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Storylines: Portland Thorns vs Seattle Reign

Build a bonfire, build a bonfire...

Nikita Taparia

Portland’s regular season culminates in a final epic clash with Seattle this evening at Providence Park. Both teams’ playoff fates turn on the game’s result. Win, and either would clinch second place and host a home playoff—which, in Portland’s case, could only be against the Reign. If the Thorns draw, they’ll head to Seattle for the semifinals, while if they lose, they’ll be waiting on the result of Chicago-Utah to find out whether they face Seattle or North Carolina. In other words, this about is as close to a must-win as they come, with Portland needing three points in order to put themselves in the best possible position in the playoffs.

Projected Starting XI

With Hayley Raso out, Mark Parsons has several choices of who to start on the right wing, though he’s keeping mum about his plans. Ana Crnogorcevic is an option, as is Andressinha. My money, though, is on Midge Purce, who’s the closest replacement as an attacking threat, despite being pretty different stylistically from Raso.

I don’t expect any changes to the rest of the lineup; Meghan Klingenberg is listed as questionable on the injury report, but she’s been in training and I suspect that’s more a bit of gamesmanship than anything else. Caitlin Foord should be back in the XI after two weeks of recovery and training, and could go a full 90 minutes. Here’s my expected lineup.

Scouting the Opposition

There have been a couple difficulties in preparing for this game, both in terms of the Thorns themselves and in terms of what the team expects to see from Seattle.

The first challenge is that a big chunk of Portland’s roster—Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan, Emily Sonnett, Adrianna Franch, Christine Sinclair, Andressinha, and Ana Crnogorcevic—were away for the international break and only returned to Portland midway through this week. “Sharing information in a 24-hour timespan is the biggest challenge,” said Mark Parsons last week. He pointed out, however, that the team was a similar position around Tournament of Nations, and the staff learned some important lessons. “The information, to prepare individuals and team, that’s the biggest challenge.... We feel very confident we have a good plan that can give us a good chance. The simple version is to keep it freaking simple.”

The other challenge is that it’s not clear who will be available for Seattle. Megan Rapinoe, Allie Long, and Bev Yanez are all listed as questionable for this game. The difference between a Seattle team with Rapinoe and one without her is significant. She has seven goals and six assists on the season, and when she’s available, the attack largely flows through her. Without her, Seattle have to rely more on Jess Fishlock to create scoring chances—essentially, it adds up to one less area of the field opponents have to worry about controlling.

With that said, the Thorns are preparing for the game assuming that Rapinoe will be available, and my suspicion is that due to the nature of her injury—currently listed as “rib soreness”—it’s just a matter of pain management, and she probably will play, either as a starter or as an impact sub if things aren’t going well for the Reign. If she does, Ellie Carpenter will need to have a big game to keep her quiet. She matched up superbly against Rapinoe most of the last game at Memorial—until she let a cross past in the 88th minute. The young Australian has only gotten more experience under her belt at this point, so hopefully she can maintain that performance for a full 90 minutes.

Game plan

Defensively, Rapinoe is the biggest danger, as discussed above. But how do the Thorns get on the board in this game?

Seattle, like Vlatko Andonovski’s previous teams, are first and foremost a defensively strong team. “They defend as an eleven,” said Parsons this week. “They don’t leave dangerous spaces and spaces in the final third... So it’s up to the opposition. If you want that dangerous space, you’re going to have to invite them out. What drags a center back out of being where a center back wants to be?”

On this Thorns team, lots of things can drag a center back out of position. Tobin Heath either drawing defenders to the wing or cutting inside in front of the back line is one thing. Another is Caitlin Foord, perhaps making dangerous runs to link up with Heath in one of those areas.

The other factor is Seattle’s intense pressure. “They work hard from the front,” said Parsons. “When you’ve got that energy up front, and they’re winning it there quite a bit, there’s less pressure the defense has to take.” In that respect, Portland is coming into this game at the right time. All eleven players on the field are looking more confident and composed under pressure than they did earlier in the year; the defense has continued to solidify with some consistency, and Celeste Boureille looks like a match for the Fishlocks of the world.

These are two very good teams who are playing the best soccer of their respective seasons, and this thing could go either way. But after two bad results against Seattle earlier in the season, Portland goes in not just with the playoff spot on the line, but with something to prove. It’s going to be a good one.

(Correction: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that with a loss or a draw, the Thorns could play either Seattle or North Carolina in the semifinals.)