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Reign FC beat Portland Thorns in an instant classic

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Seattle writes the first chapter in this year’s Cascadia rivalry.

Nikita Taparia

On a warm Saturday afternoon in Portland, Oregon, the Seattle Reign FC and Portland Thorns FC added the latest chapter in the NWSL’s version of the vaunted Seattle/Portland rivalry.

Right from the start, the action was fast. Both sides saw early probes that made back lines and the goalkeepers work. Normally you’d have the first 10 to 15 minutes being a feeling-out process, but that was not the case on Saturday afternoon. Portland should have struck first in the 17th minute with a Mallory Weber effort that inexplicably hit the underside of the crossbar and back out.

Not too long after that on the other end, Seattle had a free kick opportunity that, if Jodie Taylor had connected on from her back post run, would have found the back of the net. Portland had a golden opportunity in the 27th minute when a miscue between goalkeeper Michelle Betos and right back Megan Oyster had Portland’s Ana Maria Crnogorcevic see an open net, but her shot went wide right.

However, it was the visitors that struck first in what was already a frenetic first half where the score could have — perhaps should have — been 2-1 in Portland’s favor. A corner kick from Nahomi Kawasumi in the 36th minute found the head of Beverly Yanez through a crowd of Thorns defenders and went into the back of the net in front of the intimidating Rose City Riveters to strike first.

At halftime, the Thorns brought on internationals Tobin Heath and Andressinha to add punch to their attack, and right from the start of play, Portland was knocking on Seattle’s door for an equalizer.

Their efforts came to fruition when defender Emily Sonnett claimed Portland’s equalizer in the 61st minute. A Portland corner kick found the back of the net when Sonnett got in despite Seattle’s Allie Long and Nahomi Kawasumi’s efforts on goal line clearances. Three minutes later, Seattle would regain the lead after midfielder Jess Fishlock was taken down in the box and forward Jodie Taylor converted the penalty.

Taylor would actually see a couple other chances that, with better shot selection, could have resulted in a hat trick and put the match to bed — and it was those missed opportunities that kept the momentum and Portland’s belief they were still in this one.

And it’d prove true as the lead would only last for six minutes as Portland’s Lindsey Horan connected on a Meghan Klingenberg cross and send an arcing header for a second equalizer, that Reign FC goalkeeper Michelle Betos could have been in better position to save but stepped too far out, despite defender Stephanie Catley being in the vicinity and theoretically could have gone in the air to challenge Horan. The second equalizer sent Providence Park into a frenzy and the Cascadia roller coaster ride was on.

Seattle went back to being the operator of the ride five minutes later when midfielder Rumi Utsugi, the ice cold gangster that she is, sent in a surface-hugging strike to claim Seattle’s third and eventual match-winning goal.

The final 10 minutes of the match was an exercise in managing stress, anxiety, blood pressure and everything in-between for fans of either team playing. The Thorns wanted to show they were not rattled by Utsugi’s goal and kept knocking and knocking on Seattle’s penalty box in search of a third equalizing goal. It was the ultimate bend, but don’t break, defense for the Reign who at times looked like they were playing six in the back.

Despite all the dangerous initial crosses in and heart-stopping second and third chances Portland had, Seattle’s defense, and most importantly Betos, did not break. The Reign goalkeeper became her biggest and best in the final minutes when she needed to, until finally referee Karen Abt blew the whistle three times for the final whistle.

Seattle held on to take the first chapter of this year’s Seattle/Portland rivalry. It was thrilling, nerve-wracking, and everything NWSL fans could hope for with the latest chapter in the Cascadia rivalry. Whether you were in attendance at Providence Park or watching on television, you felt the drama, the rush, and general bemusement of what exactly just happened for 90 minutes on a warm Saturday afternoon in Portland, Oregon.

Portland Thorns head coach Mark Parsons called the match “chaotic” and “frustrating” for his squad to put in so much pressure over the course of the match and be on the losing end. Portland had 24, that’s right 24 shots to Seattle’s 12 and only found the back of the net twice. The turnaround on analyzing how the numbers were in Portland’s favor, but the result went to Seattle’s is a short one as the Thorns hit the road for a mid-week match against the Houston Dash.

For Reign FC head coach Vlatko Andonovski, his first taste of the Seattle/Portland rivalry will definitely be one to remember. “When I was in Kansas City, we would come here and the intensity and atmosphere was always good. I love it, but now having this badge on (taps the Reign FC badge), it’s a little bit different. It raises everything a little bit more, which I am very happy because it brings the best out of our players.”

While coach was happy to get the win, he conceded that there will be some long film sessions to look at how they conceded those goals, and how they were given so much time and space that resulted in all shots, mostly set up through runs created by Klingenberg and Midge Purce, who had fantastic shifts on Saturday. Even the day after a memorable, showcase game for not just the Seattle/Portland rivalry but for the NWSL, no matter which side you were rooting for, you just want to sit back, exhale and go, “Did that really happen?”

But the bottom line is Seattle completed the first two months of the season and a series of road trips with 10 points through five matches. Reign FC fans cannot complain about that result and more importantly finally get to welcome the squad back home as, finally, their next match is a home match.

Seattle Reign FC host Sky Blue FC on Saturday, May 12. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 PM at Memorial Stadium with the broadcast available on go90.com.