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Valkyratings: Kawasumi bends the ball to her will

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Great offense and some questionable defending lead to a thrilling game.

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The first Cascadia derby of the season saw Seattle Reign FC travel to the always hostile environment of Providence Park and emerge with full points thanks to a 3-2 victory over home side Portland Thorns FC, in a wild game that saw a lot of offensive chances and a lot of defensive breakdowns by both clubs. The win leveled the all-time series between the two clubs at 7 victories apiece, plus three draws.

This game saw Vlatko Andonovski repeat a back four for the first time all season, with the skipper opting to use the same lineup that was so effective against a similarly talented and speedy Orlando attack the prior week. Seattle rode a little bit of luck and a lot of last-ditch defending and goalkeeping to victory this week, so it will be interesting to see if this lineup is rolled out again for the next game, or if Andonovski rotates some players based on the match-up he anticipates from Sky Blue FC.

The injury report left Seattle with some challenges up front, as all three available natural forwards started the match in their typical 4-3-3 formation, meaning any substitutions would have to be more defensive in nature. Fortunately this worked for the Reign, as the flow of the game necessitated that Seattle become more defensive. Each change for the Reign saw them gradually reinforce the back line, first adjusting to a 4-4-2 and then to a 5-2-2-1 that at times played like a 7-2-1 with nearly everyone dropping back to help in defense for the final 10 minutes of the game as Portland pushed numbers forward in search of an equalizer.

Starters

Michelle Betos (8 saves, 2 goals conceded; 7) – Betos ran the gamut of quality in this game. There were some notable lows — in particular, the miscommunication between her and Oyster which almost opened the scoring for Portland in the 29th minute, making the unwise decision to try and challenge for the cross in the 70th minute where Lindsey Horan easily headed the ball over her and into the goal — but those were offset by some amazing saves and smart decision-making, particularly in the final 10 minutes of the match when Seattle bunkered. Betos should be commended for giving up very few rebounds; when she decides to claim a ball she grabs it with certainty and doesn’t let go.

Betos has been on both sides of this rivalry and knows what it’s like to deal with the cacophony of the Rose City Riveters behind her, and saved her best for directly in front of them, never letting their chants or bad seconds-counting get to her. Betos and the Reign should also thank their lucky stars the crossbar is only 8 feet off the ground, and not 8’1”.

Christen Westphal (off 74’; 5) – The Reign defense had a rough outing against Portland’s aggressive attack, particularly their speedy wingbacks. Seattle’s outside backs had trouble tracking those runs, meaning that Meghan Klingenberg and Midge Purce frequently found pockets of space in the Reign corners from which they could loft in crosses or start attacking sequences. One positive consequence of this is that if Seattle recovered the ball, Westphal could similarly push forward into the wide space vacated by the Thorns wingbacks. She had several good dribbles to push the ball forward, but unfortunately her final touch was lacking and more often than not Portland recovered possession without Seattle getting a good look on goal. Once Tobin Heath entered the game in the second half Westphal had to stay back a lot more, and after the second Thorns goal the Reign adjusted their tactics to give her more support once it became obvious that Portland was going to continue overwhelming her side with numbers.

Kristen McNabb (5) & Megan Oyster (5) – As mentioned above, the Seattle back line did a lot of bending, but thanks to a bit of luck and superb goalkeeping, it rarely broke outright. In the 18th minute, McNabb had a poor first touch on a ball lofted into the area, which resulted in Mallory Weber picking up the loose ball, juking both Reign centerbacks, and clanking a quality shot off the crossbar. Oyster’s turn came in the 29th minute when she and Betos opted for a stare-down rather than either one playing a back-pass, before Ana-Maria Crnogorčević picked up the ball and fortunately put her shot wide of frame. Both centerbacks made up for their errors with some critical clearances and headers, but struggled to contain Lindsey Horan in the middle. Horan ended with 10 shot attempts and had a few free headers in the box near the end of the game where I would have liked to see one of the Seattle CBs challenge more aggressively. One other big surprise for the Reign pairing was the low number of passes (and poor accuracy) for each compared to a typical Reign game where possession and attacks are built by the CBs.

