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OL Reign v. Portland Thorns: Match Preview

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Two teams with struggles in the final third.

Reign vs Thorns MikeRussellFoto

After earning their first win of the NWSL Challenge Cup, OL Reign will be looking to carry that momentum into their final match before the knockout rounds. They shouldn’t have any trouble getting motivated for this one, as the Reign face the Portland Thorns.

The Cascadia clash kicks off Monday, July 13, at 9:30 AM PT. Set your morning alarms and settle in for an early rivalry derby, which will also serve as the team’s Pride Match.

“It is great to finish the first part of this tournament against our rivals,” OL Reign head coach Farid Benstiti said in a match preview. “I have been involved with some big rivalries before, I know how excited the players get for them and the motivation they can provide. I think it will be an energetic match.”

OL Reign enters the match with 4 points and the Thorns have 2 points after three matches apiece. While the Reign have gone through more changes in the offseason — with a new name and coach — both teams come into this tournament with a whole suite of new players.

Here are four things you should know about Portland ahead of tomorrow’s match.

Two teams struggling in the final third

Like OL Reign, the Thorns have struggled to create and finish their chances in the final third. Portland — who had 40 goals in 24 matches last year — has only two goals in three matches, while the Reign have managed just one. The Reign have 9 shots on target after three games, and Portland isn’t much higher at 11.

The Thorns lost a lot of attacking power ahead of this tournament, with Tobin Heath opting out of the Challenge Cup and the team losing Australians Caitlin Foord and Hayley Raso in the offseason.

Still, this is a team that has Lindsey Horan — one of the most complete players in the league — and Canadian legend Christine Sinclair, who has scored the most international goals of any player, man or woman. Horan is a threat everywhere, but in particular in the air on balls sent into the box. She already has one headed goal this tournament.

Three of Portland’s younger players are looking to make their mark. Tyler Lussi enters her fourth year with the club and is a key part of the team’s press from the frontline. Simone Charley, who notched Portland’s first goal of the tournament, brings speed to the Thorns attack but is still refining her final touch. The Thorns drafted Morgan Weaver this year after a standout college career at Washington State, and she is a fearless attacker who has had a couple of close looks this tournament.

Width from the fullbacks

So far this tournament, the Thorns are lining up in a 4-3-1-2 formation, with Sinclair as sort of a withdrawn forward in the No. 10 spot.

The Thorns midfield and forward lines like to play in the center of the field, and with rookie Sophia Smith injured, they really have no natural wide attacking players. That means Portland’s width pretty much exclusively comes from their outside backs, with midfielders like Horan occasionally pulling themselves out wide. And these fullbacks are actually pretty effective. Former Reign player Christen Westphal has been a revelation for Portland in this role. She already has 6 key passes for the Thorns from the right back spot, while Meghan Klingenberg also has 6 from her left back position.

With the team’s outside backs filling the space on the wings, the Thorns often send balls into the box from deeper on the field. While many teams prefer to take the ball to the endline and cross it in, Portland is looking for options in the box just as they enter their opponent’s final third. Just look at their key passes from their opening match against the North Carolina Courage.

This also means that the Thorns forwards — primarily Charley and Weaver — have been pulling out wide near the 18-yard box to receive the ball. That leaves the box open for Horan and Sinclar to run into, which is something the OL Reign defense will have to pay close attention to. Both players are dangerous in that space.

Bixby has been a revelation

With starting goalkeeper Adrianna Franch injured, Bella Bixby has stepped up as a fantastic replacement. She has great reaction speed and positioning and has already claimed 8 saves, including this ridiculous one against the Washington Spirit.

While the Thorns are without Becky Sauerbrunn and might be without Emily Menges this match, it will still be hard to beat Bixby. It’s going to take something special.

Direct v. Possession

After three matches, the two teams leading with possession were OL Reign (55%) and the Portland Thorns (53%). While this is the style of play that Benstiti prefers for his team, it isn’t quite as much a core part of Portland’s DNA. Last season, when the Thorns finished third in the standings, the team had the second fewest passes and worst pass accuracy in the league. And that’s not a knock on the team, as they were still quite dangerous. With the players they have, a mix of possession and direct play has worked well for them.

I’m also not sure we should read *too* much into these numbers after just three matches. I’d expect the Thorns to play more direct against the Reign and look to catch the team in transition, and I hope that Benstiti’s side is able to continue to find the right combination of keeping the ball and risking a few passes going forward. The Reign won’t be effective if they just make simple passes in the midfield. It has to be more dynamic against the Thorns.

Final Thoughts

This is not a “must win” for either team, but both clubs are going to want momentum heading into the Challenge Cup quarterfinals. And the Reign, in particular, are going to want to show and feel they are making progress in the way they attack.

Both Jess Fishlock and Sofia Huerta have moved from “Out” to “Questionable” on the injury report, which should be seen as a hopeful sign for OL Reign fans.

The game kicks off on Monday, July 13, at 9:30 AM PT. Fans in the U.S. and Canada can watch on CBS All Access, while international fans can follow live on Twitch.

Injury Report

Reign

OUT: Kelcie Hedge (Right Knee), Morgan Andrews (Left Ankle)

QUESTIONABLE: Jess Fishlock (Right Lower Leg), Sofia Huerta (Right Hamstring)

Thorns

OUT: Adrianna Franch (Right Knee), Becky Sauerbrunn (Left Hip), Sophia Smith (Left Knee)

QUESTIONABLE: Emily Menges (Right Calf), Lindsey Horan (Left Hip)