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Reignbow Reflections: A Thorn in their side

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It was nonstop action in the first of three Reign v. Thorns rivalry matches this season.

Bev Yanez silences the Portland Thorns crowd.
Nikita Taparia

On Saturday, Seattle Reign FC made the trip down I-5 for the first of three regular season matches against the Portland Thorns. It was also the first Lifetime Game of the Week for Seattle this year, and the team was apparently set on making it a memorable affair. In what could end up as the most entertaining match of the season, Reign FC came out victorious — winning 3-2 thanks to a second half that was full of wild, non-stop action and goal-line saves at both ends.

The win puts Seattle into second place with two games in hand on the North Carolina Courage, who remain at the top of the league. A 3-1-1 record is a great start to any season. That same record with all but one of the matches on the road is even more impressive.

As Reign FC returns home this weekend — finally — the club will have plenty of momentum to build on from their Cascadia rivalry win. They’ll also bring lots of lessons from a match that could have easily swung in the other direction, with Portland coming out on top, if not for some fantastic saves from Michelle Betos and some quality defending by the crossbar.

The Highs and the Lows

Let’s talk about Betos for a moment. Those saves! By all accounts, Betos put on a world-class performance. She racked up 8 saves, and each felt more and more impressive. There wasn’t a single save in the second half that felt routine.

At the same time, Betos and Megan Oyster had a scary miscommunication in the first half that nearly led to a goal, and Betos came out far too aggressively to collect the cross on Portland’s second goal. She realized too late that it was out of her reach, and by the time Lindsey Horan got her head on it, Betos was caught out of position.

Let me be clear: the amazing outweighed the momentary lapses for Betos. Still, for me, these highs and lows encompass this Reign FC squad so far this season. There have been so many positives to take from each match — and moments of brilliance sprinkled throughout — but it is clear that a squad with a lot of offseason change is still figuring each other out. That’s expected. It will be disconcerting if these mistakes keep occurring, but for now, I’m not too concerned.

Tactical Changes

The Portland Thorns made two changes in the second half that gave them a spark — putting in Tobin Heath on the left wing and bringing in Andressinha to provide some creativity in the midfield. It was causing some problems for Reign FC, as Heath and Andressinha brought more possession to the Thorns — allowing Meghan Klingenberg and Midge Purce to be more aggressive with runs up the wings.

After Portland’s second goal, Vlatko Andonovski brought in Alyssa Kleiner and Maddie Bauer. Both players slid into the right side of the Reign defense, forming a five-player back line. Naho Kawasumi came over to the right side of the field as well — she had been playing on the left — to provide even more defensive cover on Klingenberg and Heath.

It was effective for the most part, and highlighted the tactical adjustments that Andonovski likes to make in response to the state of the game. The Reign head coach said in post-match remarks that his subs were made to help the team solve a problem — in this case, Heath. Both Bauer and Kleiner did well in their limited minutes, limiting the chances Heath could create and closing down on her quickly. That kind of flexibility off the bench is a luxury for the Reign this year.

Relentless Learning

After the match, Andonovski said that while he was thrilled with the result, there was a lot of game film to watch and process from this match. He was especially troubled by the number of shots given up by his defense. In fact, the head coach said the team would likely be re-watching the game on the bus ride home. It’s nonstop learning for a coach who repeatedly says he is “on a mission” this season and for a team that is hungry for that elusive NWSL Championship trophy.

Andonovski is a student of the game — arriving to Reign headquarters before the sun rises and the last one out in the evening. He always wants to become a better coach and strives for his team to get one step better each match. For him, the win isn’t as important as the progress. His FC Kansas City teams often peaked late in the season. With the start this team has had, it’s exciting to consider what their ceiling might be under their new head coach.

The Atmosphere

Dislike the Portland Thorns all you want, but you cannot deny that the atmosphere at Providence Park was electric. The Rose City Riveters were energized from the opening whistle — first cheering for former Thorns players like Michelle Betos and Allie Long, then quickly turning on them the second they disliked their actions on the field.

When Betos strolled in front of the Riveters section before the second half, the “Dodgy Keeper” chant echoed throughout the stadium. Betos returned the love with an amused clap of appreciation. The same chants one would hear at a Sounders-Timbers match — from Build a Bonfire to F*** Seattle — could be heard clearly both in person and on the broadcast.

Reign FC players have shared repeatedly how much they love to play in Portland. The atmosphere is intimidating, certainly, but it gets them just as riled up as their opponents. And as Bev Yanez said during a Coffee & Valkyries podcast conversation last week, it feels even better when Seattle can silence one of the loudest crowds in women’s soccer.

The Reign did that last weekend after each of their three goals, and it sure felt great.