NWSL Game of the Week: Portland Thorns vs. Seattle Reign

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PORTLAND, Ore. — On Sunday, Portland Thorns FC host the first NWSL Cascadia derby when the Seattle Reign visit JELD-WEN field. With over 14,000 expected to witness Portland’s home opener, the new country’s new women’s league will see its first five-digit crowd. In their first of four meetings this season (one which will be streamed on the league’s YouTube channel), Portland versus Seattle is our NWSL Game of the Week.

THREE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Can you have a rivalry against a team you’ve never played?

It seems illogical two teams who’ve never played will automatically will be rivals, but this is Cascadia, and this is soccer. While a new NBA team in the Emerald City may not spark instant tension with the Trailblazers, Cascadian soccer culture mandates the Thorns and Reign be rivals.

“It’s articulated in the Sounders-Timbers rivalry going back decades,” Reign owner Bill Predmore said, alluding to the NASL legacy of the regions MLS teams. “I think there’s going to be a lot of crossover from fan perspective. You’re going to see Sounders fans who are Reign fans, Timbers fans who are Thorns fans … I think that’s a great fit.”

For the Thorns, the rivalry allows them to build on that Timbers-Sounders intensity, something that could help the city’s new team share support with its MLS brethren. For Predmore, the dynamic could prove an important part of his nascent club’s growth.

“It think [the rivalry is] pretty important,” Predmore said. “Right now, for instance, our best selling matches are the two we’re going to play in Seattle against the Thorns … we’re absolutely seeing the budding rivalry is driving fan interest.”

But is the rivalry really budding? It’s impossible to know until game time. As Seattle head coach and general manager Laura Harvey said, “all that matters is what happens Sunday at two o’clock.”

Until then the question lingers: Can you truly have a rivalry before playing a game. Here’s what seven principles said when asked:

Dignitary Response
Cindy Parlow Cone
Head Coach, Thorns FC
“I don’t know. Don’t you guys set up the rivalries more so than we do? (It’s) the fans and the media.”
Laura Harvey
Head Coach/General Manager, Reign FC
“All that matters is what happens Sunday at two o’clock … It’s something the fans look forward to, the players look forward to, the coaches look forward to.”
Alex Morgan
Forward, Thorns FC
“All of Portland knows that it doesn’t matter what it is. Seattle and Portland always have a great rivalry … It’s just the way it is, isn’t it?”
Bill Predmore
Owner, Reign FC
“I think there’s probably a deep-seated rivalry just between the cities … Hopefully it creates a great environment for the fans in both cities when we’re playing.”
Christine Sinclair
Forward, Thorns FC
“It’s hard to built a rivalry when it’s both team’s second game ever and we’ve never played against each other before.”
Keelin Winters
Midfielder, Reign FC
“I definitely think they can. I know a lot of players who play on Portland. Words have been exchanged. Not saying anything exciting, by any means, but obviously both teams want to win.”

source: Getty Images2. MLS venue means MLS atmosphere

Thorns FC had a number of advantages coming into the season, the biggest of which will be seen on Sunday. The crowd at JELD-WEN will eclipse the combined attendance of the league’s four Week 1 games, and while the club has been reluctant to boost the 14,000 projection that’s been floated this week, a crowd between 16,000 and 17,000 is possible.

Particularly for players who aren’t national team regulars, crowds that size are exceptionally rare.

“The last time I played in front of that amount of people was in 2008 at the Under-20 World Cup,” Seattle midfielder Keelin Winters said. “Emotions are going to be high, playing in front of a big crowd like that. It pumps the players up, maybe a little too excited at times. I think the atmosphere’s going to be awesome, especially because it’s like a Northwest derby.”

It’s the most common refrain among players during this week’s buildup. Yes, the rivalry’s big, and it’s going to be good to get another game until their belts, but the opportunity to play at a Major League Soccer venue in front of Major League Soccer-caliber support is Sunday’s big selling point.

“I think the crowd is going to be awesome,” Thorns defender Rachel Buehler said, excitedly. “I hope that really carries over for us.”

