Nine Squads, Nine Stories is a series that concentrates on one team in the National Women’s Soccer League, highlighting a player or theme. This installment focuses on Seattle Reign FC defender Lauren Barnes and how she has evolved as a center back for the Reign as the Seattle team makes a run toward a league championship.
“Laura [Harvey] wants ‘footballers’ instead of overall athletes and I think she just gave me the opportunity, which before I don’t think I ever got. I think her trust has given me confidence.”
As the final of the 2015 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) nears, the Seattle Reign look to win the franchise’s first championship title. Standing in the Reign’s way is FC Kansas City, the defending NWSL Champions, in a rematch of the 2014 NWSL final.
The Reign pride themselves on being a solid defensive unit and are one of the best in building possession out of the back. Seattle led the league in goals allowed in 2014, conceding 20 times in 24 matches and were second to Kansas City in 2015, allowing 21 goals in 20 games.
One of the main fixtures in Laura Harvey’s back line is Lauren Barnes, who has held the center back position since Seattle’s first NWSL match in 2013. Barnes, a left back by trade, possesses great technical skill that did not go unnoticed by Reign head coach Laura Harvey. Harvey knew from day one with the Reign that Barnes, a former UCLA Bruin, had the potential to become one of the better central defenders in the NWSL.
“When we went to Japan in 2013 and had our first ever game and training session, how comfortable [Lauren] was on the ball and her defender mentality, it just cried out to me that she was somebody that could be a pinnacle of our system,” said Harvey.
“If you look at any team that I’ve coached before, you’ve always seen a center back who could play. And I think she’s built herself into one of the best center backs in the league without a doubt and a huge part of this team.”
Gaining Confidence, Making a Transition
After playing with the Philadelphia Independence of Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) in 2011, Barnes was Seattle’s second-round pick (10th overall) in the NWSL Supplemental Draft. Traditionally, Barnes had been used as an outside back who scored the occasional goal.
When Harvey saw that the former Bruin’s services could be better served as a central defender, Barnes was moved to the middle of the defense where she started in the Reign’s opening day lineup against the Chicago Red Stars. She’s been the everyday center back since and has missed only one match in three seasons with the Reign.
“I think what Laura saw in me initially was I was a left back and that was potentially where I could be playing,” said Barnes. “And then with injuries, the length, and the physicality of our league, I was moved to center back and it was the first time I ever played that position. And she just trusted me; and being a left back initially, I was used to having the ball at my feet so that was what I brought to that center back position.”
Barnes’ technical ability won over Harvey immediately. The former Arsenal Ladies’ manager enjoys bringing in players who look to play a possession-oriented game and Barnes certainly fits the mold. Harvey said that combining the skills that Barnes had from her days as an outside back with the ones she’s gained as a center back, has made her into a central defender unlike many others.
“So there are times during a game where she will do a Cruyff turn on the edge of the 18-yard box and that is something you don’t necessarily put together with a center back,” Harvey said, “but because she is so comfortable on the ball, then she feels she can put herself in a position to show what she can really do.”
“And that is something I can applaud and it is risky sometimes but sometimes there are points in the game where she is so comfortable on the ball, that she can get herself out of dangerous positions as opposed to other defenders who are out-and-out defenders, [and] would just struggle.”
Seeing the Reign Grow
Seattle struggled during year one of the NWSL. After that opening day draw with Chicago, the Reign dropped nine straight matches and fell out of playoff contention early in the season. However, winning five matches and drawing once in their last 11 games gave the team some optimism heading into the 2014 season.
With the acquisitions of players like Kim Little, Bev Yanez, and Nahomi Kawasumi before the 2014 season began, as well as the return of U.S. Women’s National Team players Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo, the Reign went on a run that may not be equaled for some time. Seattle went unbeaten for 16 straight matches and didn’t lose at home en route to winning the NWSL Supporters Shield, given to the team with the best regular season record. The Reign continued to play a fluid style of soccer and with each result, the team’s confidence continued to rise. Harvey credits the environment that her team created, due in part to the efforts of players like Barnes.
“The biggest thing is I want players to believe in what we are doing,“ Harvey explained. “I want them to feel comfortable and express themselves in our environment. And Lu has helped create that environment. I think, for me, players need to understand what this club is about and how it is unique — we give a lot to the players but we also ask a lot of the players.”
“And if they want to commit to that, we will always commit back to them. I want players who are willing to learn, to take risks, and to push the boundaries a little bit. And off the field, I just want players to be happy, and if they are happy in our environment, then we will get the best out of them. I’ve constantly had my mindset throughout my whole coaching career that if players are happy and content, than you can push them.”
Barnes echoes Harvey’s sentiments and added that it helps when every person within the organization has bought into the ideals of what it will take to succeed; it makes things a lot easier to continue to grow and evolve as an organization.
“I would think that whether being a player, on the staff or the owner, they are 100 percent all-in for their job and they care about us and that we have all the right things to perform well and they want to win like we do,” Barnes said. “Our owner travels with us to nearly every game and I don’t think you can say that about every owner, and you play for the people who are providing this for you.”
“We are playing to win the championship. It’s the elephant in the room since we didn’t win it last year so that is what we want to do,” said Barnes. “We want to prove that we can get back to the top and win the title. I think we have done a really good job winning the regular season back-to-back — nobody has done that before. We are trying to prove that we want this and of course, there is unfinished business if you don’t win the year before.”
It’s no secret the Reign felt that it would have been a fitting ending to a perfect season to have won the league championship in 2014. Harvey said it was almost like “a script to a movie.” But, FC Kansas City played the role of spoiler, and backed by a pair of goals from Amy Rodriguez and a stellar performance from goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart, the Blues defeated the Reign, 2-1, to take home the title.
Soon, the Reign meet their 2014 foes for the second straight year in the final. Plenty is on the line for both teams: Kansas City is attempting to become the first women’s professional soccer team in the United States to win back-to-back titles while Seattle looks to become the first NWSL team to win both the Supporters Shield and championship in the same season.
You never know what will be the deciding factor in a championship match. There could be one player who single-handedly takes over the match (a la Carli Lloyd in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final), one big save by a goalkeeper, or perhaps a stroke of good fortune for one team that separates the two sides. Barnes believes that even with great individuals on the field, it will be the strong bond the Seattle Reign organization has that will propel them to victory in the final.
“At the end of the day, you want to play for your team and your coach. We will put our body on the line every time for her and for the rest of the back line and the midfielders and the forwards and all the girls on the bench who are working hard to be out there, so it’s collective. And I’ve been a small piece of that and it is great to be part of such an amazing group. And that includes not only the players and the staff but the owners and our kit man and everything like that. We are close with everyone and it’s incredible, I’ve never been part of something like that before.”