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Match Preview: OL Reign v. Portland Thorns

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This certainly won’t be an easy match for an improving OL Reign side.

SOCCER: APR 21 NWSL Challenge Cup - OL Reign at Portland Thorns FC

After standing up well to a tough, aggressive North Carolina side, OL Reign head down I-5 for a match against the Portland Thorns. The game kicks off Sunday at 3 PM PT and will air on CBS Sports Network.

After winning the preseason Challenge Cup on penalties, the Thorns continue to look like the team to beat this season. The constantly improving Reign enter the match with 1 point from a draw against North Carolina, which was one of their strongest team performances to date. The Thorns enter with 3 after dismantling the Chicago Red Stars, 5-0.

Here are three things we’ll be watching in OL Reign’s first road match of the 2021 regular season.

Handling Portland’s relentless press

Last weekend, Portland absolutely destroyed the Red Stars, scoring three goals in the first 16 minutes of the match. As you can see from this xG chart for the match, it was never a close affair. What went right for Portland? A consistent, effective press played a big part. Finishing their chances — something the Thorns struggled with in the Challenge Cup — was another factor.

The Thorns press comes at all parts of the field, starting with the two front forwards and Christine Sinclair, who lines up in the No. 10 spot but often plays like a withdrawn forward. That aggression extends into the midfield, where the Thorns like to lure their opponents into bad passes, where teammates are ready to pounce.

Case in point: this goal they scored in the Challenge Cup final against Gotham FC. While it was a bad touch from Carli Lloyd that ultimately resulted in the giveaway, look at how the Thorns swarmed her the second she received the ball. Kelli Hubly applies pressure from behind, with Crystal Dunn sneaking up to double team. This forces Lloyd to turn inside, which isn’t a bad decision. It’s just that her errant touch gives the ball right to Sinclair. A few seconds later, it’s in the back of the net.

The press also starts the second the whistle blows for kickoff. As Thorns head coach Mark Parsons shared after the win over the Red Stars, Portland is a team that isn’t going to try to dictate the start of the match with possession. They’re going to press teams into oblivion.

“We were at training yesterday and I gave the starting group a chance. I said, ‘You can either have the ball to possess and build to start or you can press into the game and they can have it.’ This was in training. Lindsey Horan said, ‘No no, we’re pressing into this game,’” Parsons shared. “It’s hard but it has its rewards and I’m proud that everyone has bought into us playing this type of football.”

As Katelyn Best with Rose City Review shared, one of Chicago’s mistakes was only putting three players in the midfield to deal with Portland’s pressure. Fans can expect OL Reign to be smarter — playing more of a 4-2-3-1 instead to make sure they have bodies in the midfield disrupting the game as much as they can. The Reign did well handling a similar North Carolina side last weekend, matching the aggression in the midfield. Can they do the same this Sunday against an even stronger Thorns press?

Unbalancing the field

Portland plays a pretty narrow attack, setting up with a diamond midfield and using their fullbacks for width. That means that the two No. 8 players in the midfield — often Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, or Raquel Rodriguez — pull wide to provide cover on the wings.

While the Thorns are well organized defensively, smart teams can pull them out of position and find the holes. OL Reign have looked more dangerous in transition when they win the ball high up the field. Portland won’t give them as many chances as North Carolina did, so the team is going to have to focus on quick switches and finishing the opportunities they get. Jess Fishlock is going to be asked to play a big role in this effort. She showed last week that she’s certainly up for the challenge.

There’s also something to be said about simply causing chaos in the box. That’s what Kansas City did in their opening Challenge Cup match against the Thorns, which got them a goal.

OL Reign have, at times, been hesitant in the box — looking for the perfect shooting opportunity instead of trusting their instincts. Having Megan Rapinoe on their squad will always make the Reign a bit more unpredictable, which is only a good thing against a disciplined team like the Thorns. Let’s see the Reign take advantage of that.

Watch the transition game

We already talked about that relentless Thorns press. What makes it all the more terrifying for opponents is just how quickly this Portland squad can strike when they recover the ball. This team is constantly looking for long balls and clearances to get the ball quickly to their forwards.

Unfortunately for opponents, young forwards Morgan Weaver and Sophia Smith are starting to get hot. In addition to being dangerous in front of goal, the two have the speed and fitness to destroy teams in transition. Just look at Portland’s third goal against Chicago. It takes just two touches from goalkeeper AD Franch’s distribution to get a shot off.

OL Reign matched a transitional squad in North Carolina well, keeping their backline tight to prevent players from running in behind them. They’ll need to be just as organized against Portland on Sunday, while also making sure they keep their focus on the midfield, where Dunn and Horan hang out.

It will not be an easy task, but as Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said earlier this week, “This has the potential to be a really intense game. It was a very impressive performance from [the Reign] against Carolina at home, they probably feel disappointed they didn’t get the result, so they’re going to have that spice to them.”

Injury Report / How to Watch

OL Reign will be without Quinn, Celia, and Ally Watt for Sunday’s match, while the league hasn’t yet issued an injury report for the Thorns.

The match kicks off Sunday, May 23, at 3 PM PT and will air on CBS Sports Network (and Twitch for international fans). We’ll have a separate gamethread for the match.