PORTLAND, Ore. – No matter how a single derby may feel in a given moment, a true rivalry must stand the test of time. Players will come. Coaches will go. The context around clubs will change. But if those clubs are truly rivals, the tension, persistent, will transcend it all.
So it was at Providence Park on Saturday, where a new-look Seattle Reign FC struck their first major blow since their winter makeover. With new head coach Vlatko Andonovski in the technical area, and former Thorns Michelle Betos and Allie Long among the team’s six new starters, Seattle defeated Thorns FC, 3-2, claiming only their third win in 10 tries on Portland soil.
“I don’t feel like, at any point, they caused us problems, and that’s a really weird thing to say,” Portland head coach Mark Parsons confessed, a subtle acknowledgement that his team had given up three goals. It was only the second time in the Parsons era the Thorns had conceded as many in a regular season game, and amid a slew of near misses from both sides, each of Portland and Seattle could have conceded more.
In that way, though, it felt like a classic derby narrative, one where the road team, constantly fending off their hosts’ challenge, keeps finding new ways to stay in front. Seattle ended the match second-best in shots, passes, passing accuracy, possession and corners won, but they led in the game’s more important number (goals) without ever being behind on the scoreboard.
“I think they had some great individual shots,” Thorns defender Meghan Klingenberg explained, “some great individual chances. But I don’t think they necessarily broke down our team, or moved or shifted us where we had to cover ground. It’s just a bummer.”
Parsons, still processing the game postmatch, said he felt confident throughout, even in the face of the final result.
“I thought there was only one team that was going to win this game,” he admitted. “Saying that, we made it harder work that we should, and that happens. You can’t give oppositions chances.”
From open play, the Thorns did a good job of limiting those chances, failing to concede a shot on target during that phase. But two of the three of the tries Seattle had from corner kicks found the back of the net, including Rumi Utsugi’s game-winner from 22 yards in the 75th minute.
At the other end, the Thorns had 24 shots, 11 of which ended up on target – 21 coming from inside the penalty box. Six of the nine saves Betos made in Seattle’s goal came in the second half – a 45-minute stretch where the teams amassed four goals, 24 shots, and seven corners.
“It was wild,” Parsons admitted, afterward. “Things that don’t normally happen from both teams were happening, which is what happens in a rivalry game.”
There was something different about this particular rivalry game, though, and not only because it didn’t feature Laura Harvey, Seattle’s coach throughout the first five years to the franchise’s existence. The animosity she’d built in five years on the Emerald City side of the conflict helped frame every meeting against the Thorns, particularly after the arrival of Parsons.
“It was actually relatively calm, in regards to the mentality from both teams,” Parsons said after the match. “I’ve felt like, since I’ve been here, there’s been a lot more emotion, a lot more anger from both teams (than was on the field Saturday).”
There were certainly moments where that emotion was there. Christine Sinclair charging through Long in the first half. Jessica Fishlock waving to the fans after drawing a penalty, and gesturing to the north end as she walked off the field. From the sidelines and stands, it felt like there as an extra charge, something that corresponded to the two equalizers, three go-ahead goals the match produced. For the players, though, it just felt like any other edition of the rivalry.
“It is just always such an intense rivalry,” Thorns defender Katherine Reynolds explained. “I can’t say it felt much different than any other time we played, other than it’s our home. We really wanted to get the win, and we had plenty of chances to, and coming close time and time against just kept motivating us to get that goal, and it just didn’t happen.”
The feeling after the match was reminiscent of another, somewhat recent home memory, that of leaving the field after the 4-3, semifinal loss to Western New York at the end of the 2016 season. Both games felt like a slugfest, where each side was willing to give as much as it got. Both games left Portland asking how, going forward, they could have possibly done more.
In spite of the result, that semifinal remains one of the classic games in Thorns history – one of the true “I was there” games in team lore. In the same way, fans from both teams will be able to brag about on site for one of the rivalry's most memorable matches.
At the beginning of Seattle’s new era, there was an instant classic feel to their first venture south, and if there were any worries that Harvey’s departure would dampen the rivalry, they seemed silly after a memorable 90 at Providence Park.