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Playoff time: Portland Thorns vs. San Diego Wave

The semifinal against the Wave will be more than a soccer game.

Providence Park Thorns FC

It’s NWSL playoff time! More than two weeks have passed since the regular season finished, and it’s time for the Portland Thorns to play soccer again.

After finishing second in the table, the Thorns got a bye in the playoff’s first round and will host a semifinal match at Providence Park today. They were waiting to know their opponent, coming from the winner of the San Diego vs Chicago Red Stars game.

After 120 minutes, the Wave ended up victorious with a 2-1 result. The winning goal was scored by Alex Morgan in extra time.

Trying to focus on the fútbol

Just like last year, when the article from The Athletic outlining the abuse of Paul Riley came out at the end of the season, the Thorns have been taking the hit. People and media have been focusing more on the off-field matters than on the fact that there’s a playoff semifinal coming on to Providence Park on Sunday. And understandably so since what the investigations have revealed are heavy matters concerning the club’s front office, and has already led to significant changes among the Timbers and Thorns organization.

Nonetheless, the players and the Thorns’ coach Rhian Wilkinson have made clear that they’re trying to focus on the upcoming semifinal:

“They [the players] are just trying to be quiet and go back to playing, and I understand that. They’re going to the semifinals, they’re aiming for the finals, and they’re getting derailed by questions about things that are not in their sphere of influence right now. They’re speaking for things that aren’t for them to have to speak on,” said Wilkinson at the pre-game press conference.

It is true that the fans want to hear what their role models have to say about this serious issue, but it is also true that the coach and the players have been hired and are paid to play soccer. And to do it well.

After an outstanding year in 2021, The Athletic article took its toll on the team, and one of the ways that may have been reflected is in the way they played and finished last year. For sure, the Thorns don’t want that to happen again.

No one can argue that Portland had a good year, but sadly, it hasn’t been good enough to at least secure one piece of silverware (yet?). The playoffs are their last chance to raise a trophy this season and they want to focus on today’s game against an opponent that proved to be tough all year long.

San Diego Wave

Casey Stoney’s team proved to be a worthy opponent since the Challenge Cup. Even at the beginning of the year when the Thorns got two wins against them they were both by a narrow margin (1-0 and 3-2). Since the very beginning, San Diego Wave showed they were not messing around.

The year went by but the Thorns always encountered a tough opponent in Stoney’s team. They met again for the first time in the regular season in June and the game ended up in a 2-2 draw. Sophia Smith and Christine Sinclair scored the goals for Portland while Taylor Kornieck scored a brace. She was the game-changer that day: she entered into the match at the 80th minute and scored two goals in less than 10 minutes.

They met again in August at Providence Park and this time things went to the Wave’s way. Kristen McNabb surprised everybody with a nice goal and Alex Morgan put the ball in the back of the net as well to secure the 2-0 win.

The Wave has scored a total of six goals against Portland so far in the challenge cup and regular season. Out of those, 50% have been scored by Taylor Kornieck. The attacker has become instrumental in Stoney’s system and the coach has helped take her game to the next level. Therefore, she has grown a lot as a player since her days at Orlando. Kornieck also has developed great chemistry with Alex Morgan, another key player for the Wave. The forward is having her best year in the league and it’s no wonder she’s a finalist for league MVP.

She was crucial for the Wave to advance to the semifinals. Despite having her and Kornieck listed as ‘questionable’ for the game, both started against Chicago and both played more than 100 minutes in that match. We don’t know how serious their injuries are but for sure, playing that many minutes took a toll on them and we will have to wait to see if both start on Sunday or not.

The absence of any of those two players could be pivotal for the outcome of this match.

Another player to watch is Sophia Jakobsson. Although Stoney didn’t start her against the Red Stars and put Kelsey Turnbow in her place, the Swedish international made all the difference in the second half. Her experience and vision were crucial for the Wave’s success. It will be only logical for her to get the start against the Thorns.

Of course, we should mention Naomi Girma and Kailen Sheridan, who both have been excellent this year, leaving Sheridan’s mistake in the quarter-final last week aside.

Portland will have to be careful when and where they lose the ball because we have seen that San Diego can be very fast in transition. Another one of their strengths is their crosses to the box, and their danger was pointed out by captain Christine Sinclair. The Wave is also good at taking advantage of second balls — that’s how Emily van Egmond’s equalizer in the last round came.

As we have seen in the game against Chicago, the Wave handed the ball to them and let them control the tempo during most of the 90 minutes but they hit them with a more direct kind of game that worked in the end.

The Thorns

Portland will have to play in the middle of protests going on around them, with fans that haven’t decided yet in what way to support the players without compromising their values, and with media asking them to speak up.

It won’t be an easy environment to play in. But as always, they’re counting on their fans to show up at Providence Park and to be loud. So much so that they can silence the voices in their heads that have been there for an entire year but that have been even louder since the Sally Yates report.

These players have gone through a lot. Bella Bixby lost her father at the end of 2021 and Christine Sinclair lost her mother this year, and many other players have surely had to deal with things we don’t even know about.

And despite all this, these athletes have been competing all year long and have been breaking records and every single one of them has shown up when needed. The team had to adapt to a new playing system and formations, trying different combinations. And nonetheless they’re one game away from a the NWSL Championship.

These players are strong, every single one of them. They have a strong mentality and the 20,000 fans that are going to be at Providence Park at the moment of the kick-off will be there to support them if they need more strength.

I wish today’s game could be all about soccer — and maybe for the Wave it will be. Out of necessity for everything going around the club, it can’t be.

But ultimately for the Thorns, it will be another opportunity to play with their hearts and to show everybody they can compete.

Portland doesn’t have the best of records against San Diego in the regular season (1D, 1L) but Sunday will bring the opportunity to direct things the Thorns way. They come to this game with a 5-5-0 record in playoffs. Only North Carolina and Portland have been able to win five games in the postseason. Will the Thorns break a new record tomorrow?

Tune in to CBS Sports Network if you live in the US to find out and on Twitch if you live abroad. The game will kick off at 2 PM Pacific.

Go Thorns!