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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.

Brazilian footballer in tears after racist chants in Serbia

Partizan Belgrade's Brazilian player Everton Luiz, centre left, leaves the field accompanying by goalkeeper Filip Kljajic, during a Serbian championship match between Rad and Partizan, in Belgrade, Serbia, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. Luiz was in tears after suffering persistent racist chants during his team's 1-0 victory against Rad in the Serbian premiership. The Brazilian, who joined Partizan from the Swiss league in 2016, received monkey chants and other abuse, including a racist banner on the stands where Rad fans were standing. (AP Photo/Miroslav Todorovic)
AP Photo/Miroslav Todorovic
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BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) Partizan Belgrade midfielder Everton Luiz was in tears after persistent racist chants during his team’s victory over Rad in the Serbian league.

The Brazilian, who joined Partizan last year, played through monkey chants and other abuse, including a racist banner in the stands where Rad fans were standing.

[ MORE: FA Cup QF draw — Chelsea vs. Man United; Arsenal vs. Lincoln City ]

The banner was removed after intervention from the referee.

There were scuffles between the players after the match on Sunday, when Partizan won 1-0, after Everton Luiz showed the middle finger to the Rad supporters.

Wiping away tears, Luiz said he “faced racist abuse during the entire match.”

[ MORE: Wenger “didn’t really enjoy” Arsenal’s FA Cup win over Sutton ]

Serbian fans are notorious for racist outbursts against black players. Rad supporters are known for their nationalist ultra-right behavior.

On Monday, the Serbian Football Association suspended Rad’s stadium in Belgrade until further notice because of the fans’ behavior.

Wenger “didn’t really enjoy” Arsenal’s FA Cup win over Sutton

SUTTON, GREATER LONDON - FEBRUARY 20:  Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal looks on from the bench before the Emirates FA Cup fifth round match between Sutton United and Arsenal on February 20, 2017 in Sutton, Greater London.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
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One might imagine that Arsene Wenger doesn’t enjoy too terribly much these days, especially when it comes to matters regarding his employment as Arsenal manager, a post he’s held for the last 7,456 days.

[ MORE: FA Cup QF draw — Chelsea vs. Man United; Arsenal vs. Lincoln City ]

From the constant reports and rumblings that his time at Arsenal is coming to an end, to falling all the way out of the Premier League title race, to being absolutely demolished in the UEFA Champions League last week, the 2016-17 season has looked quite similar to those of recent years.

On Monday, the Gunners knocked off fifth-division side Sutton United in the fifth round of the FA Cup, a triumph which was beamed out for the entire world to witness on television. Surely the 67-year-old would have immensely enjoyed that, right? Sadly, it was anything but enjoyable for Wenger, according to his post-game comments — quotes from the BBC:

“We did the job. It is very different, I must say, on this kind of pitch. It was not an easy game at all. We have to give them credit because every error we made, they took advantage of on this pitch. They played very well.

“It is basically division five, and when I arrived here 20 years ago in division five, they were not as fit physically as they were today. They were organized and had a huge desire. If we were not mentally prepared, we would not have gone through today.

“I don’t really enjoy tonight, because we absolutely had to do the job and it is tricky. It is important for the confidence of the players. At Bayern we were 1-1, and then in the second half it all went wrong, so at halftime today at 1-0 up it was not finished.”

On the one hand, Wenger has a point: there’s very little to be gained by the “bigger” sides in Cup clashes versus opposition the size of Sutton — if you win, that’s great, but you were “supposed” to; if you lose, that’s … well, a much greater embarrassment than losing 5-1 to Bayern Munich.

[ MORE: Fifth-division Lincoln City shock PL side Burnley in FA Cup ]

On the other hand, that kind of potential embarrassment (should the prospects of winning a third FA Cup in four seasons doesn’t do it for them) should have been all the motivation the Gunners needed, and … well, they were far from dominant in this one.

