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How OL Reign can avoid spoiling Megan Rapinoe’s farewell tour

(Stephen Brashear/USA TODAY Sports)

On Friday night, OL Reign will host over 31,000 fans at Lumen Field to celebrate the final regular season home match of Seattle and USWNT legend Megan Rapinoe’s career. The whole evening will serve as an emotional tribute to Rapinoe’s impact on the sport of soccer in Seattle.

But the game against the Washington Spirit will also be crucial for the Reign’s postseason chances, as they battle for a spot with two games remaining in an incredibly tight playoff race. Just one point separates the Reign from the Spirit, and a loss could hinder the team’s ability to send Rapinoe off in style.

It seems impossible to imagine that Rapinoe wouldn’t see at least one playoff game in her final year, but the Reign sit on the precipice of losing ground in the wild postseason chase. Seattle currently has 28 points, tied with the Orlando Pride for sixth, and they only have a hold on the final playoff spot due to a goal differential advantage. If things don’t go according to plan, this could be Rapinoe’s final time playing at home.

The Reign are a hyper-talented squad, with a clear understanding of each other and their intended style of play. But if they want Rapinoe to have as many games as possible in her farewell tour, the matchup against Washington could prove season-defining.

A question of approach

Since July 1, the Reign have won just one of their last seven regular season games, slipping to sixth in the NWSL standings. Their goal differential margin is slim, with 28 goals scored to 26 goals conceded, and they’ve struggled to come back when their opponent scores first. Some of the tightness in the table is outside of Seattle’s control. This is one of the most competitive NWSL seasons of all time, but the difficulty they’ve had closing games out will put even more pressure on the squad as the postseason approaches.

The Reign are known as a team that can pass around their opponent, holding onto the ball to smother the other team’s attack while looking for a carefully placed opening at the other end of the pitch. They haven’t lost that identity in recent months, but they’ve also been leaning into a conservative game plan almost to a fault.

The team’s struggles were clear during their 2-0 loss to the Portland Thorns on Sept. 16. Head coach Laura Harvey lined the team up to be sturdy through their spine, without a ton of speed in the frontline to get in behind Portland’s defense. When the Thorns struck first, courtesy of two quick goals by Hina Sugita and Morgan Weaver in the first half, the Reign looked ill-equipped to respond, generating only three shots on target despite owning the possession battle.

A question of personnel

As steady as the trio of Rapinoe, Lauren Barnes and Jess Fishlock have been over the years, slight upheaval in the Reign’s personnel approach could also be contributing to their uneasy status in the playoff race. After starting goalkeeper Phallon Tullis-Joyce departed for Manchester United last month, the Reign have been starting rookie Claudia Dickey in her place.

Dickey has naturally experienced some growing pains in the new role that have affected the team’s defensive prowess, particularly on set pieces. Harvey has also been drifting from her Shield-winning established center-back pairing of Sam Hiatt and Alana Cook, sitting Hiatt in favor of a combination of Barnes and Phoebe McClernon. With the way the Reign frequently look to build into games from a neutral game-state, the personnel fluctuation on the team’s backline could threaten to undermine Harvey’s approach. Any changes won’t happen immediately, either: Cook, the defense’s mainstay, will be unavailable on Friday due to a red-card suspension.

Rapinoe has carried many minutes in the home stretch of her career, playing no less than 80 minutes a game during the regular season since the start of September. Her dead-ball delivery has regained its lightness of touch — she assisted the Reign’s goal against North Carolina this past weekend — but Harvey will also at times leave game-changers like Elyse Bennett and Tziarra King on the bench for long stretches, even as the team is chasing a result. The team is also missing the playmaking abilities of Rose Lavelle, who remains out with an injury.

The path ahead

Of course, all is not lost for the Reign, who could clinch the playoffs with ease in their final two matches. Moving Emily Sonnett to defensive midfield has been a revelation for the club, and the combination of Jordyn Huitema and Bethany Balcer on attacking set pieces has been difficult for other teams to contain.

And despite the changes along the backline, the Reign are very difficult to beat when they show their mental toughness. Going down to 10 players in their most recent game against North Carolina, the team’s veterans remained calm and committed to holding the Courage from taking all three points in a 1-1 draw. That ethos could be the most important thing carrying them forward.

The Reign’s roster also has the ability to switch tempo and execute a defensive press at a moment’s notice, making their current run of form less relevant to the games ahead. If the team utilizes its depth chart and the defense holds steady, the Reign have all the opportunities in the world to make sure the Rapinoe celebration continues deep into autumn.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.