On Sunday, Reign FC host rivals Portland Thorns in the first ESPN match at Cheney Stadium. Because this will air on ESPN2 and stream on the ESPN website and app, the match was moved to 11 AM PT — so if you are planning to attend the sold-out affair, don’t forget to arrive in time for the earlier kickoff.
Portland currently sits in 3rd place (11-5-6, 39 points), while the Reign sit five points behind them in 4th (9-6-7, 34 points). A win puts Reign FC into the playoffs — regardless of what else happens this weekend or in their final match of the regular season.
Here are five things we hope to see on Sunday.
1. Defend well in the air
The Thorns like to send balls in the air from deep — right around half. They have a lot of speed to get in behind to collect those balls, and players like Lindsey Horan who are good in the air who can win headers in the box. The Reign backline and midfield is going to need to be physical and defend these long balls well. They’ll also need to be ready for plenty of crosses whipped into the box. Portland sent 17 crosses in against the Houston Dash last weekend.
2. Lots of movement in the midfield
Earlier in September, the Thorns fell 6-0 to the North Carolina Courage at Providence Park. They were completely outplayed in the midfield, and it was in large part due to how much movement there was between Crystal Dunn, Sam Mewis, Denise O’Sullivan, and Debinha. I don’t suspect the Reign will put four players in the midfield — they’ll stick to their usual 4-2-3-1 formation — but they can pull the Thorns out of position with lots of smart movement on and off the ball in the middle of the field.
3. Control Portland’s attacking speed
Portland Thorns attackers Hayley Raso, Midge Purce, and Caitlin Foord are fast. And the Thorns take a direct attacking approach to try to get them the ball on a sprint. With a crafty player like Tobin Heath on the left wing, it’s not great for opponents when they sneak in behind defenses. But the Reign can’t be entirely focused on the speed. While she hasn’t been quite as dangerous this year, Horan had an MVP season in 2018 thanks to her end-to-end play and ability to make well-timed runs into the box. Reign defenders will need to keep an eye on these late runs and get a step on Horan to balls in the air and on the ground.
4. Counter on the wings
The Thorns like to send their outside backs Ellie Carpenter and Meghan Klingenberg forward. That leaves the space behind them exposed. While Houston didn’t score against the Thorns last week, they had opportunities on the break in the second half. Both Megan Oyster and Rebecca Quinn have the ability to switch the field quickly with long balls. Whichever player starts on Sunday should be looking to spring a counter with that pass.
5. Win the duels
The Thorns are not an overly aggressive or physical team, but they are strong and often win their duels. The Reign have worked hard to become a team that can match this level of strength and physicality. They’ll have to bring that grit against the Thorns.
Predicted Starting Lineup
Forwards: Megan Rapinoe, Jodie Taylor, Darian Jenkins
Midfield: Rosie White, Allie Long, Bev Yanez
Defense: Steph Catley, Lauren Barnes, Rebecca Quinn, Theresa Nielsen
Goalkeeper: Casey Murphy
OUT: Taylor Smith (SEI - R Knee), Jasmyne Spencer (SEI - L Knee), Michelle Betos (SEI - R Achilles), Jaycie Johnson (SEI - R Knee), Scout Watson (SEI - Concussion), Jessica Fishlock (SEI - L Knee), Megan Oyster (L Knee)
QUESTIONABLE: Bethany Balcer (R Groin)
OUT: Kelli Hubly (Right Hip), Angela Salem (Left Knee), Gabby Seiler (Right Knee)
QUESTIONABLE: Celeste Boureille (Left Ankle)