"We hate them. They hate us."
That’s how Seattle Reign FC forward Megan Rapinoe described the relationship between the Reign and their rivals down south, the Portland Thorns. The best rivalry in NWSL soccer will be on display this weekend, as Seattle (4-2-5) and Portland (5-3-3) will face off on Saturday, July 1 at Memorial Stadium. The game kicks off at 7:30 PM PT, and will stream on both go90 and NWSLSoccer.com.
For Seattle, this match concludes a three-game home stand, and the team hopes to extend their 12-match home undefeated streak, the longest active streak in the NWSL. For Portland, the team is looking to build off a 3-0 home win against FC Kansas City — a much-needed result after losing two in a row against Washington and Sky Blue.
Despite the tough week, where both teams played mid-week matches, neither squad is going to have any trouble getting motivated for the match.
“You always know when Portland comes to town it’s going to be a battle, and both teams are going to do all they can to try to win the game,” said Reign FC head coach and general manager Laura Harvey. “For us its always about how we can control the tempo and make sure we do the right things with the ball and then we’re really solid without it.”
Here are three things to watch as we head into this Cascadia battle.
Contain Portland’s speed
Defensively, Seattle will need to focus on containing Portland’s speed on the wings — something the Reign have been able to do well, at times, and really struggled to overcome in other matches. The Thorns could start both Ashleigh Sykes and Haley Raso, two Australian wingers that bring significant speed. Sykes is still integrating with the team, while Raso had her first NWSL goal on Wednesday and linked up incredibly well with Christine Sinclair, who earned a brace and looked better than she has all season.
This likely means that Carson Pickett and whoever earns the start at right back will be more disciplined in staying back defensively — choosing strategic times to push up the wings, at least to start the match. This is especially true on the right side of the field, where Thorns defender Meghan Klingenberg will be streaking up and down the sideline.
Pressure the Thorns backline
While the Thorns have given up a league-low nine goals in 11 matches, the defense still has plenty of shaky moments. They are particularly vulnerable when facing a team that applies a lot of pressure up top. It was Seattle’s early pressure that got Jess Fishlock a goal in the 1st minute against Portland earlier this season, and Sky Blue did the same two weeks ago, and were rewarded with a 3-1 win at Providence Park.
I expect Merritt Mathias to get the start up top. While she played right back against Chicago, Harvey said it was because she didn’t think a high press would be particularly effective against the Red Stars, and she could use Mathias’ speed defensively.
“She’s so athletic and quick that she can put teams under a lot of pressure,” Harvey said, referring to what Mathias brings to the attack, where the Reign coach sees the No. 9 position as the most important player in her defend-from-the-front style of play.
Control the midfield
While both teams have boasted a midfield trio that was the best in the league in previous seasons, this year has seen mixed results for Portland and Seattle — for different reasons. Seattle lost both Kim Little and Keelin Winters, which meant the team had to adjust to new players and a slightly altered style of play as a result.
There is a chance that Rumi Utsugi, who has been a stalwart addition to the midfield, returns to the lineup. After suffering a calf strain during the international break, she’s been taken off the injury report ahead of Saturday’s match. Utsugi has provided a critical shield for the backline and allowed Fishlock to push higher up the field.
Portland returned with the exact same midfield trio in 2017 — Allie Long, Amandine Henry, and Lindsay Horan — but the three haven’t looked as dominant. Horan struggled early, but has been more effective recently as the attacking midfielder. Both Long and Henry have dominated individual matches, but haven’t been as in sync this season. Seattle’s midfield will need to come out aggressive, and swarm the ball quickly.
If the Reign can put Portland’s midfield under pressure, they can disrupt their forward passes — keeping the ball in Portland’s defensive half.
Getting three points
One thing is pretty much a given when Seattle faces Portland: it’s going to be an aggressive, physical match. If Seattle can play its game — and do it for 90 minutes — they should be able to score first and walk away with three points.
Portland: OUT: Tobin Heath (D45 – back sprain), Nadia Nadim (right groin strain), Meg Morris (D45 – left hip inflammation), Katherine Reynolds (left groin strain), DOUBTFUL: Mallory Weber (right quad strain)