Thorns Preview, Thorns @ Reign, 9.29.19
(ThornsFC.com)

NWSL Preview | Next step in Thorns FC's progression: Break through against their rivals

The rivalry has evolved over the last six years, waning slightly since the Reign’s days atop the NWSL, and being usurped, in recent years, by the Thorns’ dynamic with the North Carolina Courage. But there is still rivalry between Portland and Tacoma, even if the Reign do, now, make their home in Tacoma instead of Seattle.

After more than six years together in the NWSL, there’s too much history for a slight change in geography to matter, much. From Portland's domination against a struggling Seattle in the Reign’s first season to the response of the Laura Harvey era – to Nadia Nadim’s goal in 2016 to the Thorns eliminating the Reign from last year’s playoffs – the history between the two teams is too much to ignore. Even if it could be overlooked, the rules of Cascadia demand the fanbases hate each other.

Sunday gives each another chance for that hatred to shine through (11am, ESPN2). With two weeks left in the NWSL regular season, Portland and Tacoma meet for the third time this year, with both hoping to use the other’s misfortune to cement their playoff hopes.

Here's what to know about the next-to-last game of the Thorns’ regular season:

Playoff hopes, resurrecting: Reign FC’s form

Record: 9-6-7 (34 points, fourth place out of nine in the NWSL)
Goals for: 23 (fifth)
Goals against: 25 (fourth)
Goal difference: -2 (sixth)

 
One week ago, after the Reign fell at home to eighth-place Sky Blue FC, the team’s season looked on life support. How, we thought, could Vlatko Andonovski’s team be considered a favorite to claim the league’s final playoff spot if they can’t beat Sky Blue at home. One week later, though, Reign FC’s in fourth place, hosting a team they’ve already beaten twice this season, and hold the advantage in a potential tiebreaker with the team that’s chasing them in the standings, the Utah Royals. What is going on?

In truth, it’s been more struggles than triumphs for the Reign since they last faced Portland. After the 1-0 victory at Cheney Field, the Reign have gone 2-3-2, winning only once in six games before their weekend triumph over Utah. In April, that would be a slight downturn. In September, that’s “wait, what’s going on?”

This season, the answer to that question has always been injuries, particularly to the team’s two most important players. Jessica Fishlock, the backbone of the squad since its initial, 2013 season, is sidelined the rest of the year with a left knee injury, while newly-crowned FIFA Player of the Year Megan Rapinoe has been limited to three games and 153 minutes this season.

Even with her mid-week trip to Milan to claim her award, Rapinoe should play on Sunday. The Reign are far more dangerous with her at their disposal.

Recent history: Two meetings; two locations; one scoreline

Last game: Reign FC victory, 1-0, on August 7 at Cheney Stadium
All-time: Reign FC is 10-9-3 against Portland

 
The Thorns came back from their first venture into Cheney Stadium feeling positive, even if they were held scoreless. The underlying play, though, was encouraging. Over the course of a season, they felt, you’re going to have a few games where an outcome doesn’t match the performance.

Still, come that night’s final whistle, Portland were up to 180 minutes without scoring against their rivals, this season. Two times, the Thorns had controlled play. Two times, the Reign had scored the match’s only goal. Should the teams finish even on points at the end of the season – a possibility, if the Reign win on Sunday – Portland would lose the tiebreaker and finish the season fourth.

With any result on Sunday, though, Portland can finish no lower than third. A win ensures their quest for a home playoff game stays on course.

Focus player: Reign left wing Megan Rapinoe

Season: Three games (one start), 153 minutes, no goals or assists
All-time: 37 goals in 78 career NWSL appearances

When she’s on, coaches around the NWSL put Rapinoe in the same category as Sam Kerr. And those two might be alone. When you talk about players that can consistently, single-handedly bend opposing defenses to their will, the league’s all-time leading scorer and, as of this week, the world’s Player of the Year are in a class by themselves.

In general, her threat tends to come in three forms. The goalscoring numbers, particularly impressive for a wide player, speak for themselves, but from that wide possession, she offers the most dangerous and varied service in the league – service she’s capable of delivering with world-class quality from both feet. Her more traditional playmaking, too, can break defenses, with Rapinoe able to operate in the half-space between the fullback and center back or, more centrally, underneath a striker, when that room is given. From there, she can take advantage of former Thorn Jodie Taylor's industry running through or behind defenses as well as pick out attackers making runs at the weak side of the defense.

There are other players in the league that can do this, too. They’re rare, and they create in different ways, but in terms of the variety they provide in attack, they can rival Rapinoe. That Rapinoe does so, though, consistently, whenever she’s on the field, despite every opponent knowing the Reign’s attack almost lives and dies with their star player’s output makes that output all the more remarkable.

Focus matchup: Tacoma’s central midfielders vs. the space in front of the Reign defense

As the attacking combination of Midge Purce and Simone Charley started besting opposing defenses during the World Cup break, opponents began to adjust, started dropping earlier and deeper, and challenged the Thorns to beat them with more than speed, effort and execution. They demanded ingenuity of Portland, and while the Thorns’ tactics have evolved since that World Cup phase, some opponents are taking the same approach. It took a moment of ingenuity from Lindsey Horan last Saturday to crack the Houston Dash open.

Throughout his years in the NWSL, Andonovski has always organized defenses adept at timing their drops and defending well in their penalty area, making finding runners through and behind his defenses particularly hard. If that remains the case on Saturday, the spaces that defenses often have to give – the cracks between lines, or the areas near the top of the penalty box – become more valuable. Portland may be left making quick decisions into and out of those spaces to create their chances on goal.

Last week, the Thorns did that. Horan took advantage of a slight opening off of a throw-in. Seconds later, Tobin Heath had an easy finish just outside the six-yard box. If Portland gets another chance like that on Sunday, it may prove key to claiming three points in Tacoma.

As for the Thorns …

Saturday’s victory over the Dash not only put the Thorns’ season back on course, but it started a process which, if all goes well, will extent through the month of October. Over that time – from the last two games of the regular season until the end of the playoffs – Portland's goal is to build toward a team that can compete in this year’s final. The steps they take over the next two or three games will determine whether they reach that goal.

In that sense, the Houston result was step one. It proved the team can get back into the win column. Now, it’s time for Portland to build on that result. Now, it’s time for the Thorns to vanquish Tacoma.

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