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.

Toronto locks down USMNT backstop Bono with extension

Photo by Graig Abel/Getty Images
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Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono is going to stay Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono.

[ RECAP: Morocco 0-1 Portugal ]

The newly-capped USMNT backstop, 24, has been attracting interest from abroad since breaking past Clint Irwin to win the TFC job and guiding the club to multiple MLS Cup Finals.

Now general manager Tim Bezbatchenko has locked down his young goalkeeper to an undisclosed contract extension. From TorontoFC.com:

“Alex was a big part of our success last season. He set club records for wins and clean sheets and was a critical piece of our championship team,” said Toronto FC Sr. Vice-President, Soccer Operations & General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko. “Since joining the club as a first round pick in 2015, Alex’s ability to make key saves in big moments has been critical to our success.”

The Syracuse-born product of Syracuse University has made 64 appearances for the Reds.

WATCH: World Cup, Day 8 — Argentina on the edge; France aims for berth

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France, Denmark, and Croatia can clinch knockout round berths on Thursday in Russia, the last nation also holding the opportunity to help deprive the World Cup of an extended Lionel Messi run.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Messi’s Argentina drew Iceland in its opener, the megastar infamously missing a penalty, and will look to beat a Croatian side that looked quite good in dispatching Nigeria.

That’s the final match of the day, which begins with Denmark facing Australia and continues with a tasty match-up between France and Peru.

Below is Thursday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Wednesday, June 20

Group C
Denmark vs. Australia: Samara, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
France vs. Peru: Yekaterinburg, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group D
Argentina vs. Croatia: Nizhny Novgorod, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Halted World Cup flip-throw heard around the world

AP Photo/Sergei Grits
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Milad Mohammadi knew the time was right for something special, but special isn’t always good.

And good is a subjective term. Cause to us this is very good, Milad.

The Iranian national team defender failed with a flip-throw bid in the final moments of a 1-0 loss to Spain on Wednesday at the World Cup in Russia.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

And this wasn’t like he illegally flipped or broke some other rule. No, like a kid trying an audacious jump into the deep end, Akhmat Grozny star Mohammadi just bailed and climbed in from the side (so to speak).

The kiss, the look skyward, the headbutt… all integral parts of a wonderful World Cup moment.

Renard, Morocco ‘very proud’ of unlucky national team

AP Photo/Antonio Calanni
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If you would’ve told Morocco fans or their manager, Herve Renard, that they’d outshoot and outpossess both Iran and Portugal at World Cup, their next question would probably be, “So do we need to do against Spain to win Group B?”

Alas, Morocco lost a pair of 1-0 decisions to become the first team knocked out of the 2018 World Cup.

[ RECAP: Morocco 0-1 Portugal ]

The Lions of Atlas fell to Iran in their opener on a stoppage time own goal after carrying 64 percent possession and a 13-8 advantage in shot attempts, then lost to a Cristiano Ronaldo fourth minute goal on Wednesday despite a 16-10 shot advantage and 53 percent of the ball.

“I’m very proud of the performance and I am very proud of my players, I’m very proud of this country,” Renard said.

With no hope of advancing to the next round, the manager is finding the experience bittersweet. From RTE:

“What I am sure of at this moment is that the entire Moroccan people is proud of this team. Of course it’s easier to play with a player who has one chance and he puts it away. But we are in Morocco.

“We have quality players. Despite the ups and downs of the game, we should have been more effective. Because, like in the first game, we had plenty of chances. I won’t blame anyone. That’s football. It’s always those who know how to be present in the box, the most gifted players, who make the difference. We took a lot of risks and we didn’t get our reward.”

It’s unlikely Morocco will hold either of those statistical advantages against Spain, especially a Spanish side yet to qualify, but there is plenty to like from the tournament aside from poor finishing quality.

But the performances of 19-year-olds Amine Harit (Schalke) and Achraf Hakimi (Real Madrid) — not to mention Hakim Ziyech (25, Ajax) — seem to hint at a promise for 2022. And Renard’s men can still play spoiler for Spain, which is no small shockwave.