Steph Catley (assist 75’; 5) – Like her partner on the opposite flank, Catley got up into the attack a lot (even assisting on Rumi Utsugi’s game winner!) but made some questionable decisions that exposed the Reign to dangerous Portland attacks. Her bad pass in the 31st minute led directly to Allie Long committing a foul to break up Portland’s counter for a caution, and similar poor touches led to Portland scoring opportunities multiple times in the second half, especially when Midge Purce could jet past her with a burst of speed, pulling the entire Reign defense out of shape to adjust and cover.

Allie Long (caution 31’; 7) – Long’s first game back at Providence Park as the enemy went very well. She was asked to do a lot in marking the always dangerous Christine Sinclair, who was kept off the score sheet and roughly fouled Long twice. Long was constantly a target for Portland fouls, earning a team-high five whistles thanks to her sacrifices. She also had a few great looks on goal thanks to smart runs into the box — the first came in the 34th minute off a snap header that Eckerstrom saved well, and the second five minutes later on a Bev Yanez cross that Long redirected just over the bar.

Long was also far and away the best passer on the day for Seattle, completing 77% of her attempts on a day when the Reign averaged only 62%.

Rumi Utsugi (goal 75’; 6) – Utsugi had a quiet first half, not registering any significant actions in my game notes until after the break. After that she came alive, making some big defensive plays for the Reign. Her 75th minute goal capped a nice sequence where she feinted a move to the right to draw Purce in that direction, instead pushed the ball to her left and into space, and then fired a low rocket at the near corner, threading the needle between numerous players in the box and just beating Eckerstrom on the hop. One thing she and much of the Reign struggled with all game was dribbling into trouble — several times she carried the ball forward and was seemingly surprised to be caught in possession by speedy Thorns defenders, and either lost the ball or made a poor pass in an effort to get out of trouble.

Jess Fishlock (off 77’; 7) – After seeing her hobble off last week, I am amazed that Fishlock played in this game, let alone that she lasted 77 minutes. For much of the game she looked to be struggling a bit and not quite going into challenges as aggressively as usual, but even at 75% Fishlock provides an immense presence on the field. In the 17th minute she proved her mettle by tracking down Sinclair and picking her pocket after a Catley turnover, and she had a lot of work to do to put out fires and help the Seattle defense when Portland overloaded different zones in attack. This limited her going forward, but she still had a good shot from distance in the 35th minute and created two additional chances thanks to nice passes, as well as poaching the ball off Crnogorčević’s foot, dribbling into the Thorns box, and winning the penalty that Jodie Taylor eventually converted. There were very few negatives in my notes, and most related to a brief period around the 30 minute mark when she had a series of poor passes and touches which coincided with her most noticeable hobbling, after which she recovered and settled back into the game.

Bev Yanez (goal 36’, off 70’; 6) – Yanez’s goal off her shoulder might not make any end-of-season highlight reels, but they all count the same on the scoreboard. It’s a strange game when your attackers lead the team in passing accuracy, yet Yanez was second behind Long in completing 73% of her attempts. She also helped Westphal in defense quite a bit, dropping back to challenge for balls when Klingenberg would push forward. As Portland overloaded her side more and more going forward, she was the necessary sacrifice to get more defensive support on that flank, but that wasn’t an indication of her effectiveness (or lack thereof) so much as a realization that a tactical adjustment was needed.

Jodie Taylor (goal 64’; 7) – In years past, when Seattle struggled with possession they often had problems scoring goals. Taylor has provided a critical outlet at the top this year, bringing hold-up play that Seattle has lacked in the past and helping them to play more direct when needed to avoid being continually overrun. Taylor led the team with three shots on goal, including redeeming herself from the spot with a quality goal off a penalty kick. She was unlucky not to score a second in the 74th minute after beating Eckerstrom with a smart chip, only to have the ball headed off the line by Kelli Hubly. Taylor will want back her breakaway opportunity just before that where she swooped in to grab the ball after Emily Sonnett stumbled, but put her shot right at Eckerstrom instead of picking a corner. Her only other big negative was a silly touch that needlessly put the ball out of play in the 90th minute when she could have held it ball in the Thorns corner to take more time off the clock.

