Katherine Reynolds, Thorns vs. Chicago, 3.11.18
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

What the soccer world has never acknowledged about Thorns FC defender Katherine Reynolds

Less than one game into the 2018 NWSL season, and we've already had one of the most Katherine Reynolds moments you could possibly conjure.

There she was, on the right side of Thorns FC’s three-woman central defense, tasked with managing one of the most difficult matchups in the league, North Carolina's Lynn Williams. The Courage had adjusted their setup so both Williams and Crystal Dunn, two hyper-athletic U.S. internationals, were spending time attacking Portland’s right side, and while right-wing back Midge Purce was often tasked with containing Dunn, Reynolds was forced to deal with someone whose sprinter’s speed, marathoner’s resilience and striker’s skill can, when everything is clicking, create an impossible one-on-one matchup.

Impossible, except for on Saturday. Reynolds isn’t known for her speed, but then again, she isn’t known for much beyond the NWSL’s deepest circles, leaving the best of her game chronically overlooked. Yet in those few moments on Saturday when North Carolina tried to beat her, though, Reynolds put a value on her play, a value that left Williams rebuked:

“I don’t remember any particular time feeling like she got the better of me,” Reynolds said about Williams, upon the Thorns’ return to Portland. She was right. Williams’ shot charts from Saturday’s game show all three of her attempts coming from the right of North Carolina’s attack, away from Reynolds. When Williams was on the left, Reynolds shut her out.

“It was a good battle … that’s why I play,” Reynolds continued. “I love matchups like that, and I’m competitive. I want to shut down the best forwards in the league. That’s always the goal.”

It’s a goal Reynolds has met more often than not since coming to Portland, with the Thorns having the league’s best defense since her arrival after the 2015 season. Yet when discussion of best defenders, most reliable players, or people you’d want matched up against the world’s Lynn Williamses comes up, Reynolds’ name is rarely involved.

“People do not think she’s as fast as she is,” Thorns FC defender Emily Sonnett explained, “[and] she’s very sound defensively. That’s what got her from [Women’s Professional Soccer] to where she is now.”

Eight years; six teams; no national team exposure. It’s a recipe for being overlooked, one that’s not unique to Reynolds, but it doesn’t mean some attention isn’t due. Particularly after going stride-for-stride with somebody like Williams – not only winning but keeping possession in these moments --  you would think somebody would notice.

”She doesn’t get the credit she deserves,” one of her defensive partners, Emily Menges, said about the 30-year-old. “I don’t know what it is … She is so solid that she does her job, and when someone does her job like that so well, it’s not something that anybody [notices].”

It is the defender’s dilemma, something Menges, herself, often suffers from. If you’re so good that you make your job look easy, the only people who notice are the ones who devote their lives to breaking down film. The Portland Thorns know and love Reynolds, and she’s won the respect of coaches around the NWSL. But without a game that relies on last-ditch challenges or sliding tackles, Reynolds remains a prominent member of one of the NWSL’s forgotten classes: Players too good to find themselves on highlight reels.

“We’ve dedicated our entire lives to soccer, so just, no matter what, there’s that bond,” Reynolds said, when asked about the players in that forgotten class. You feel that bond with all soccer players, she says, but for those who have flown under the radar, “You definitely have that extra motivation to prove yourself every day.”

This is the Katherine Reynolds the Thorns have come to depend on, one that has become even more important since her return from a prolonged groin injury to start last season. Before that, Reynolds was largely played at fullback, her primary position throughout the first seven years of her professional career. But in the times she had deputized in the middle for Portland – moments she was pressed into action by international recalls – Reynolds proved as valuable staying home to help shepherd the line as she was getting forward from her wider position. When, after missing the first 14 games of last season, she returned to full health, head coach Mark Parsons decided to use her in a hybrid role: mostly a center back, but still playing a wider role.

“It's not dissimilar from playing outside back,” Reynolds explained, “but you don’t get to go forward as often. It’s nice, because I can still, sometimes, get crosses in, which I like. I definitely miss the attacking side of things, but I love to defend.”