It’s guaranteed to, at least in proportion. Thorns FC have over 7,000 season ticket holders, more than the maximum attendance at all but one of the league’s other seven venues.

3. Two very different midfields

Though Cindy Parlow Cone said the entire team could improve on their Kansas City performance, midfield was a particular area of concerned. Thanks in large part to the play of FCKC’s Desiree Scott, Portland’s midfield four saw supply to Morgan and Sinclair completely cut off. The Thorns failed to score from open play, and until moving Sinclair into an attacking midfield role near the hour mark, the team couldn’t find an alternate route into attack.

“We had so many issues [against Kansas City],” Parlow Cone said. “We weren’t playing well together as a team. We weren’t playing well between our lines – the midfield linking up to the forward, and the defenders linking to the midfielders. Those are things we have to clean up.”

Defensive midfielder Becky Edwards eventually came on after a difficult start, but the rest of the midfield was ineffectual. Allie Long, on the left of a narrow line of three, was the most active midfielder, but she was never able to convert her touches into product. Angie Kerr was a non-factor trying to operate in front of Scott and Jen Buczkowski, while Nikki Washington failed to have a influence as play tended to build through the other side of midfield.

source: Getty ImagesUnfortunately for Portland, Seattle may present even greater problems than Kansas City. Whereas FCKC played a 4-2-3-1 that often saw attacking Lauren Cheney stay well above of the space in front of defense, Laura Harvey’s likely to use a 4-3-3 that will leverage Winters, defensive midfielder Kaylyn Kyle, and first week standout Jessica Fishlock (right, playing last December in Australia).

“Jess came up huge for us defensively (against Chicago),” Winters explained. “She made countless tackles. She didn’t just go into a tackle. She won the tackle.

“I think she was an unknown coming into this league, coming from Wales. Nobody knew what to expect from her. (After) that game against Chicago, people are going to be a little more wary of where she is on the field in relation to them, especially when they have the ball. She’s coming after you whether you like it or not.”

Fishlock will default to the highest, more pressing role in what seems to function as a traditional win-pass-go trio. Winters, known as a defensive midfielder, can hold or play box-to-box, while Kyle’s main responsibilities will be in front of the defense.

Yet Harvey doesn’t want to limit her versatile players to those roles.

“We can play any three of them in any of the three different positions in midfield,” Harvey says, explaining how she’d ideally like her midfield to function. “Defensive mid – all three of them can play it. [Box-to-box] – all three of them can play it. The No. 10 role, playing behind the forward – all three of them can play it. That’s how I like my midfield to be anyway.”

The system’s designed for a lot of interchangeability, a potentially daunting task for Portland considering the trouble they had breaking through Scott and Buczkowski. For Winters, the Reign can learn from Kansas City’s plans, even if the players aren’t identical.

“Desiree (Scott) did a really good job in the game against Portland,” Winter said, commenting on Kansas City’s ability to keep Portland’s midfield from connecting with Morgan and Sinclair. “I was definitely looking for what she did well and worked for her in the game. At the same time, I’m not Desiree Scott.”

“[Morgan and Sinclair] just didn’t have the ball at their feet as much as I’m sure they would have liked,” Winters noted. “One of the things that myself and my midfield and my backline will obviously try (to do is) to deny [those passes]. Whenever they have the ball at their feet, they’re a threat … I’ve seen Sinclair shoot from 30 yards out and score.”

Last week Portland lost the battle of midfields, and they were fortunate they didn’t lose the game. If Seattle can replicate Kansas City’s success in the middle — and improve on the quick transitions Harvey would like to see off turnovers — Portland’s home opener will prove more troublesome than expected.

