This is it.
After seven months, 23 games, thousands of miles of travel, and countless hours of training, the playoff fates of the Seattle Reign and the Portland Thorns will be determined in a final regular-season meeting (Friday at 10 p.m. ET on Lifetime). And by all appearances, it’s going to be an epic clash.
There’s a lot on the line: win, and either team would slide into second place and earn a home semifinal. Lose, and they’d likely have to replay this match in enemy territory in the semis — or, in Portland’s case, potentially face shield-winning North Carolina. A draw would lock in Seattle at 2 and Portland at 3. All that is set against the backdrop of the fiercest rivalry in the NWSL, with both teams playing the best soccer they’ve played all year.
“It’s going to be a battle,” said Thorns defender Emily Menges after training last week. “Any team that we would play the last game of the season, trying to get a home playoff spot, would be a battle, but just that it’s Seattle and we’re both fighting for the same thing right now, home-field advantage for both of us is huge. … I think it’s any team’s game. We’re excited. … We’re ready for it to go down.”
For both teams, the possibility of a home semifinal is huge. Seattle are famously hard to beat on their home turf, going 7-1-4 at home this season. Portland, meanwhile, say they feed off the energy of the biggest crowds in the league. “It means everything to us,” said Thorns head coach Mark Parsons last week. “It freaking drives us. Being in this stadium with these fans in this city, it means so much.”
“The Seattle-Portland rivalry is undeniable,” said Seattle keeper Michelle Betos — who previously spent three seasons in Portland — last week. “You watch that game and you can see from kickoff, there’s a different mentality going in. In the NWSL, every game’s a big game, but there always is a little bit of something extra when it’s Seattle-Portland, and I’ve seen that on both sides.”
— NWSL (@NWSL) September 5, 2018
Both teams are looking at the last few games of the season, including this one, as preparation for the playoffs. “One way we looked at it,” said Seattle coach Vlatko Andonovski last week, “was that we wanted to make the playoffs in 22 games, then we’d take North Carolina and Portland in preparation for the playoffs, and that’s how we’re taking it. … I think it’s a great opportunity for us as a team, and we’re going to try to make the most of it.”
On the Thorns’ side, head coach Mark Parsons praised his team’s performance in a difficult stretch of three games in seven days going into the international break. “The whistle blew [in Washington on August 25] and I looked at them all and I said, ‘holy cow.’ What they’ve just done — it hit me only then because they looked so good, they looked so organized and committed to their roles, and if we can do it under [those] conditions, hopefully we can do it when we’re feeling fresh and trained and prepared.”
Both sides could also be contending with injuries to key players. Hayley Raso, Portland’s speedy, high-pressing right winger, suffered a spinal fracture against Washington and will be out the rest of the season. “It’s a huge, huge blow,” said Parsons. At the same time, “this roster is as deep as ever, and players will be thriving for the opportunity to step up. … Ana [Crnogorčević], Andressinha, Caitlin [Foord], Midge [Purce], they’re players that can all play in those high, wide areas.”
For Seattle, left winger Megan Rapinoe, forward Beverly Yanez, and central midfielder Allie Long are all questionable for the game, with a broken rib, foot fracture, and knee injury, respectively. Rapinoe, especially, who has six assists and seven goals this season, would be a big loss for the Reign.
“It does change your game plan,” Andonovski said of the potential absences, “but I’m glad we have a roster that has enough available, quality players who are ready to jump in at any time.” Kristen McNabb would be a likely sub for Long, while Jasmyne Spencer and Elizabeth Addo would probably fill out the front three alongside Jodie Taylor in Rapinoe and Yanez’s absence.
Seattle’s biggest strength, however, is their league-leading defense, which has conceded just 16 goals. That defensive unit — Steph Catley, Lauren Barnes, Megan Oyster, and Theresa Nielsen, plus Lydia Williams in goal — will be put to the test against Portland’s offense, which has the second-most goals in the league this season.
“To sum up Seattle, I think defensively,” said Parsons, “they defend as an eleven. Eleven players work really hard to defend, and when you’ve got eleven committed players doing it, it’s tough. They don’t leave dangerous spaces and spaces in the final third. … They try to protect those dangerous spaces and they leave less dangerous space.”
On the other side, Lindsey Horan and Tobin Heath have been two of the most dynamic attacking players in the NWSL, with 11 and six goals, respectively. Horan is especially dangerous on set pieces, typically on service by Heath.
“The impact she has everywhere on the field — she’s a freaking center midfielder,” said Parsons of Horan. “Her statistics are out of this world. Guys, it hasn’t happened in this league before, and if there’s anyone who can continue to do it in this league it’s probably her.”
Andonovski’s side is ready for that threat. “The best way to shut down someone like Tobin Heath or Lindsey Horan,” he said, “is to limit them on the ball. We have to stop the supply of balls to both of them, and if we can do that, we’re going to be successful. … So, hopefully we don’t allow them to dictate the tempo and dictate the pace, which they’re both very capable of, especially when they play at home.”
Whatever the result, both sides agree that it’s going to be a hard-fought battle. “It’s going to be two very good teams,” said Parsons. “Two tough teams that have had good years, and it’s going to be hard, it’s going to be really hard, this game.”