team acquired Little's NWSL rights amid the buzz surrounding the Leroux deal days earlier.
Harvey wondered whether it might take some time for the star she coached at Arsenal to adjust to the pace of play in the NWSL. It took her barely 48 minutes to score her first goal on a penalty kick.
And then five more minutes to score her second in the run of play.
"She's just excellent under pressure technically," Harvey said. "You give her the ball and you trust she's going to keep it and she's going to do something with it. She's proven that throughout the year. I think she also can create something out of nothing. She has that ability. And I think she's a winner. She is an out-and-out winner. She's one of the most competitive people I've ever met."
Now 24, Little had in the past drawn interest from American universities but decided instead to relocate from Scotland and play for Arsenal while attending school in London. She was again a target of interest from across the Atlantic in the three-season run of Women's Professional Soccer but again preferred to stay in London, where Arsenal was in the midst of a run of titles and she could continue her studies. But with the new league on stable footing and her old boss in charge, her plan finally included a trip to the United States for more than a Scotland friendly.
"I've always wanted to come across," Little said. "Knowing that girl's football, soccer as you call it, over here is huge and just to experience that as a professional. For me, it was just sort of the right time in my career and life to do it."
Strange as it might sound about a team coming off a generally wretched season, it was the right situation, too. Plenty of teams can admit a glaring weakness, as Harvey and the Reign did with their goal production a season ago, and bring in new players with impressive résumés. The history of professional sports also contains almost as many examples of instances in which improvements on paper didn't bring a corresponding return in reality. Adding talent to a mess often results in nothing more than a more talented mess.
While Little, Leroux, Kawasumi and Goebel have helped their new team score more goals than any in the league, the Reign have also allowed the fewest goals in the league. They've done it largely with the same defensive core as a season ago, a healthy Solo surrounded by defenders Elli Reed and Barnes, defensive midfielder Keelin Winters and the two-way talents of Jessica Fishlock, all of whom played at least 1,500 minutes a season ago.
"I know we didn't have the strongest of seasons, and I know that we lost quite a few in a row, but I think that's pretty much made us who we are now," Barnes said. "With everything that happened last year, I think most teams -- when the wheels started falling off, fingers would have been pointed. But with our team, in the situation we were in, we came in to practice every single day excited to play. We still had the joy to play soccer because of Laura and just the way she had set the team chemistry from the beginning."
Little is a reserved Scot who is so even-keeled that Barnes, even as she likened her teammate to a similarly diminutive attacking presence who plays for Barcelona and Argentina in the men's game, said it is sometimes reassuring to see her bark at a referee just to know she's aware of the surroundings. To ask her to change the culture of a team, especially as she herself adapts to a new culture off the field, might test the limits of her otherwise limitless abilities. But Little didn't need to in Seattle. The culture was already there waiting for her, courtesy of Harvey.
"When you have respect for someone, you'll go out and play for them and want to win for them," Barnes said. "That's exactly how everyone feels about Laura."
One Arsenal import instilled a belief hardened by defeat. Another gave the Reign the means to win.
Seattle had a plan. Now it's up to the rest of the league to come up with one that can stop it.