QUICK HITS

Portland Thorns Seattle Reign
Star to Watch Alex Morgan – Portland’s No. 9 looked tired last week, understandable considering the hectic month she endured leading up to the season. On Sunday, Morgan will be well-rested. Jessica Fishlock – The Welsh international was Seattle’s Week 1 standout. If she can pressure Edwards at the based of midfield, Portland will have to find another person to organize play ahead of the middle third.
Still Important Angie Kerr – Just like last week, the linkup between Sinclair and Portland’s most attacking midfielder will dictate how the game is played. In Kansas City, where the linkup non-existent, the game was played on Kansas City’s terms. Michelle Betos – The 25-year-old came up huge in Chicago in place of Hope Solo. With Seattle’s back line devoid of any star defenders, Betos will have to continue providing stellar performances.
Win if … … they get Sinclair and Morgan more involved, which means solving the midfield problem. They can afford defensive mistakes if they’re scoring goals, but without service to their strikers, Portland can’t get into a shootout. … they win the midfield battle, transition like Harvey wants, and use Christine Nairn and Kiersten Dallstream to stretch Portland’s vulnerable defense. Tactically, Seattle appear to have a series of advantages that should give Portland problems.

Other games, Week 2

Washington Spirit vs. Western New York Flash (7:00 p.m. Eastern) – Aaran Lines’ team played better than their 1-0 loss hints, but they’ll face a more robust defense in Washington, who took a strong point from Boston last weekend. This one looks like a 0-0, with quick transition play sparked by Veronica Perez coming up short against Ashlyn Harris and a strong Spirit defense.

Others: FC Kansas City and Boston has been postponed, while Sky Blue FC, Chicago have the weekend off.

Bradley Wright-Phillips gets new deal; Nephew called up to England U-16

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It’s been a big 24 hours for the Wright-Phillips family.

Bradley Wright-Phillips signed a new Designated Player deal with the New York Red Bulls, while his nephew has been called up the England U-16 national team.

D’Margio Wright-Phillips is the son of Shawn Wright-Phillips, the former RBNY player currently plying his trade with Phoenix Rising of the USL.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Of course that will only serve to grow the pride of Arsenal legend Ian Wright, who adopted Bradley and Shaun.

The details:

BWP has signed a new multi-year deal with the Red Bulls which brings the 70-goal man into Designated Player status.

“I’d like to thank Denis, Jesse, and everyone at the club for the opportunity to continue wearing this shirt and playing in front of the best fans in MLS,” said Wright-Phillips. “I am very proud of what has been accomplished in my time here, but my sole focus is on trying to win MLS Cup.”

As for D’Margio, he’s in Manchester City’s academy and obviously taking the right steps toward making it three generations in the Premier League. Both Shaun and Bradley spent time in City’s academy.

VIDEO: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago Fire can win World Cup

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Big press conferences bring unusual media members out of the woodwork, and this can be pretty embarrassing when it comes to sports.

I remember a few years ago in Buffalo, when the NHL’s Sabres had not resigned Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. A TV newsman, not known for his sports coverage, asked the general manager what they would say to fans who bought Drury and Briere jerseys.

The awkward reply: “Sorry?”

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There was no exception when the Chicago Fire unveiled Bastian Schweinsteiger on Wednesday. The World Cup winning midfielder faced the press and was asked if his arrival would help Chicago win the World Cup.

You read that right. Here’s the video, even as the communications man jumped in to try and save the reporter by suggesting he meant the FIFA Club World Cup.

Woof. The media overseas are having a field day with this one, but it doesn’t have anything to do with American soccer fans, perhaps even sports media. I’d be stunned if the reporter spent a ton of time around the game.

But man, oh man.

Celtic’s dominance under Rodgers reaching new levels

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They’re unbeaten in 29 games, winning 27 of them. They hold a 25-point lead. They’re about to clinch a sixth straight league title this weekend and it’s still not even April.

Celtic’s players have taken their supremacy of Scottish soccer to a new level this season, putting the storied club from Glasgow in the conversation when discussing the most dominant sides in Europe’s domestic leagues in the 21st century.

