The undefeated Portland Thorns (2-0-2, 8pts,) take on the Seattle Reign (2-2-0, 6pts.) in the first Cascadia match up of the season. We chatted with Susie Rantz of Sounder at Heart to get a glimpse of how the Reign look a month into the 2016 season.
1) The Reign lost two of their major catalysts in the attack in Megan Rapinoe and Jess Fishlock. Who has stepped in after the loss of these two important pieces?
Megan Rapinoe and Jess Fishlock might be two of the most difficult players to replace. Rapinoe brings creativity and unpredictability, while Fishlock covers the entire field and provides so much spark on the offensive and defensive end. Seattle averaged just over 2 goals per match last season with Pinoe and Fishlock, but they have just 5 goals in 4 matches this year.
In response to Fishlock's injury, Kim Little has withdrawn to a deeper role these past two matches — with mixed results. She looked world-class against FC Kansas City, but was effectively shut down against Orlando. Bev Yanez, who has yet to score this year, has also dropped into the midfield. She's a superb distributor, but she's also the one you want on the front line getting her head on crosses and foot on balls in the box. There's a lot of offensive talent on this team, though, and I suspect they'll figure it all out in the (hopefully) near future.
2) Memorial Stadium has been a fortress for the past couple of seasons, yet the Reign lost their opener to Sky Blue of all teams, then last week on the road to an expansion Orlando side. Do you think this is due to the loss of Rapinoe and Fishlock, or are there other factors coming into play?
There's no question this team is better with a healthy Rapinoe and Fishlock, but I don't think that's the only reason they've struggled a bit to start the season. First, the level of play across the NWSL continues to rise, and that's a great thing. Second, Reign opponents are swarming the midfield to disrupt the play of Kim Little. Now, Little is one of the best at navigating through tight spaces and getting out of pressure. But she needs teammates to make runs off her and give her support. That hasn't happened consistently this season. When it does, Seattle gets some great looks on goal.
Finally, the Sky Blue match is feeling more and more like an anomaly, and I suspect Orlando is going to be a tough team to play on the road — for any team. The crowd, the long travel, and the heat combined make it a tough environment. It's also worth remembering that Seattle was in 6th place at this point in 2015, so a slower start is not unusual for this team.
3) The Reign had very little turnover, but did see longtime players such as Stephanie Cox and Dani Foxhoven leave in the off-season. What new faces should Thorns fans look out for on Saturday?
Manon Melis is probably the most dangerous new addition for Seattle. The all-time leading goal-scorer for the Netherlands has so much speed, it's scary. The Reign are still trying to figure out how to best unlock that speed, as they haven't had such a quick, direct player like Melis before. When they do, it's going to open up so many more options in the attack. Melis lines up on the right side for Seattle. For the Thorns, that means Meghan Klingenberg will need to be careful about when she makes attacking runs. While we haven't been a counter-attacking team, I'd like to see Seattle attempt a few quick balls to Melis to spring some early sprints toward goal.
Thanks to Susie for taking the time to respond to our questions. Here are our responses to Susie's questions:
1) Tobin Heath was on fire at the start of this season, earning NWSL Player of the Month honors in April. But two yellow cards against, Washington means she'll sit this weekend. What does life without Tobin look like for the Thorns?
That's the million dollar question. Tobin Heath has been the heart of the Thorns this season, kicking it into another gear under new coach Mark Parsons, and has assisted on each goal for the Thorns so far this season. While the Thorns lost Heath, they get back Christine Sinclair, who missed the first four matches due to injury and the death of her father. While we have only seen Sinclair in one match this season, the preseason match against the Reign, she looked particularly determined and inspired in this match, playing with a level of freedom we haven't seemn from her in a long time. If she is fully fit, expect her to move up top, with Nadia Nadim moving outside into a wide attacker role. The Thorns have continued to grow as a team in each match, and while they have been overly reliant on the combo of Heath and Meghan Klingenberg from the left side, they will have to adjust without their main catalyst available this weekend.
2) Like many NWSL teams, Portland has a new coach this season. How has Mark Parsons changed the team already?
One of the first things I noticed about the Thorns this season was the level of freedom they seemed to play with out of the gate. Parsons plays to the strengths of his players, rather than trying to shoehorn them into unnatural positions. This has allowed players like Dagny Brynjarsdottir, Tobin Heath, and Lindsey Horan to look especially dangerous in the attack, though Allie Long has seen her stats drop off significantly as she plays out of a deeper-lying position. Klingenberg has been the hardest working player on the pitch, and without Heath available, expect her to take a more attacking role, especially in distribution.
3) Portland made a vast number of changes in the offseason. Which new player do you think is the most important to this team?
Meghan Klingenberg. She wasn't named to the World XI for nothing, and the Thorns have benefited greatly from what she brings to the table. Her incredible work rate on both ends of the pitch is a major reason why the Thorns are still unbeaten at this point in the season. The interplay between Klingenberg and Heath has been a major reason why the Thorns have found success, but without Heath to play off of she will probably assume a bit of a higher position to make up for this loss, with Allie Long giving her cover defensively.