Elsewhere in the FA Cup

Burnley 0-1 Lincoln City — RECAP | REACTION
Huddersfield Town 0-0 Manchester City
Middlesbrough 3-2 Oxford United
Millwall 1-0 Leicester City
Wolverhampton Wanderers 0-2 Chelsea RECAP
Fulham 0-3 Tottenham Hotspur RECAP
Blackburn Rovers 1-2 Manchester United RECAP | REACTION

FA Cup: Arsenal never bothered by Sutton, go through to QF

SUTTON, GREATER LONDON - FEBRUARY 20:  Jamie Collins of Sutton United heads the ball at goal during the Emirates FA Cup fifth round match between Sutton United and Arsenal on February 20, 2017 in Sutton, Greater London.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
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It could have been one of the darkest days in the history of any professional football club — Premier League giants Arsenal, away to fifth-division Sutton United, a non-Football League side currently 105 places below them in the English football pyramid.

[ MORE: FA Cup QF draw — Chelsea vs. Man United; Arsenal vs. Lincoln City ]

Instead, Monday’s 2-0 FA Cup fifth-round victory over The U’s, played at Sutton’s 5,000-seat Gander Green Lane, proved as uneventful and routine for the Gunners as they could have hoped. Having been torn to shreds by Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League just five days ago, defeat at the hands of a fifth-division team was the only thing that could have further destroyed morale at the club.

Lucas Perez put Arsenal ahead in the 27th minute, when his curling, bouncing cross-shot toward that back post made its way through a sea of legs — including those of teammate Theo Walcott — and nestled itself inside the far post of Ross Worner (WATCH HERE).

[ MORE: Fifth-division Lincoln City shock PL side Burnley in FA Cup ]

It was then Walcott who doubled Arsenal’s advantage, in the 55th minute, by scoring his 100th goal for the club. Nacho Monreal‘s cross ran through a sea of bodies before finding Walcott unmarked wide of the far post, and his first-time finish was well hit.

Up next for Arsenal, it’s yet another fifth-division side, Lincoln City, who’ll come calling as the Gunners seek their third FA Cup trophy in four seasons.

[ MORE: FA Cup roundup — Premier League sides underwhelm in 5th round ]

Elsewhere in the FA Cup

Burnley 0-1 Lincoln City — RECAP | REACTION
Huddersfield Town 0-0 Manchester City
Middlesbrough 3-2 Oxford United
Millwall 1-0 Leicester City
Wolverhampton Wanderers 0-2 Chelsea RECAP
Fulham 0-3 Tottenham Hotspur RECAP
Blackburn Rovers 1-2 Manchester United RECAP | REACTION

AT THE HALF: Arsenal in control, 1-0 up on Sutton in FA Cup 5th round

SUTTON, GREATER LONDON - FEBRUARY 20:  Lucas of Arsenal celebrates with team-mates after scporing the opening goal during the Emirates FA Cup fifth round match between Sutton United and Arsenal on February 20, 2017 in Sutton, Greater London.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
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For 26 minutes, Sutton United were absolute equals to Arsenal in the only place that counted: the scoreboard.

[ MORE: FA Cup QF draw — Chelsea vs. Man United; Arsenal vs. Lincoln City? ]

In the 27th minute, Arsenal converted the prolonged periods of possession (71 percent as of halftime) into the opening goal of the two sides’ FA Cup fifth-round tie. Lucas Perez provided the breakthrough with his eighth goal of the season (all competitions) — perhaps unintentionally, as he seemed to be looking for Theo Walcott with his curling ball toward the back post (below video).

[ MORE: Fifth-division Lincoln City shock PL side Burnley in FA Cup ]

Should the Gunners hold on through 45 more minutes and advance, they’ll face yet another fifth-division side, Lincoln City, at home in the quarterfinals.

Elsewhere in the FA Cup

Burnley 0-1 Lincoln City — RECAP | REACTION
Huddersfield Town 0-0 Manchester City
Middlesbrough 3-2 Oxford United
Millwall 1-0 Leicester City
Wolverhampton Wanderers 0-2 Chelsea RECAP
Fulham 0-3 Tottenham Hotspur RECAP
Blackburn Rovers 1-2 Manchester United RECAP | REACTION