Naho Kawasumi (assist 36’; 8; PotM) – This week it was Naho’s turn to be quietly brilliant for the Reign. Her service on set pieces was fantastic all game, including when she picked out Yanez for the first goal with a beautifully lofted ball to the top of the 6-yard box, and she was one of the few Reign players who seemed consistently able to dribble and take on Thorns defenders effectively. She had a great sombrero to beat a defender in the 35th minute and then put in a beautiful through ball to Taylor that led to a Reign corner, and also started the play that nearly led to Taylor’s second goal after winning the ball off a poor touch by a Thorns defender and quickly finding Fishlock in the box. Kawasumi’s defensive work rate was also great, and she dropped back a lot to support Catley. After the final Reign substitution she switched to the right side and played as a box-to-box midfielder to help Alyssa Kleiner, Oyster and Maddie Bauer.

Substitutes

Alyssa Kleiner (on 70’, caution 87’; 5) – Less than a week after signing, Kleiner made her debut for the Reign in an effort to stem Portland’s relentless attack. Although she came on for a forward, the Reign shifted their formation and had her initially playing as an outside midfielder to support Westphal and help track Heath and Klingenberg. Once Maddie Bauer entered for Westphal a few minutes later, Seattle shifted to a 5-back formation with Kleiner as the right back, later pulling back Naho to her side to help even more. Despite limited practice time with her new teammates, Kleiner did well with the tasks she was given, double- and triple-teaming Thorns players along her side of the field, clearing some dangerous balls, and holding possession near the end of the game as Seattle tried to kill off the clock. Her caution for time-wasting seemed a bit cruel, but was likely the result of the referee feeling pressure from the Portland fans due to several Reign players stalling as much as possible, most notably Michelle Betos when she held the ball.

Maddie Bauer (on 74’; incomplete) – Bauer saw her first minutes of the season as an auxiliary centerback near the end of the game, when Seattle realized they needed to reinforce their defensive ranks in order to at least hold onto a point in the game. She had one very good challenge to win a header and then block a follow-up shot in the 88th minute.

Morgan Andrews (on 77’; incomplete) – Andrews came on late and was asked to chase balls and apply pressure in midfield as Seattle bunkered after reclaiming the lead for the final time. With Portland claiming so much possession she didn’t have much opportunity to contribute (she finished with only four touches), but she did spring Jodie Taylor into the Thorns half of the field in the 90th minute to kill some time and allow Seattle to regroup and reset their lines.

Officials

Karen Abt (6) – For a derby game in a difficult atmosphere, I thought Abt did reasonably well. Twice early in the game her positioning caused problems when she inadvertently screened Allie Long while trying to challenge for a ball (which led to a foul and dangerous free kick opportunity for Portland), and I thought a Thorn deserved a caution at some point for persistent fouling on Long. The penalty was a good call, as was the non-call on Taylor’s sliding attempt to win the ball against Hubly on the sequence that led to Seattle’s corner and the first goal. Mark Parsons was apparently furious with the fourth official and wanted a foul called on Taylor for tackling Hubly, but on replay it was clear that there was no contact between the two players until well after Hubly had already stumbled on her own.

As mentioned above, I thought the caution to Kleiner was unnecessary and instead seemed to be a reaction to crowd pressure rather than any deliberate time wasting. Certainly both teams had much longer sequences to resume play on goal kicks and throw-ins, and presumably Abt didn’t want to whistle Betos for holding the ball too long, so perhaps this card was her proxy way of getting that message across without awarding Portland an indirect free kick in the Reign box.

Poll

Who was your Reign FC player of the match?

This poll is closed

  • 8%
    Michelle Betos
    (6 votes)
  • 1%
    Jess Fishlock
    (1 vote)
  • 54%
    Nahomi Kawasumi
    (41 votes)
  • 14%
    Allie Long
    (11 votes)
  • 20%
    Rumi Utsugi
    (15 votes)
  • 1%
    Other (note in comments)
    (1 vote)
75 votes total Vote Now