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Seattle Reign vs Portland Thorns preview: Playoffs on the line

It’s time to remove that thorn in our side.

Reign vs. Thorns: Photos Mike Russell / Sounder at Heart

The NWSL is back! After a month-long break during the Olympics, Seattle Reign FC returns to action with a must-win home match against rival Portland Thorns FC. It’s the last of four meetings between the two sides, and is arguably Seattle’s most important game this year.

With just five matches left in the regular season, Reign FC sits in sixth place with a 5-5-5 record. There’s five points separating Seattle from the final playoff spot, which is currently occupied by the Chicago Red Stars. Three points aren’t just nice to have at this point; they are necessary if Seattle wants to gain any momentum on its quest for a third straight playoff berth.

How Reign FC ended up in this position during a year where Olympic call-ups significantly impacted every other NWSL team remains somewhat of a mystery. Virtually all of the team’s core returned in 2016, with the most notable loss being Stephanie Cox—a huge loss, certainly, but not one that should alter the course of a season.

It’s been a mix of injuries, bad luck, stagnant offensive movement, and opponent defensive tactics that have stunned Seattle this year. And when it comes to the last point, no team has broken down Seattle’s offense like the Thorns.

Breaking Down Portland’s Defense

This season, Portland’s new head coach, Mark Parsons, deployed a very specific defensive strategy against the Reign—and it’s worked up until this point. After two years of domination over its rival, Seattle has gone 0-1-1 against the Thorns.

So what does Portland do that’s so effective?

The team pulls its forwards back when Seattle’s defenders get the ball—cutting off passes into Seattle’s midfield. At the same time, their defense pushes high, inviting the Reign to attempt balls over the top or through their high line.

With the speed of Manon Melis, the vision of Kim Little, and the smart runs of Naho Kawasumi, you’d think it would be easy for the Reign to find a way through. But Melis and Kawasumi didn’t play in two of the three matches against the Thorns. They’re both rested and expected to play this weekend, however, and are poised to have an impact.

In the last battle between Portland and Seattle—their final match before the Olympic break—Laura Harvey deployed a 4-4-2 instead of her traditional 4-3-3, pushing Kim Little a lot wider than usual. The attempt to overload the midfield and get the ball out wide worked at times. The Reign had 11 shots, but a much-improved Portland defense managed to hold Seattle to a shutout.

With a month to rest and recover, expect Seattle to push hard at the start of the match—looking for early pressure to break down Portland’s defense.

National Team Players Return

Portland surprised many with its ability to hold onto a playoff spot in the month of July, despite missing seven players due to national team call-ups. Now, all seven players are back, including playmaker and assist leader Tobin Heath, and the midfield trio of Allie Long, Amandine Henry, and Lindsey Horan.

Whether all seven international players start remains a question, however, as Christine Sinclair’s Canada played six games in 16 days on their way to earning a Bronze medal in Rio.

For Seattle, Megan Rapinoe was practicing with the squad on Thursday and will be available for selection, while Hope Solo was absent after learning her contract was terminated by U.S. Soccer. Laura Harvey told the Seattle Times that it had more to do with the fact that Solo needed a day to process the news.

“As a human being, getting the information that Hope got yesterday, I’m sure it was devastating for her. I’m trying to be mindful of that more than anything,” Harvey told the Times.

While Solo thrives off the rivalry between Portland and Seattle, Haley Kopmeyer will likely get the start this weekend. She’s had a full month to recover from a high ankle sprain, and has proven herself as the league’s best backup goalkeeper.

Having Rapinoe get some minutes in Rio was promising for the Reign, who have lacked a player like her this season—someone who brings unpredictability in both her movement on and off the ball. If the Olympics were any indication, Rapinoe shouldn’t be expected to go a whole 90 minutes, but she could be an important impact sub in the second half.

A Physical Rivalry

Another way teams break up Seattle’s offense is to put high pressure on the ball. This often results in more fouls from the opponents. In their three match-ups this season, Portland has averaged 9.7 fouls per game, compared to Seattle’s 4.7.

The last time these two teams met at Memorial Stadium, it was an extremely physical battle, with at least five Reign players going down at different points in the match. It got so out of control that Laura Harvey was fined for her post-game comments, where she criticized the ref for losing control.

While its unlikely this game will reach that level of physicality, expect both teams to come out aggressive. There’s a lot on the line for each squad, although the weight on Seattle’s shoulders feels a bit heavier at the moment.

Portland’s supporters group, the Rose City Riveters, confirmed they will have 150 traveling supporters at the match. If Seattle fans come out in equally strong numbers, it should be a loud and raucous affair.

The quest for the playoffs kicks off at Memorial Stadium at 2:00 p.m. PT on Saturday, August 27. Tickets are still available for Seattle’s second to last home match, and the game will be streamed on YouTube.

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