Tomorrow. It’s finally happening. OL Reign open their Challenge Cup tournament at Lumen Field, their new permanent home. They’ll be facing their I-5 rivals, Portland Thorns FC, as both squads and the league enter their 10th year. The match kicks off at 7 PM PT and will stream on Paramount+ for fans in the U.S. and Twitch for international viewers.
Both the Reign and Thorns look a lot different than last year, with Portland losing their head coach and key starters like Lindsey Horan (loaned to Lyon), Crystal Dunn (pregnant), and Angela Salem (retirement) while OL Reign said goodbye to their Lyon trio. But one thing is certain when these two sides meet: it’s going to be a battle.
“Yeah, playing against Portland. We hate them,” Bethany Balcer said last week when asked about facing them in preseason and again in this upcoming match. “It’s literally just a game about mental grit and who wants it more and who’s going to be more physical. And so it’s just a whole different type of game in and of itself. I think we’re just looking to smash them.”
Let’s take a look at the Portland Thorns of 2022 under new head coach Rhian Wilkinson.
During preseason, Wilkinson — a former Canadian national team player — lined the team up in a 3-5-2 formation. That allowed her to start all three of her strong centerbacks, while using Meghan Klingenberg and Natalia Kuikka as wingbacks to give the team more width — something they lacked in 2021.
Klingenberg had a standout season last year, notching three assists and creating numerous more chances for her team, and Kuikka is speedy, strong, and hard to dispossess. Her attacking instincts and on-the-ball skills even saw her play in the midfield a few times for Portland last season. While they are both solid defenders, the 3-5-2 gives them more flexibility to get involved in the attack.
For this match, however, the team will be without Becky Sauerbrunn as she recovers from surgery to repair a meniscus tear. So, they’ll either need to slot another centerback into the three-back system — alongside Emily Menges and Kelli Hubly — or move back to a four-back. They played a three-back pretty exclusively in preseason, which makes that the more likely option.
Up top, expect Sophia Smith and Christine Sinclair to get the start. Smith absolutely destroyed the USWNT U-23 squad in Portland’s preseason tournament, scoring an easy hattrick. She’s also demonstrating at the national team level that she’s ready for a big year. Smith, who is just 21, is always looking to shoot and can create goal-scoring opportunities with smart touches, dribble, and speed that separates her from defenders. Sinclair — who absolutely loves to show up for rivalry games — is more of a creator (although she’s always good for a banger or two), and she’ll be looking to find Smith whenever she can.
Where Portland still has questions is in the midfield. They lost three starters from last year. Costa Rican midfielder Rocky Rodriguez, the one starter that remains, will be asked to carry a big load this season. Unfortunately for Portland, she’s out for their Challenge Cup opener. Rookie Sam Coffey, a draft pick out of Penn State, is a complete midfielder who looks to be transitioning from an attacking role to a No. 6. She showed well in preseason but will be asked to do a lot in her first big match of the year.
That leaves Yazmeen Ryan and Japanese international Hina Sugita as potential starters. Ryan was the 6th pick in the 2021 draft and saw limited minutes with Portland last year, while Sugita is a creative and skilled midfielder that signed this year. She can dance around defenders but as she told the Oregonian, “I am a very thin and small person,” and the club might want to ease her into the physical NWSL.
What to Watch
Direct play from deep
In OL Reign’s opening match of the Portland preseason tournament, the Reign midfield dominated the Thorns midfield in the opening 45 minutes — picking off passes and winning challenges. In the second half, the skilled centerback trio decided to play a bit more direct, sending long balls to the front line. It started working, giving the Reign a bit of trouble. With players like Smith, Morgan Weaver, and Hannah Betfort — all speedy and strong — it’s not a bad strategy for Portland as they work out their chemistry. The Reign backline will need to be calm and organized to deal with it.
Get Balcer involved
In preseason, the team was still struggling to connect with Balcer in the box. Crosses were inches away, or Balcer’s run wasn’t timed perfectly. As the Reign forward said in a recent press conference, “We’re saving the bangers for the season.” The box can get a little more crowded in a three-back formation, which will make the ask just a little more difficult. But the Reign have had time to review game footage. Can they find her on Friday?
Win the physical battle
If you haven’t heard it enough around this rivalry, Portland-Seattle games are physical. Even in preseason, there were some hard fouls and fight to win balls. Expect nothing different in the home opener, and the team that wins those duels will likely be the one with the better chances — especially early in the game.
OUT: Alyssa Malonson (knee), Megan Rapinoe (calf)
Portland Thorns FC
OUT: Crystal Dunn (maternity leave), Madison Pogarch (ankle), Rocky Rodríguez (ankle), Becky Sauerbrunn (knee)
How to Watch
OL Reign’s Lumen Field home opener against Portland kicks off Friday, March 18, at 7 PM PT. It will stream on Paramount+ for fans in the U.S. and Twitch for international viewers.