(Update: This game is broadcast on CSNNW locally, so it blacked out of ESPN3)
There could be no greater stakes in a regular season game than what the Portland Thorns face tonight when they host the Seattle Reign. Win and they make the playoffs to face FC Kansas City next week as the #3 seed. Lose or draw and their season is done.
This is an ESPN game (and in fact all of the Reign games from here on are ESPN games) so no YouTube stream. Kickoff is at 2pm under the intense glare of Providence Park, which last saw these two teams face each other in May, when a late Kim Little winner stunned the Thorns and set the tone for the season both for her and for the Reign.
It is unfortunate for Portland that this most critical of games was scheduled against Seattle. Against any other team locked into the playoffs (like KC) or locked out, the Thorns would be sure to out-hustle their opposition. But even though the Reign have nothing to play for in the standings, they won't send out a reserve team or back off the throttle against their regional rivals. And the memories of the 5-0 collapse in Seattle a few weeks ago that put Portland in this position will both haunt and no doubt motivate the Thorns. So I would expect an intense game and a difficult one to officiate.
One challenge for Seattle is that they will be without Jess Fishlock, who is with Wales ahead of an important World Cup qualifying match against England on Thursday. Over the last two seasons she's evolved into the Thorns' nemesis. But she has ready cover in Mariah Nogueira, so the Reign will still be plenty talented enough to face Portland.
The rest of the lineup comes down to how much priority Laura Harvey wants to put on knocking out the Thorns. The US internationals have a midweek friendly on the East coast before returning for the playoff match next weekend. I'm sure she'd much rather their minutes get managed at the meaningless moneygrab game, but if she expects them to play near a full match there, she may have to manage their time in this one, which might mean less than a full game from Megan Rapinoe and Sydney Leroux.
The Thorns' Allie Long and Alex Morgan were also called up, but in their situation they don't have the luxury of managing minutes. I'd expect full games from them and Christine Sinclair and Vero Buquete and it will come down to whether Paul Riley's figured out how to unlock all that talent well enough to beat the best team in the league this season. If not, the defending champions are watching the playoffs on TV.