The Portland Thorns (9-8-6, 33pts) close out the regular season, as they host Kim Little, Megan Rapinoe, and the Seattle Reign (16-1-6, 54pts) in their third meeting with their Pacific Northwest rivals.
The Thorns and Reign have met twice this season, with neither match going in Portland's favor. In their first meeting, Little introduced herself Thorns fans by scoring a last-minute goal, and Naho Kawasumi put in a Player of the Week performance as she helped the Reign to a 5-0 drubbing at the end of July.
The Thorns have done themselves little favors recently, losing two of three, including last week's 2-0 loss to the Boston Breakers, which could have clinched themselves a spot in the playoffs. Luckily for the Thorns, they will secure themselves third place and a date with FC Kansas City next weekend with a victory; though any other result would see their season end, as neither the Chicago Red Stars (draw) or Washington Spirit (loss) could lock down their place in the postseason.
Last week's match against the Breakers wasn't a case of them not having their chances, they had plenty of those, but they simply couldn't finish. While Alyssa Naeher's superb performance had a lot to do with that, open chances were flubbed and defensive lapses once again sunk them.
Luckily for the Thorns, Tobin Heath appears to be set to return from injury, as she is listed as Questionable. Unfortunately, the Thorns did lose Stephanie Catley in their last match and she was seen wearing a walking boot at training this week, and is listed as Doubtful for this match, while Sinead Farrelly remains out. With Rebecca Moros making recent starts in right back, Sarah Huffman will likely slot into Catley's position in the Starting XI.
It's the end of the road for the Thorns this season without a victory, and everyone will be looking to step it up, especially with the bitter memories of their last meeting still very fresh. With their season on the line, the Thorns will especially need strong play from their backline and Nadine Angerer, as well as playmaking from Vero and Heath, who need to find ways to get balls to Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair from the start, take control early, and keep up the pressure throughout the match.
The Reign, possible inadvertently, did the Thorns a favor in their last meeting, a 1-1 draw with the Spirit last weekend, which kept Washington within striking distance, as the Spirit went up in the first half, while Little gave the Reign the equalizer in the 89th minute, another late-game comeback for Seattle.
With everything wrapped up, the Reign held Kawasumi and Little out of the Starting XI, bringing them both on in the second half, a strategy that Laura Harvey may employ again to protect her players from injury. One player that guaranteed to be missing is Jessica Fishlock, who is with the Welsh National Team for their World Cup qualifier on Thursday, but they otherwise are at full strength, with only University of Portland alum Amanda Frisbie and Canadian international Carmelina Moscato listed on the injury report.
The benevolence of Harvey will play a major factor in this match. If she approaches this match cautiously and holds back players like Kawasumi and Little once again, it would definitely makes things easier for the Thorns, but this seems unlikely, given the rivalry between the sides and presumed lingering hard feelings from last season. Either way, the Thorns have quite the test on their hands and the Reign would like nothing more than to end their season on the pitch at Providence Park.
What defense will show up today? Will it be the strong unit that nearly held the Reign off the scoreboard in their first meeting, with a late lapse being the difference maker, the shaky unit that gives up goals early and often, or a new, inspired unit, one that looks to keep the Reign off the board? Without Catley, the Thorns will likely hold back some of their wing play, which will have an effect on their attack, but will also keep the outside back hanging further back, since neither Huffman nor Moros brings the speed of Catley, while Amber Brooks will need to bring an added element to the attack, but also need to track back and provide an extra defensive layer for the Reign to try and break.
When the NWSL drew up the schedule for this season, they no doubt put this last meeting to close out the season with the hope that it would turn out to be a pivotal match for both sides. While this is definitely the case for the Thorns, the wildcard in this match will be what the Reign decide to do. Since the Thorns-Reign matchup has grown into a true rivalry this season and the fans will definitely be "bringing it," the Thorns need to bring out their best performance of the season to keep their season alive.
Thorns' Keys to the Match
Control the Midfield - The Thorns midfield simply didn't show up in their last meeting with the Reign, as their strategy quickly turned into long-ball, a disastrous choice as the Thorns quickly learned. With Heath returning, the Thorns should be able to open up their midfield further while creating attacking opportunities and keeping possession of the ball, neither of which they were able to do in their last meeting.
Finish - Scoring chances will come, they always do. The Thorns' problem with season is they seem to either convert everything in sight or appear completely unable to put anything on frame. A draw does nothing for the Thorns, so they need to bring their shooting books and the fearsome attack that they have, at least on paper.
Play Your Hearts Out - The Thorns have to come out with the mentality that everything comes down to this match, approaching this game like it is the World Cup final, and leave everything out on the field.
Portland Thorns vs. Seattle Reign
Sunday August 17, 2014 at 2:00pm PDT
Providence Park - Portland, Oregon