The change coincided with a broader shift for the Thorns, one that not only changed the team’s shape and style but also left Reynolds overlooked. When Portland moved to a 3-4-1-2 formation, plenty of attention was paid to Christine Sinclair and Lindsey Horan’s shift into deeper roles. Little, though, was paid to Reynolds’ return, which helped enable the shifts elsewhere on the field.

2017 Thorns FC: With and without Katherine Reynolds. All stats: Opta, per game.
  Without Reynolds
(14 games)
With Reynolds
(10 games)
Goals for 1.21 2.00
Goals allowed 0.86 0.80
Shots for 11.86 13.20
Shots allowed 13.79 11.80
Possession 54.36 51.60
Points 1.57 2.50

Once Reynolds was reintegrated into the team, the Thorns numbers got better across the board. Their goals, goals allowed, shots face and shots allowed rates improved, all while Portland, with their new formation, was holding less of the ball. With less possession, the Thorns were scoring more, conceding less, and producing dramatically improved results.

Not all of that was Reynolds, but she was a key, necessary part of the reworked defense. Portland could have never made its change without her.

Reynolds didn’t become an important player because of a formation, and she didn’t suddenly find this level upon arriving in Portland. In a professional career that goes back to the NWSL’s predecessor league, Women’s Professional Soccer, Reynolds has always found herself on successful teams, contributing to playoff runs in six of her eight professional seasons.  

It’s a span that originally began in 2010, in her debut season with WPS’ Philadelphia Independence, and continued with her first stint in Western New York, where she was a member of the Flash team that claimed a WPSL Elite title.

Her success in Rochester, though, gave her a chance to take her game to Europe, where she briefly traveled for Germany’s 2012-13 Frauen Bundesliga season. Toward the end of her season at SC Freiburg, though, the NWSL was born, giving Reynolds an opportunity to take her game closer to home.

“It’s always my goal to play in the highest league possible, and I’m really grateful more my experience in Germany,” Reynolds said. “It was an excellent league, but as soon as there was a league back in the U.S., I knew I wanted to be a part of it.”

She was a key part of the Flash team which, hamstrung by the initial NWSL federation player allocation, surprised by claiming the NWSL’s first regular-season title. The Flash waned the next year, but in 2015, after being traded to the Washington Spirit, Reynolds was back in the postseason, having made her first connection with then-Spirit head coach Mark Parsons.

When, a season later, Parsons arrived in Portland, Reynolds soon followed, with the Thorns trading for the Spirit fullback that offseason. Since then, Reynolds has been a consistent part of the Thorns lineups, playing right back in 2016 before returning to her new right-center back’s spot last year. Along the way, she’s helped claim an NWSL Shield and a league title, giving her three major team honors in the NWSL’s five seasons.

Team honors can only go so far in establishing someone’s value, though. So much of what defenders do ends up being in the eye of the beholder. But over the years, too many beholders have missed moments like Saturday’s, when Reynolds makes things look too easy. Taking the right line to the ball at elite speed against the league’s top forwards is not something many defenders can do. That Reynolds makes it look like anybody can shouldn’t be held against her.

If Reynolds were only a little slower, or later reacting to plays, she’d be left sprawling, playing balls into touch, and walking a line between highlights and mistakes. There would be highlights, though. Instead, she’s often too good to hit people’s radars.

“She has had a tremendous career, is a veteran player, and sticks to the gameplan …,” Sonnett says. “She is exactly what you want to play next to.”

It’s why former Flash head coach Aaran Lines had to have her back from Germany when the NWSL started. It’s why Parsons has traded for her twice, with two different teams, and part of the reason why the Thorns’ fortunes turned so quickly when she rejoined the team last summer.

It’s also why Reynolds is unlikely to be noticed anytime soon. She has gotten to this point by being among the unsung best, even if it hasn’t won national team renown. Happy with where her career has taken her, Reynolds has no reason to change course.

“It’s all our dreams to be on the U.S. National Team,” Reynolds said. “That certainly was my dream, and it didn’t come true. But I still love playing the game. I get to play with the best players in the world and the highest level, playing with the best club in the world. That’s still pretty awesome.”