Celtic will be the Scottish champion again as early as Friday if its closest rival, Aberdeen, loses to Dundee. If Aberdeen wins, Celtic will take an unassailable lead in the Scottish Premiership by beating Hearts on Sunday.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There’s been a sense of inevitability about the whole thing since the turn of the year, by which time Celtic had jumped into a 19-point lead. It’s long stopped being called a “title race” in Scotland, more a procession.

Meanwhile, the team coached by former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers won the Scottish League Cup in late November and is also through to the semifinals of the Scottish Cup.

With Celtic’s unbeaten run across three domestic competitions currently at 36 games, this might be the most dominant season by any club in the history of Scotland’s top flight.

A glance around Europe shows a few other examples of title monopolies.

Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) and BATE Borisov (Belarus) are currently on a streak of 11 domestic leagues titles in a row since 2006. Olympiakos is on course for a seventh straight Greek league title, which would be its 12th in the last 13 years, and Sheriff Tiraspol has won the Moldovan league every year except one since 2000. Basel leads the Swiss league by 17 points and is about to seal a ninth title in 10 years.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

In these lesser-profile leagues, teams can dominate because of the cash they receive from participating in UEFA competitions, which often allow them to outspend their domestic rivals.

Last week, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, attending a conference in Lisbon, spoke of the threats to European soccer in the coming years, including the “decrease in competitive balance within European club competitions and secondary effects affecting domestic competitions.”

There are examples of lopsided championships in Europe’s big leagues, too: Juventus is closing on an unprecedented sixth straight Serie A title in Italy and on course for a third straight Serie A-Coppa Italia double; Bayern Munich is on course for a fifth straight Bundesliga title in Germany, which included winning one championship after 27 matches of a 34-round league; Lyon won the French league title seven times in succession from 2002; and Ajax won four straight titles in the Netherlands from 2011-14.

Scotland is widely regarded as a backwater in European soccer these days, mainly because of the uncompetitive nature of its league and an increasing lack of exposure and coverage outside Britain.

What didn’t help was Rangers – Celtic’s fierce crosstown rival and winner of a record 54 league titles – getting demoted to the fourth tier of the Scottish game in 2012 because of financial irregularities.

This is Rangers’ first season back in the Premiership, but it hasn’t been able to challenge Celtic and currently sits 33 points behind in third place. There used to be constant talk of the two “Old Firm” clubs crossing the border to join the English league but that has cooled.

“I want to win (the league) by 50 points,” Rodgers, who is in his first season at Celtic, said last month.

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In any other league, that would be a preposterous comment, but perhaps no longer in Scotland.

The season started so embarrassingly for Celtic and Rodgers, a 1-0 loss to Gibraltarian part-timer Lincoln Red Imps in a Champions League qualifier in July described by some pundits as the club’s worst defeat in its 130-year history.

Now, they are about to lift the league title with eight matches to spare and potentially in the month of March for the second time in four years.

“We want to continue winning, continue the run that we’re on,” Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon said, “and make sure we do that for as long as we can.”

AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar in Geneva and James Ellingworth in Moscow, and Associated Press writers Ciaran Fahey in Berlin, Daniella Matar in Milan, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Raf Casert in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Mourinho: Midseason international friendlies don’t make sense

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Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United has a big challenge thanks to injuries and a club with far more international participants than the weekend’s Premier League rival.

It has the manager asking, frankly, why the friendlies?

While Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were injured in England training, not the friendly against Germany nor the World Cup qualifier versus Lithuania, Mourinho wonders why the national teams need to play relatively meaningless matches in the middle of club season.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

Mourinho says he is being careful not to be too vocal about his disappointment given that he’ll probably one day need those friendlies as an international boss. From Sky Sports:

“A couple of weeks before the Euros or a couple of weeks before the World Cup makes sense. But mid-season friendly matches mixed with qualification matches, I don’t think that makes sense.

“On top of that the matches are not really big matches so I am not a big fan. But I think one day I will be there so I cannot be very critical.”

Mourinho will be without Jones, Smalling, and Paul Pogba this weekend. He also has several internationals who won’t arrive back at Old Trafford until Thursday. United hosts West Brom on Saturday.