Portland Thorns FC head coach Mark Parsons has alluded to it in different ways over the last month, and the thought came up in the wake of his team’s 3-1 victory on Friday night over Seattle Reign FC at Providence Park. In each of his three seasons in Portland, Parsons’ teams have grown into their campaign, so much so that they were at the best come the postseason.
It took a mammoth effort from eventual champions Western New York Flash in 2016 to eliminate the Thorns in extra time of that year’s semifinal, and Portland surged to claim their second NWSL Championship, last season. Each regular season has also contained periods of dominance, but come the postseason, the arc Parsons plots in preseason always takes hold.
Mark Parsons has alluded to @ThornsFC always finishing strong. True?— Richard Farley (@richardfarley) September 11, 2018
Here is the team's record over the last 10 games of their seasons since his arrival:
2016: 7-3-0 (W-L-D)
2.27 ppg. As a point of reference, NCC had a 2.38 rate this year #BAONPDX #NWSL
So it is that this year’s team prepares for Saturday’s rematch in the against the Reign coming off their season’s best performance, a level that coincides nicely with a winner-take-all match in the league's semifinals (12pm PT, Lifetime | TICKETS | NWSL Playoffs presented by Tillamook Yogurt). But within that performance are a number of signs that, although the opponent will be the same this weekend, the challenge won’t. From personnel to approach, Seattle is likely to be different on Saturday, if in slight but meaningful ways.
The most obvious is health. We talked about the impact of Megan Rapinoe in the preview of last week’s game, but ultimately, Reign head coach Vlatko Andonovski decided his most electric attacker wouldn’t play. How that impacted the rest of his decisions is pure speculation, but if Rapinoe’s absence pursued the Seattle boss to throw all his eggs into the semifinal basket, that would explain why Allie Long wasn’t pressed into action, too. That would also explain why starting right back Theresa Nielsen wasn’t pushed after her international return and why, in general, Seattle’s defending might have bet more on organization than a proactive solution. Without his best team available, Andonovski might have thought a return trip to Portland was likely; at least, likely enough for him to hold back some cards.
We’ll talk about that organizational element in a minute, but it’s also important to remember: This is all speculation. There was no inner-NWSL memo that went around saying,“We’re going to hold something back on Friday, just so you know. Best, Vlatko.” I mean, that memo could totally exist and I don’t know about it, but generally, when coaches decide to keep something in reserve, they don’t tell their opponents about it ahead of time.
Perhaps Andonovski wanted to see how the Thorns would approach their near-must win scenario and, because Parsons had to prepare as if Rapinoe would play, the Seattle boss did so without revealing how he’d approach a Sept. 15 rematch. Seattle certainly tried to get a result on Friday, but at the expense of their best chances in the playoff game that would follow? Well, perhaps Andonovski’s the only one who knows for sure.
Still, when you consider how the Reign approached Saturday, there’s some evidence to support the theory; or, at least, some coincidences that explain the Reign’s approach, ones that start with Rapinoe. A rib injury has kept the U.S. international off the field since Seattle’s Aug. 21 visit from Houston, but ahead of Seattle’s regular-season finale, Rapinoe’s status was upgraded to questionable – the same status Portland left-back Meghan Klingenberg had the day before the game. Perhaps Portland and Seattle approach their injury reporting in different ways, but Klingenberg not only went 90 minutes on Friday, but she was able to give one of her best performances of the season. If Rapinoe couldn’t go against the Thorns, she was close – perhaps close enough to make one more week’s rest the difference between being forced into battle and being able to play at a level resembling her normal self.
Had Rapinoe had been available and played at that level, the risks of situations like these increase, drastically:
Jasmyne Spencer has done great work for the Reign all season, especially in her defensive play, but in starting for Rapinoe on the Reign’s left flank, she didn’t provide the threat Seattle needed to keep right back Ellie Carpenter pinned to the back line. The result was Carpenter’s ability to combine with right winger Midge Purce to attack the left side of Seattle defense, and although that relationship didn’t always click on Friday, it did to perfection on Portland’s crucial game-tying goal.
If Rapinoe plays, Parsons and the Thorns are taking a far bigger risk in liberating Carpenter’s play, like this. Because for as many times that the combination produced a threat like this, there was more times they were stopped. That’s soccer, but in soccer, if you bomb people forward and fail to pin your opponents or score, they’re going to have space to come back at you. And against a full-strength Seattle, that space would be bossed by arguably the most-dangerous transition player in the world.
But that dilemma dovetails nicely into another part of Seattle’s game that will likely be different: How the team defends, particularly on the flanks. As we see, above, the power of Carpenter and Purce was able to overwhelm Australian international Steph Catley at times on Seattle’s left side. On the other flank, Klingenberg and Tobin Heath, sometimes with the help of Caitlin Foord, were able to have success getting around Seattle right back Christen Westphal. Even amid the Thorns’ known use of players like Heath, the Reign seemed overwhelmed wide, and to the extent there was a strategy to combat the Thorns in those areas, it never came out.
A lot of that could be how well the Thorns played. A. Lot. You don’t want to disrespect Portland’s players by suggesting that their role wasn’t huge in the night’s outcome. In fact, you couldn’t come away from Friday’s game without thinking something like, “If Portland plays like that again in eight days, they’re going to the final.” But given how well the Reign have defended all year (they were the NWSL’s second-best defense) as well as Andonovski’s track record (having never put together a below-average NWSL defense), we’re left asking a question about which is more likely: that Friday’s was the way Andonovski truly thought his defense would have the most success stopping the Thorns; or, that if he was going to use take his best shot at stopping Portland, he was saving that shot for the playoffs?
Not having Rapinoe may have influenced that decision, as well as the decision whether to start Nielsen, or play Long at all. The latter choice left second-year midfielder Morgan Andrews as a bystander as Lindsey Horan scored Portland’s first goal …
… and giving a type of unfortunate assist to Heath on the Thorns’ second:
Beyond speculation about Andonovski’s Friday’s approach, that part of Seattle’s potential improvement – getting Long in for Andrews; Rapinoe for Spencer; Nielsen for Westphal – is obvious. None of the players they’re replacing are bad, but when you’re facing a team as talented as the Thorns, your talent will be asked to reach a level few in the world can touch. Against the likes of Heath, Horan, Foord, and Christine Sinclair, every team needs their artillery in order.
They may also need to have a little something in reserve – a plan that Mark Parsons hasn’t had a week to pick apart. It’s unclear if Vlatko Andonovski kept his best look in reserve on Friday, but in retrospect, it would have made sense if he did. And with two championships already under his belt, Andonovski has been known to do a sensible thing or two, before.