Thorns Preview, Thorns vs. Reign, 5.5.18
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Thorns FC NWSL Preview | Seattle's next contender makes its first visit to Providence Park to face Portland

To understand the magnitude of Seattle Reign FC’s offseason changes, you have to know what they are changing from. Many NWSL fans do, but even within those ranks, there’s disagreement when it comes to framing. To some, the winter’s changes were made in the context of a team that’s missed the playoffs for two seasons running; to others, the tweaks only improve one of the most successful teams in the NWSL. Both of these conclusions are true, but the impetus behind one is often unduly harsh.

Consider what Seattle has done over the last four seasons. During that time, the Reign have collected more wins than any team in the NWSL. Count only the regular season, or go ahead and add the playoffs. Either way, Seattle comes out on top:

NWSL wins, 2014-2017
Team Regular Season Overall
Seattle Reign FC 46 48
Portland Thorns FC 42 44
Western New York Flash/North Carolina Courage 39 42
FC Kansas City 37 41
Chicago Red Stars 37 37
Washington Spirit 35 36
Sky Blue FC 31 31
Houston Dash 24 24
Orlando Pride (2016-2017) 17 17
Boston Breakers 17 17

Under their former head coach, Laura Harvey, Seattle became a standard, posting the league’s best records in 2014 and 2015 and, even after the rest of the NWSL caught up, finishing just outside the playoffs in 2016 and 2017. Only four teams have won major honors during that time, and just like FC Kansas City, Portland and Western New York/North Carolina, the Reign have claimed two, collecting NWSL Shields in the first two years of their run.

NWSL trophy winners, 2014-2017
Year NWSL Shield NWSL title
2014 Seattle Reign FC FC Kansas City
2015 Seattle Reign FC FC Kansas City
2016 Portland Thorns FC Western New York Flash
2017 North Carolina Courage Portland Thorns FC

That Seattle lost title games to Vlatko Andonovski’s FCKC at the end of both of those seasons means that team’s dominance could be forgotten, but after the league figured out the Reign, Harvey’s teams proved capable of competing near the top. The baseline Seattle had crafted for their own performance proved higher than most.

This offseason, Seattle’s owner/general manager, Bill Predmore, fully leveraged that baseline to build what could prove another title contender. In Harvey’s wake, he’s added Andonovski, considered by many within the league as one of the NWSL’s best coaches. To a core that still includes internationals Megan Rapinoe, Jessica Fishlock, Nahomi Kawasumi and Rumi Utsugi, Predmore added five, key, international-caliber talents: England’s Jodie Taylor (forward); the U.S.’ Allie Long (midfield); and Australia’s Lydia Williams (goalkeeper) and Steph Catley (fullback); Denmark’s Theresa Nielsen (fullback). Key depth has been added with Michelle Betos in goal; Yael Averbuch, Megan Oyster, and Christen Westphal in defense; Morgan Andrews (midfield) and Jasmyne Spencer (forward) higher up the field.

That table, the huge block of text, above – they both inform the same thing: There are a lot of reasons to believe that this year, Reign can be vastly improved.

Sometimes turned-over rosters don’t come together, and chemistry always takes time to build, but players like Fishlock, Rapinoe and Lauren Barnes ensure the team’s identity will hold. Each of them have been in Seattle since day one. The stylistic and philosophical similarities between Andonovski and Harvey, always remarked on by the rest of the NWSL, help maintain continuity on the field, while the team’s upgrade in talent helps bridge the gap that’d grown between Seattle and league’s top.

Portland fans will naturally focus on the former Thorns who’ve joined the team, and not without reason. Though Taylor’s time in the Rose City was too short to lay roots, both Betos and Long were fan favorites. That they landed with a rival caused more than a few chagrins among the fanbase this offseason, and through the first part of the 2018 season, their contributions have been vital. The same spectacular shot-stopping that Betos flashed at Providence Park has buttressed the Reign, thus far, while Long is coming off one of her best performances of the season last week in Orlando.

Ultimately, though, Seattle’s most important change will be the one it made off the field. Given Harvey’s success with the Reign and the bonds she had formed with her squad, very few coaches could have come in and expected to move the team forward. Whether Andonovski can do so remains to be seen, but given his similarities to Harvey, he may have been the only coach who could have kept the Reign on course. Predmore seemed to know as much, winning a battle with the Houston Dash to secure him this offseason, and if Seattle’s seven points through four games is any indication (albeit an early one), the Reign are poised to to reverse the last two years’ momentum.

Thorns head coach Mark Parsons, when asked about the differences between Andonovski and Harvey, said “what won Vlatko championships was, he was ready to adapt to win. Winning came first.” Harvey has now had to make those adjustments in Utah, but when she was going head-to-head with Andonovski and the 2014 and 2015 finals, it was Seattle’s current boss whose plans won out.

As the last two seasons show, even in down years, there’s only so far this Reign core can fall. Now, having brought in Andonovski and revitalized Seattle’s talent, Predmore has laid a course for another charge. Whether this one will bear fruit may depend on how adaptable Andonovski can truly is. His tweaks to Harvey’s foundations will be crucial in challenging for another title.

What to watch for on Saturday (12:30pm PT, Lifetime, TICKETS):

  • The similarities between Andonovski and Harvey may prove a virtue for Portland, whose match last weekend against Harvey’s Utah Royals FC gave the Thorns a preview of Andonovski’s approach. “I think playing two similar teams in style, in tactics, gives us a good opportunity to learn from this last game,” Parsons said on Tuesday. Both teams play with three attackers and three-woman midfields. Both teams, in Parsons words, “play good soccer.”
  • The best part of that good soccer for Seattle last weekend was their two deepest midfielders, Utsugi and Long. Both players put in controlling performances against Orlando, dictating play in possession while keeping two players around Pride superstar Marta without the ball. Expect them to try and do the same to Lindsey Horan on Saturday.
  • Higher up the field, Seattle has two major question marks. Rapinoe has missed the Reign’s last two games with a hamstring strain, while Fishlock left last weekend’s match early after suffering a lower leg injury. Should both players miss Saturday’s game, Seattle will be without their two most important parts.
  • Portland has injury issues of their own. According to Parsons, the team is hopeful Meghan Klingenberg will be able to play despite leaving Saturday’s game early after aggravating a stomach injury. Emily Menges, though, while making progress, is still expected to be out (stress syndrome, tibia), joining Adrianna Franch (knee) and Hayley Raso (knee) on the sidelines.
  • On the field, Brazilian midfielder Andressinha made her first appearance in Utah and is completing her first full week of training with the squad. Both she and Tobin Heath were first half substitutes, while Ana Crnogorčeviç made her first NWSL start, going 57 minutes in the team’s 1-1 draw.
  • And finally, Thorns defender Emily Sonnett was elected to the NWSL’s Team of the Month for April, it was announced on Thursday. She was the only Thorn honored in the league’s XI, with four players from each of North Carolina and Washington chosen for the squad.