It’s the final Cascadia clash of the 2021 NWSL season, as OL Reign head down I-5 to take on the Portland Thorns at Providence Park. The game kicks off Wednesday night at 7:30 PM PT and will stream on Paramount+ for fans in the U.S. and Twitch for international viewers.
And this game sure could be a thriller. The league schedulers couldn’t have written the script any better, as the rivalry match with just three games remaining will also be a battle between the top two teams in the league.
After looking nearly uncatchable a month ago, Portland has gone winless in their last three matches (0-2-1). The visitors from Tacoma, meanwhile, are undefeated in their last seven matches and have scored six goals in their last two games. A team that sat in 9th place back in June is now just one point behind Portland. A win tonight could put them at the top of the table.
It’s a big match, but also one that comes sandwiched in a tight week of games for both sides — at a time when the players are still dealing with a lot off the field. Portland and OL Reign played last Saturday and have games this weekend, which means there could be some slight rotation for the clubs.
Portland plays a 4-4-2 diamond formation, using their fullbacks for width and letting their attacking midfielders find space to create overloads. Left back Meghan Klingenberg is heavily involved in the attack. She has three assists this season but hasn’t earned any these last two months. Natalia Kuikka seems to have secured the starting right back position; she’s not as likely to cross as Klingenberg, but she can shoot and combine with teammates.
The Thorns midfield is stable thanks to the thankless work of defensive midfielder Angela Salem, who was named to the August and September Teams of the Month and scored Portland’s lone goal at Lumen Field. Salem’s tireless work rate means that Lindsey Horan, Rocky Rodriguez, and Crystal Dunn can roam more in the midfield. They often pull wide to create overloads and pressure their opponents on the wings. That pressure is what really made the Thorns dominant earlier in the year, as it led to a lot of quick attacks for Portland.
Portland’s two forwards play more narrow. Sophia Smith is having a breakout season and will be difficult to contain. The speedy 21-year-old has seven goals, one assist and 20 more shots than any other NWSL player. After spending time in the No. 10 position in previous years, Canadian Christine Sinclair has been lining up alongside Smith on the forward line.
What to Watch
- Overload the midfield: The Reign midfield is firing on all cylinders right now. Going up against a four-person midfield will be a tough challenge for them — but something they’ve proven they can handle. If OL Reign can disrupt in the middle of the field, they are likely to find some good chances to counter and utilize Sofia Huerta out wide, who has notched an assist in three consecutive games.
- Handle Portland’s crosses: Portland has attempted and completed the second-most crosses in the league, just behind league-leaders North Carolina. These crosses sometimes come from deeper on the field, with Klingenberg and Horan often looping long balls into the box. While the Thorns might not always get on the other end of the cross because they don’t have Bethany Balcer (although they do have 5 headed goals this year), they are good at winning the second balls in the box and pouncing on the loose ball. OL Reign will need to be sure to clear these opportunities from any danger — and do it for 90 minutes.
- Set pieces: Set pieces are likely to be a factor for both sides, especially since Portland leads the league in corner kicks. The Thorns like to catch opponents napping on throw-ins and have a lot of dangerous weapons who can either score directly from free kicks or get on the end of one. So do the Reign, who have done well to win the second ball on set pieces and create quality chances. It’s always a battle of duels when these teams face off. That battle might be won during set plays.
How to Watch
OL Reign kicks off against Portland tonight at 7:30 PM PT. The game will stream on Paramount+ for fans in the U.S. and Twitch for international viewers.