Well, here we are again. The stage is set for the Thorns to host their Cascadia rivals for the second week in a row, this time in the first of two NWSL semifinal matches. The winner will go on to face the winner of North Carolina-Chicago, which the league announced yesterday will be played in Portland next Tuesday, due to Hurricane Florence.
Although it’s a rematch, don’t expect this game to play out like last week’s did. It’s the nature of playoff games to defy expectations, and Seattle could have the option to make some key changes over the lineup they fielded on Friday.
Projected Starting XI
As for the Thorns, there’s no reason to expect changes from last week’s lineup. Midge Purce had a great game stepping in for Hayley Raso, and Caitlin Foord looks good to play 90 minutes again. Only Raso, Katherine Reynolds, and Meg Morris are on the injury report.
Scouting the Opposition
Once again, it’s unclear who will be available for Seattle. Allie Long and Megan Rapinoe were both out last week, Rapinoe with some kind of rib injury and Long with an unspecified knee sprain, and are again listed as “questionable.” If I were a betting woman, I’d put my money on Rapinoe to be available before Long, since her injury would seem to be more an issue of pain management than anything else—but that’s complete speculation on my part, as Vlatko Andonovski has been understandably mum about the likelihood of either playing.
With that said, either or both being available could change the game. As Portland fans are well aware, Long isn’t the kind of defensive mid who’s generally going to play defense-splitting passes or set up her teammates higher up the field, but she is extremely reliable in possession, can stand up to pressure, and rarely gives the ball away in dangerous areas. Having her at the base of the midfield instead of Morgan Andrews would enable Rumi Utsugi to push a little higher and serve as the connective tissue between Seattle’s defensive corps and players like Jess Fishlock.
Rapinoe, of course, is one of the best creative players in the game, is in peak form, and has been a driving force in Seattle’s offense all season. If she’s available, the team’s attack—which looked pretty toothless after their early goal last week—suddenly looks a lot more threatening.
As important as personnel is, what may be just as important is the psychological factor. The Reign will have gone into this week of training with a chip on their shoulder after that loss. A single-leg playoff game is plenty of motivation in itself; add to that a desire to come back strong after a frustrating defeat to a rival, and Seattle is going to be hungry coming into this game.
Seattle are a better team than they looked like last week. Not only that, but they’re led by the winningest coach in NWSL history. I’m not going to try and guess what kind of tricks Andonovski might have up his sleeve, tactically, but it’s fairly likely he has something. As Parsons pointed out a few weeks ago, the Macedonian-born coach has historically been able to adjust his approach for playoff games, finding success against Seattle in 2014 and 2015 by sitting deep and attacking on the counter, which isn’t normally his style. The Thorns have to be prepared to adjust mid-game, if it comes to that.
With all that said, this looks like a Thorns team that, on their day, can beat any of the playoff teams. The offense looks so good in so many different ways, they should be able to score regardless of what Seattle throws at them. We saw some of that on Friday: they were able to ping the ball around through tight spaces out wide, move it quickly upfield on transitions, and capitalize on errors in Seattle’s half. If all else fails, with Tobin Heath and Lindsey Horan around, there’s always the possibility of a set-piece goal.
It would also probably be a mistake to expect Seattle’s defense to be as easily stretchable as it was last week, when Heath and Caitlin Foord seemed to be able to move defenders around at will. The Thorns have to expect better organization, and their finishing on the chances they do find has to be correspondingly more precise.
The potential weakness, unlike in 2017, is on the defensive side. The defense looked strong for almost all of the 86-some minutes after Fishlock’s goal, but the fact remains that they conceded that one after a mistake by Emily Menges. In a playoff scenario, the intensity level they found after going down a goal has to be there from the beginning, and those kinds of mistakes can’t happen.
Ultimately, in the playoffs, what it all boils down to is this: when the chips are down and the work of the whole season is on the line, which team can find another gear? The Thorns can be the team to do that, but it won’t be easy.