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PORTLAND, Ore. — The context around Wednesday’s game at Providence Park makes Portland Thorns FC’s visit from OL Reign as one of the most important regular season games in the Thorns’ nine-year history.

Portland will enter the 7:30 p.m. Pacific kickoff with a one-point lead in the National Women’s Soccer League standings. That ranking puts them on track for the club’s second NWSL Shield, awarded annually to the team that finishes the regular season with the best record. Portland claimed that honor in 2016, head coach Mark Parsons’ first year in Portland, but have rarely been in a better position to win a Shield. The Thorns have controlled their first-place destiny since emerging as league leaders earlier this summer.

2021 National Women's Soccer League standings
Rank
Team
GP
Pts
1
Thorns FC
21
39
2
OL Reign
21
38
3
Houston Dash
21
32
4
NC Courage
21
32
5
Washington
21
30
6
Gotham FC
20
29
7
Chicago
21
29
8
Orlando
21
28
9
Louisville
21
17
10
Kansas City
20
12

The Reign deserve a lot of credit for being in position to change that destiny. Throughout the first half of the 2021 season, the Reign struggled to establish their identity, with the process of maturing into the campaign complicated by the fact the team was expecting three major summer arrivals. Since attacker Eugenie Le Sommer, midfielder Dzsenifer Marozsán and goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi arrived on loan from Lyon, though, the Reign have been climbing up the standings. After last weekend’s results, they, too, control their Shield destiny.

If Portland wins on Wednesday, they will build a four-point lead at the top of the league with two matches to go. A win by OL, however, will put the Reign two points clear in first place. With a draw, the Thorns stay one up and make the last two matches of the season even more important.

2021 MEETINGS

This week’s will be the regular season’s third meeting between OL and the Thorns, but because of the way the first two finished, the Reign have secured the head-to-head tiebreaker between the teams. Should Portland and OL end up tied in the league standings, the two wins the Reign have already claimed from the Thorns will slot them above Portland in the table.

The Reign’s first win over the Thorns this year was also Portland’s first loss of the season – a 2-1, May 23 defeat at Providence Park. That match saw all three goals scored with in game’s first 15 minutes. After Christine Sinclair’s opener, Megan Rapinoe and Shirley Cruz responded, humbling the Thorns shortly after they had won spring’s Challenge Cup.

Unfortunately for the Thorns, the second game played out similarity, albeit in a different venue. Facing OL at Lumen Field in Seattle, Portland gave up two first-half goals but went into intermission trailing by only one. Come fulltime, though, that scoreline was unchanged, with Portland dropping their second 2-1 decision of the season to OL.

The Thorns did defeat the Reign 2-0 at Providence Park in April, during Challenge Cup. But that game was three meetings ago, was played without many prominent players from each team and, at this point, does not matter in the standings. The games reflected in the table have both gone the way of OL.

KEYS FOR OL

The Reign played Sunday’s 3-2 win over the Chicago Red Stars without one of their most important pieces. Rapinoe wasn’t in head coach Laura Harvey’s gameday 20. In her absence, another original Reign star stepped up, with midfielder Jessica Fishlock providing another reminder of why she remains one of the most impactful players in the NWSL.

Fishlock scored twice against Chicago, and over the history of Portland versus the Reign, she has been one of the rivarly’s catalysts. As much as any other OL player, she’s embraced the tension between the two teams, and as one of the key parts of the Reign’s great teams from 2014 through 2016, Fishlock provides a link to the club’s greatest successes. As her club tries to form the second great team in its history, the Welsh international is the constant.

KEYS FOR PTFC

For the first time this season, Portland is winless in three games, having gone 0-2-1 since the last international break. As with most struggling teams, everything could be a little bit better. Portland has only averaged 1.00 goals per game over the last three games after averaging 1.56 before, while their goal prevention has gone from allowing 0.61 goals per game in their first 18 matches to 1.67 in their last three.

The defensive part of that picture may be the most urgent. Though the team is coming off a shutout at Kansas City, in the two prior games, they gave up multiple goals at Chicago and at home to Houston. One glance at the standings shows that the Reign are more likely to provide a Houston-esque threat than a Kansas City one. OL Reign not only are a better team than Kansas City, but in the league’s leading goalscorer, Bethany Balcer, and threats like Le Sommer and Fishlock, the Reign have more individuals capable of doing damage.

It's not a question of whether the Thorns defense can meet this challenge. Even after the last three games, Portland is tied for the best defensive record in the league, having allowed 16 goals in 21 games. On Wednesday, it will be a matter of whether the Thorns can return to their established level.

THE GAME

Wednesday night’s game kicks off at Providence Park at 7:00 p.m. Pacific, with gates to the venue opening 90 minutes prior to kickoff. For those unable to attend, the match will be streamed on Paramount+.