Hayley Raso Preview 8.7.19

NWSL Preview | Thorns in Tacoma to try and stop Reign FC's surge

Portland Thorns head coach Mark Parsons wanted at least six points. Emily Menges, one of his defenders, revealed such after Saturday’s draw. Out of the three-games-in-eight-days stretch the Thorns started on Saturday, the team wanted at last two wins. That was the goal, and on paper, that match against Sky Blue FC was the easiest one. But thanks to strong showing from Providence Park’s visitors and a Thorns team that couldn’t put the match away, the game ended 1-1.

One game. One point. Still two wins needed to reach the mark.

The good news? The next two games are very winnable. For a team with the Thorns’ talent, they always are. The bad news, though, is that relative to most games in the National Women’s Soccer League, they’re also very losable. Wednesday’s opponent, Reign FC, sits in fourth place and beat the Thorns in the teams’ last meeting. As for Sunday’s opponent, the North Carolina Courage are first in the league, won last year’s title, and are 4-0-1 against the Thorns in the teams’ last five meetings.

It would be too much to say this week will define Portland’s season, but it may prove very important. Two wins, and the Thorns will end the week in first, have important victories over their two biggest rivals, and carry significant momentum into the last seven games of the regular season. Lose both, and the team could end the week in fourth place, eight days after occupying the top spot.

Here are three area of focus ahead of Portland’s first visit to Tacoma’s Cheney Stadium (7:00 p.m. PT, Yahoo! Sports):

Revenge in Tacoma

Revenge is probably too strong of a word. A 24-game season can feel long, and the Thorns’ home loss to Reign FC is already over a month ago, now. But the nature of that loss was indelible – a 90 minutes where none of Portland’s decent chances were forged into good ones, and one moment of set-piece execution allowed the team’s rival to take three points from Providence Park.

The Reign have a way of making teams look like that. Even without their talismanic midfielder, Jessica Fishlock, lost for the season. Even without one of the world’s biggest stars, Megan Rapinoe, who has been gone for most of the season. Seattle had 11 absences from their weekend match in Houston – six of whom have suffered season-ending injuries – yet the Reign still managed another 1-0, road result.

Going back to his days with some depleted FC Kansas City teams, Vlatko Andonovski has always been able to take players willing to work hard and make games difficult for opponents. To the extent Portland wants revenge on those who did that work a month ago, they should also want revenge on themselves, and their own performance.

The Reign’s are the type of obstacles that, if you have ambitions to win things, you need to more than overcome. You need to overcome them quickly and build upon your threats, because when, in September and October, you’re playing games that will define your season, you can’t be thrown off by “difficult” and “willing to work hard.”

In that way, Wednesday’s game is partly about the Reign and partly about where the Thorns need to get to. They need to be able to manage challenges like July 5’s. Has another month put them in better position to do so?

Lineup changes

One thing missing from that July 5 loss was the Thorns’ World Cup contingent – United States internationals who were finishing their successful run at France 2019. The quartet was also gone this weekend, when the Thorns drew with Sky Blue. On Wednesday, they should not only be back; we should expect them in the starting lineup.

At least, that expectation gives us something to talk about, and at all levels of the field. Though there won’t be too much discussion about whether Adrianna Franch should come back in goal, the choices in front of the Portland `keeper become more interesting. Does Emily Sonnett replace Katherine Reynolds at center back? Elizabeth Ball on the right? Or, neither? Does the team go back to playing three center backs with their U.S. international available?

In the middle, Lindsey Horan’s the most likely starter, but who gets the place next to her? Gabby Seiler’s Rookie of the Year case is gaining momentum, but is momentum enough to see her chosen over Dagný Brynjarsdóttir in central midfield? It would be quite a come up from missing a year with injury for the first-year pro to retain her spot in Portland’s lineup.

Then there’s the attack. Like Horan, Tobin Heath is a must, but at whose expense? Hayley Raso’s been too good to be replaced, and although Caitlin Foord did well in her return to the XI, was that enough to displace Midge Purce?

Ellie Carpenter’s ankle likely keeps her out for Wednesday’s game; else, there’d be even more decisions to make. But in those decisions, we’ll start to see the end-of-year Thorns come into view. And that team will be a lot different than the one the Reign last saw.

Maintaining the gap

A common refrain in this space over the last two weeks has been the value of first place, and how the reality of the NWSL’s top three – Chicago, North Carolina and Portland – means finishing first and avoiding another prime contender in the semifinals has special value.

Looking at the standings right now, it seems we spoke to soon. After all, look where Reign FC are:

How they’ve been able to maintain a playoff spot with all their injuries and absences is a mystery. It also doesn’t really matter. They are what they are, a team who, with a win, will be even with the third-place Red Stars, have a better point-per-game rate than the Thorns, and hold a five-point cushion on the fifth-place Spirit.

Another way to put that: If the Reign win on Wednesday, they’re no longer a team fighting through obstacles to preserve a playoff spots. They’re contenders. They may still have a negative goal difference, and their injury report will be massive, but with another win over Portland, Reign FC will put distance between themselves and the rest of the playoff-chasing field.


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