Reign Return Eyeing Elusive NWSL Championship

Hope Solo and the two-time defending National Women’s Soccer League regular-season champion Seattle Reign begin their 2016 campaign with a preseason friendly on Sunday—kicking off their continued quest for an elusive NWSL championship.

Seattle’s 2016 schedule begins in fitting fashion, as Reign FC will head one state south to take on their arch-rival the Portland Thorns in the first of four scheduled preseason friendlies. Hope will miss most of the preseason schedule, but will will take part in Sunday’s tune-up before she heads off to another United States Women’s National Team camp the following day. The USWNT will finish that camp with a pair of games, hosting Colombia for a pair of international friendlies, one in East Hartford, Conn. on Wednesday, April 6 and the other Chester, Pa. on Sunday, April 10.

Hope is expected to return to the Reign in time for their regular season opener on April 17 at home against Sky Blue FC, when they will begin in earnest the defense of their NWSL Shield.

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The Reign went 13-3-4 in the regular season last year en route to the Shield, which is awarded to the league’s regular season champion and table topper at the beginning of the playoffs. Seattle bested the Chicago Red Stars by 10 points in the standings last season. After a dominant regular season, the Reign ripped the Washington Spirit 3-0 in the league semifinal to open the postseason and advanced to the championship match for the second straight season. However, a fierce FC Kansas City squad awaited the Reign in the championship match, and the Reign came up empty handed in a 1-0 defeat.

The story was eerily similar in 2014. Seattle was even more dominant, finishing the regular season at 16-2-6, atop the standings and 13 points ahead of FCKC to win the NWSL Shield with ease. Just like in 2015, they topped the Spirit 2-1 to open the four-team playoff, and squared off with Kansas City in the final. But that was the first of back-to-back championship losses to their rivals from the Midwest—a 2-1 defeat.

Those consecutive championship defeats leave some unfinished business for the Reign as they begin the 2016 campaign and they have the pieces in place to get over the hump and capture that title that has escaped them the last two seasons.

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Unfortunately Seattle will start the season without one of the team’s starts Hope’s friend and USWNT teammate Megan Rapinoe. The midfielder tore her ACL in December and is likely to miss a large slice of the NSWL slate. There is currently no timetable for Rapinoe’s return, but she has stated she hopes to return to international action in time for the Olympics in August, which would put her on track to join Seattle for the homestretch after the Olympics.

Regardless, the Reign will be one of the teams to beat in the NWSL, as they look to take home both their third straight Shield and add a championship to their haul this time around.

Hope will anchor the goalkeeper slot in Seattle coming off an excellent offseason, during which she was at her absolute best in net. No. 1 didn’t allow a single goal in the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championship as the USWNT outscored their competition 23-0 en route to the regional championship. Last month in the three-team round-robin style SheBelieves tournament, hosted by the U.S., Hope allowed just one goal against three of the top teams in the world: England, France and Germany. She won the Golden Glove award as best goalkeeper in both tournaments and has now earned four consecutive such honors in the last year, making it clear that she’s playing her very best soccer entering this season.

She was also strong for Seattle last season, allowing just one goal per match in 10 starts. She missed about half the Reign’s schedule while playing with the U.S. Women’s National Team before, during and after the 2015 FIFA World Cup. During that span, Hope was dynamite between the posts on her way to claiming the Golden Glove award for the World’s best keeper at the World Cup, which the USWNT won. In Hope’s stead, Haley Kopmeyer held down the goal for Seattle brilliantly and posted an identical 1.00 goals against average in 11 starts. The Reign went 7-1-3 with Kopmeyer in net over a crucial stretch of their schedule, which helped put them in position to lock up the Shield when Hope returned after the World Cup.

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The two will again hold down the top two goalkeeper spots on Seattle’s depth chart, and with No. 1 set to miss some games again this season before during and after the Olympics, Kopmeyer will again play a vital role. Hope and Haley will also help bring along new draft pick, Lindsey Luke out of the University of Utah.

The Reign back line also features a pair of young newcomers—Carson Pickett from Florida State and Paige Nielsen out of North Carolina—who could be relied upon to help fill the void left by retired defender Stephanie Cox. Pickett and Nielsen will team with Lauren Barnes, who joined Hope for a stint on the USWNT over the offseason, Elli Reed and Kendall Fletcher in Seattle making an effort to anchor the defensive front.

The Reign also return three of the league’s top goal scorers from last year, including one of the very best midfielders in the world, Kim Little. Little had 10 goals a year ago, tying her for second in the league, in addition to a NWSL-leading seven assists. That league-leading campaign for Little followed up a tremendous 2014 season, during which she scored a league-record 16 goals and also had seven dimes. Midfielder Jessica Fishlock and forward Beverley Yanez worked wonderfully together with Little, totaling eight and nine goals respectively. Seattle scored more goals (44) than any other team in the league last year, and their 22 goals against were second only to Kansas City (20).

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The Reign will look to continue their league-wide dominance on Sunday for the preseason opener. Seattle swept their regional rival in Portland last season, winning their two meetings with the Thorns by a combined score of 4-0.

Sunday’s game is slated for a 5 p.m. PT start from Portland’s Providence Park.

After facing the Thorns to start it off, the Reign will play two more games in Portland, one against the Houston Dash on Wednesday and a final matchup with Oregon State University on Saturday. Then a week later, they’ll close the preseason against the University of Washington in the Community Shield Match at Seattle’s Memorial Stadium.

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