Thorns Preview, Thorns vs.  Reign, 9.7.18
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Thorns FC NWSL Preview | What will make Seattle Reign FC so dangerous come Friday's showdown

PORTLAND, Ore. – Seattle Reign FC will be in the National Women’s Soccer League Playoffs for the first time since 2015, and although it is always dangerous to attribute too much of a team’s success to individuals, the story of the Reign’s upturn starts with two people: Vlatko Andonovski, whose first season on the sidelines at Memorial Stadium has affirmed his reputation as one of the league’s best coaches; and Megan Rapinoe, whose domineering approach as the Reign’s attacking focus portrays her one of the most dangerous players in the NWSL.

Unfortunately for the Reign, who visit Providence Park on Friday (7pm PT, Lifetime, TICKETS | Presented by Toyota) with home-field advantage for the playoff’s semifinals on the line, that element of danger may be missing from their regular season’s most-important game. Still recovering from a fractured rib that has left her sidelined since Aug. 21, Rapinoe is listed as “questionable” on the league’s latest injury report for Seattle’s season finale, leaving Portland Thorns FC uncertain whether they’ll face the Reign’s biggest star.

“We prepare for what we think is their best and most probable team – their best team, and then maybe what their most-probable team is …,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said this week about the possibility of Rapinoe’s absence.

“If we’re prepared for them at their best, adapting for something different should be easier than preparing for this then get surprised and have to adapt to something.”

Rapinoe’s raw numbers support the prodigious reputation she’s accumulated during her time in Seattle. Among players who have registered at least 1,000 NWSL minutes this season, she is second in shots taken per 90 minutes (5.89) and first in attempts on target (2.53). Her assists per 90 minutes (0.41) are third in the league, within reach of NWSL-leading Tobin Heath (0.46), while generating the circuit’s most chances (2.89 per 90). And in terms of her own opportunities, Rapinoe’s 0.48 goals-per-90 are fourth in the NWSL.

Megan Rapinoe per-90 NWSL ranks, attacking numbers, 2018 season
Category (per 90 minutes) Stat NWSL Rank (min. 1,000 minutes)
Shots 5.89 2nd (Williams, 6.15)
Shots on Target 2.53 1st
Goals 0.48 4th (Kerr, 0.84)
Assists 0.41 3rd (Heath, 0.46)
Chances Created 2.81 1st

She may not be the league’s most prolific scorer. That’s Chicago’s Sam Kerr. She may not even match Heath’s chance creation, if you want to judge that by assists alone. But when you look at the entire picture – scoring, setting up goals, providing a constant presence – Rapinoe’s statistical profile is the most imposing of any attacker in the NWSL, and as opposed to players like Kerr, she’s doing it almost exclusively from a wide position (Seattle’s left wing).

Curiously, though, Seattle’s performance with Rapinoe on the field isn’t so much better than when’s she’s gone, which (thanks to a few different injuries) has been 36.5 percent of the time, this season. When Rapinoe plays, Seattle’s offense scores nine percent more often. But the team also concedes eight percent more goals.

Perhaps that’s all noise, or perhaps it reflects the reality of a game which, when she is on the field, opens up. Regardless, despite Rapinoe’s imposing profile, Seattle is not seeing huge benefits when she’s on the field.

Seattle Reign individual goal differences (team GF/90 - GA/90, when on the field), 2018 season
Player Minutes Played GD/90
Fishlock, Jessica 1,452 +0.74
Nielsen, Theresa 1633, +0.72
Williams, Lydia 1,350 +0.67
Spencer, Jasmyne 859 +0.63
Kawasumi, Nahomi 875 +0.62
Oyster, Megan 1,710 +0.53
Barnes, Lauren 1,589 +0.51
Rapinoe, Megan 1,315 +0.48
Taylor, Jodie 1,999 +0.45
Long, Allie 1,710 +0.42

In terms of the Thorns preparation, the numbers are practically irrelevant. It would be coaching malpractice to look at this data, review the tape on Rapinoe, and conclude Seattle is not more dangerous with her on the field. Perhaps, given more data, that possible reality will play out, but as an opposing coach (and, as Parsons said), you always have to prepare for the other team’s potential. And one of the key parts of Seattle’s potential? Rapinoe tearing you apart.

The numbers are a nice reminder, though, that the Reign are much more than their most famous player. They’re also far more than players like Fishlock and Nahomi Kawasumi, too – talents who have become foundational elements of Seattle’s success. In the numbers, above, you see the part players like Theresa Nielsen, Lydia Wiliams and Megan Oyster are playing in the Reign's improvement. Like Jodie Taylor and Allie Long, those three are playing their first full seasons in Seattle.

The biggest change at Memorial Stadium, though, has been Andonovski’s arrival, something that explains why the Reign will enter Friday’s game with the best defense in the league. Since 2013, when Andonovski began his NWSL career with FC Kansas City, the Macedonian-born coach’s teams have never finished lower than fourth in the NWSL in fewest goals allowed. No matter the restrictions the Blues encountered during the last years of their troubled existence, Andonovski – a two-time NWSL title-winner – was able to put together a good defense. And this season, with the players he and owner/general manager Bill Predmore have been able to bring to Seattle, he’s built the league’s least generous squad.

“They defend as an 11,” Parsons said, giving the Reign the simplest but most meaningful compliment you could give a defense. “Eleven players really work hard to defend. When you have 11 committed players doing it, it’s tough …

“They don’t leave dangerous spaces open … If they have to leave anything open, they leave less-dangerous spaces open. So, it’s up to the opposition. If you want that dangerous space, you’re going to have to invite them out. What drags a center back out from being where a center back has to be? You have to ask those questions.”

More than Rapinoe’s danger, the fortitude of Fishlock, or the history between Portland and their northern rivals, Andonovski’s defense should be the Thorns’ greatest worry. Portland needs a victory to secure a home playoff game eight days later and force the Reign to return to Providence Park. But more than any team in the NWSL, Seattle is capable of holding out for a draw. And should the teams share points, the Thorns will spend next weekend in Seattle.