Jessica Fishlock, Keelin Winters At Heart Of Seattle Reign FC's Run

The Reign's midfield, led by players like Keelin Winters, is as important as a roster that boasts stars Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe and Kim Little. AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

It almost goes without saying that if Seattle Reign FC is to add to a remarkable run of dominance by winning the National Women's Soccer League title that eluded it a season ago, Jessica Fishlock and Keelin Winters will be in the middle of things.

That might be safely assumed not just because their roles in the midfield demand it, but because they have been in the middle of everything the team has ever done.

They are an ideal fit for Seattle, which is fortunate because it proved an ideal home for them.

Only one player played more minutes for the Reign through the NWSL's first three seasons. Fishlock and Winters were on the field for the team that lost 14 games in the league's inaugural season and remained there for teams that in two seasons since, entering Saturday's regular-season finale against Washington, lost just five times, accumulated 94 points and scored 49 more goals than allowed -- 21 more points and 30 more goals than the team with the second-best marks.

Seattle has its stars. Reigning MVP Kim Little, who shares the midfield with Fishlock and Winters, leads the league this season in assists and ranks second in goals after a recent hat trick. Cheered in Seattle not just as starters for the World Cup-winning U.S. team but as at least partly products of the Pacific Northwest, Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo are indispensable in pursuit of both titles and ticket buyers. But individual brilliance notwithstanding, the easiest weather vane to read is the play of the midfield partnership.

"If one of them isn't playing well, the other one picks them up," Reign FC coach Laura Harvey said. "If they're both playing well, we win games. There's no question. If they both play well in games, we have a great chance of winning. If one of them is off, we have to hope the other one is really on her game [for the team] to do well.

"That's the partnership that they have, which has turned out to be something that is pretty special."

And if there is something more than the weight of superior forces behind Seattle's success, if the ability to duplicate regular-season dominance across consecutive but distinctly different seasons is the product of both personnel and philosophy, the best evidence is in the midfield.

"That's one thing that I think that you'll notice about the Seattle Reign is the level of loyalty the players have to the club," Winters said. "I honestly do not believe that most players in this relatively new league feel very loyal to their clubs, but I would venture to say that all 20 players [on Seattle's roster] feel very loyal."

If Fishlock hadn't yet reached the end of the road before she arrived in Seattle, she could see the end from where she stood. The birthday that came and went in the early weeks of 2013 was only her 26th and her skills had never been better, but her soccer life was at a crossroads. A brief loan with a team in Australia completed, the captain of the Welsh national team had little interest in returning to England for another season in what was still at the time mostly a semi-professional setting with part-time training.

"I was close to just maybe going a different way," Fishlock said. "If that was where I was, then I was going to think about going straight into coaching and maybe call it a day."

Instead she opened an email from Harvey. When she moved from Arsenal to Seattle and the new American league, Harvey mulled over players with whom she was familiar and who might make the same move. In Fishlock's case, it wasn't a difficult sales pitch. The tricky one came when, prior to assuming dual responsibilities as general manager and coach, Harvey had to convince management in Seattle to sign off on bringing in someone who, while far from unknown (she was voted by peers in England as the player of the year in the Women's Super League in 2012 with Bristol Academy), was not exactly a household name stateside.

"In fairness," Harvey allowed, "within one training session, they weren't questioning me anymore about that."

Winters, too, found what she needed in Seattle, although unlike her Welsh soon-to-be midfield partner, she didn't need a map to find the city she already called home. Initially allocated to Chicago as part of the dispersal of national team players, after she had been in the running for a place on the U.S. Olympic roster under Pia Sundhage, Winters landed in what wasn't an ideal situation for anyone involved. Allocated with Shannon Boxx to a team that also signed Leslie Osborne, Winters became part of a glut of defensive midfield talent. As the youngest and least-capped one of the three, she risked ceding playing time at an important stage of her development. So it was that she became a footnote, the first player traded in league history, when Chicago sent her to Seattle for a first-round pick and future considerations before the start of the season.

"It took us awhile to get Keelin back to where she was confident enough to do what she does now," Harvey said. "I think [the 2012-13 season with FFC Turbine Potsdam in] Germany was really difficult for her, a hard life lesson for her, really knocked her confidence a little bit. I knew she had the ability to do what we needed her to do, and it just took time for her to see how important she was."

It took time for the two to find a rhythm on the field. They in many ways share a general job description as midfielders who sit in front of the back line and behind Little and the forwards, what Fishlock described as "protect the defense and help the attack." At its best, when those players work together, it can look almost as if a team has an extra body on both ends of the field, one more attacker to overwhelm an opponent or one more defender to smother them. Fishlock is the one most likely to push forward, as her seven goals this season attest, but that freedom only comes with the knowledge that Winters will be aware of space vacated and potentially vulnerable.

Their influence grew as the assets around them -- Little and Rapinoe but also Beverly Yanez, Katrine Veje and Naho Kawasumi -- improved the past two seasons.

"I think that's why [Winters and Fishlock] now can flourish, because they have people around them who reward their hard work," Harvey said. "They can't do all their work and be expected to score goals, it doesn't work like that. Bringing in the players like Kim and Bev and having Megan Rapinoe for long stretches, it meant that those two can do what they're really good at and let the others get the reward of scoring the goals."

It is the right system for them, and they are the right players for the system. But Seattle was also the right place for two people, one who knew it well and the other not at all.

"I feel incredibly lucky to play in a city that I call home," Winters said. "Coming out of college, you're going to play professionally and you're going season to season and you're moving around, it's exciting and it's fun because you're experiencing all these new cities and meeting new people. But at some stage, the older you get, the more you want a home base and the more you want some stability.

"For me, being able to live in the city that I play in has really been a great blessing."

For Fishlock, it's the difference between her experience in Seattle and the one she had during a loan stint with Frankfurt prior the current NWSL season. There she was only a soccer player, rising, training, eating, training again and finally sleeping.

"I was like a machine," Fishlock said of her time in Germany. "There was almost no emotion or feeling to what I was doing, whereas when I'm here now in Seattle -- I couldn't wait to get back to Seattle. I couldn't wait to get back to my life and to a place where it's not just about getting up and going to work. I love going to training with the Reign because it's so much more than just training. I love the city and everything around here and the people that I live with."

Still far from over the hill at 28, she nonetheless contends she is too old to keep traveling the world. She wants to be somewhere where she can prepare for a future beyond the field, a future which she seems to suggest might arrive sooner rather than later. If that isn't Seattle, and she said that decision remains unmade, it won't be an easy goodbye.

"From the team point of view, from the city point of view to the people that I live with, it's home. It's not an easy thing, to find a home away from home, but that is what it is."

Which is one reason to believe Fishlock and Winters are the players who can bring home a championship.