In what is easily one of the most anticipated match of the season, the Portland Thorns (8-6-6. 30pts) travel north up I-5 to take on Megan Rapinoe, Hope Solo, and the league-leading Seattle Reign FC (13-1-4, 43pts) on Sunday at 4:00pm from Memorial Stadium in Seattle, Washington.
The Thorns and Reign met one earlier this season, a 1-0 victory for the Reign as Kim Little's last minute goal proved to be the difference maker after Cascadian rivals slugged it out for nearly 90 minutes. The Reign will return to Portland on August 17, as the Thorns and Reign will close out their regular season schedules.
The Thorns once again came out pressing hard in their midweek match at Washington, with Alex Morgan netting her 5th of the season from Steph Catley, her 4th assist in as many matches. Unfortunately for the Thorns, tired legs crept up on them in the second half, as they gave up the equalizer in the 68th minutes and then had to hold on for the rest of the match as the Spirit pushed for a game winner.
This match comes at the end of an incredibly busy month of the July, that has seen them play a quarter of the season (6 out of 24 matches, 7 including Sunday) in the past three weeks. Despite the compressed schedule, the Thorns are undefeated in July (2-0-6, 12pts), and have seen their offense come out on fire in those two victories, scoring 13 goals between those matches and 18 overall, nearly half their season total (37 goals) and put themselves within striking distance of FC Kansas City for the #2 seed and home field advantage for at least the semifinals.
The Thorns quick start strategy will have to be employed again against the Reign, looking to build a lead that will need to be insurmountable, as the Reign have used late game heroics in several of their matches this season, especially with the Thorns still thin at defense, though midfielders Sinead Farrelly and Rebecca Moros have both been upgraded to Questionable, and both could probably be used as late-game substitutes, if needed.
Beyond a quick start, the Thorns will need to contain attackers Little, Jess Fishlock, Naho Kawasumi, and Bev Goebel, all of whom have scored at least 4 goals for the Reign. With this in mind, the Thorns will likely employ 2 defensive midfielders to provide cover for the attack runs of Catley, since the Reign are a very opportunistic team, looking for the Thorns to make mistakes that they can take advantage of.
Seattle Reign FC
The Reign had a start to the season that even they couldn't have predicted, going undefeated (13-0-3) until they met the Chicago Red Stars on July 12, suffering their first loss and were shutout for the lone time in the 2014 season, then drew the Red Stars 1-1 last weekend, as Christen Press brought the match level in the 81st minute, as the Reign became the first team to clinch a spot in the semifinals.
Despite their record, the Reign have yet to blow out their opponents, instead grinding out results, with their last multi-goal victory coming against the Boston Breakers on June 19 and their largest victory coming in their first match of the season, a 3-0 win also against the Breakers, as Little has seen her scoring taper off significantly over the past month or so, registering 1 goal and 2 assists in her last 5 appearances, while Megan Rapinoe is still building up her conditioning after an injury that saw her miss more than half the season.
The Reign are the league frontrunners for a reason, and this comes from a tenacious style of play led by Jess Fishlock, who's pesky play has both annoyed, yet earned the respect of players and fans around the league. The Reign never look to be out of a match, even when the team is down late, and this will be a major factor in the late stages, where their fresher legs will provide a distinct advantage.
This match is the last of an incredibly compressed schedule for the Thorns, but the first time it appeared that the tiredness truly caught up with them was on Wednesday, after playing Sunday and traveling to Washington the next day. While the additional day's rest isn't much, the shorter travel to Seattle should allow the Thorns to look a bit fresher, and teams always step it up for a rivalry game. The Thorns are still thin at the back, though Moros' condition improving gives the Thorns an extra defender to slot into either the outside back or defensive midfield positions late in the match, while the Thorns will have plenty of attacking options, including the curious addition of forward Hanna Terry, who showed a high work-rate in her brief time on the pitch.
Riley's choice of formation and lineup will definitely be interesting. The Reign are perhaps the only team that can touch the Thorns' depth, especially in attacking options, so Riley has to decide whether to play to slug it out again or go for an all-out attack from the start, their strategy in recent matches. Given lack of defensive options, it would not be surprising to see Riley put Allie Long next to Amber Brooks at defensive midfielder, despite it truncating her creativity in the attack, an issue with Tobin Heath still out of the match. When Riley decides to bring on Jess McDonald will also be an interesting thing to watch for, as she could be a major factor if brought on late in the match.
Thorns Keys to the Match-
Memorial Stadium - The home of the Seattle Reign brings some interesting quirks, the most important of which is that the turf is likely the smallest in the league, only slightly wider than the 53+ yards of an American football field. This narrow pitch will force everything into the middle of the pitch, clogging the midfield and potentially changing the wide play of the Thorns, especially Catley's crosses, which have been spectacular in recent matches.
Preserve Your Energy - The Reign win because they wear their opponent down and strike late, something that doesn't bode well for the Thorns' recent defensive struggles, at times. The Thorns need to find a way to preserve their legs to last throughout the match, though with a week between matches, the can afford to push more later in the match, though they still have to avoid chasing the Reign late.
Contain Reign's Creators - Much like the Thorns have several creative options out of the midfield, the Reign have plenty of their own, led by Fishlock, Goebel, and Kawasumi, all of whom are both threats to create and strike. This will lead to a busy day for Nadine Angerer and the Thorns backline, but adding a second defensive midfielder should help in this effort.
Portland Thorns at Seattle Reign
Sunday July 27, 2014 at 4:00pm PDT
Memorial Stadium - Seattle, Washington