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.

Three good questions for Seattle Reign head coach/general manager Laura Harvey

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No NWSL team has had a more turbulent preseason than the Seattle Reign. They were allocated a star that had previously committed to spend the spring in France. Then the player expected to be their leading scorer became pregnant. The face of their team was forced to undergo wrist surgery which will sideline her until June, while just this week their general manager left the team.

For Seattle’s newest professional team, the NWSL’s first season can’t start soon enough.

Laura Harvey’s hiring from Arsenal Ladies remains one of the high points of the offseason. The 32-year-old who won four titles (in four years) during her time London was brought in to coach the team. With the departure of Amy Carnell, she’ll also assume general manager’s duties, a doubling down by owner Bill Predmore. If Harvey has trouble adapting to the game in the States, Seattle problems will be compounded. On the other hand, if she can adapt quickly, the Reign will reap the benefits of a promising coach managing her own roster.

Shortly before boarding a flight to Chicago (where the Reign open their season on Sunday), Harvey took some time to talk to PST about the upcoming season. Here are our three good questions.

1.) None of your originally allocated U.S. players are with you to start the season. Megan Rapinoe, Hope Solo, and Amy Rodriguez are all out for various reasons. Which loss hurts most?

They all hurt in different ways. I think maybe the Hope one hurts the most because we initially thought we did have her, then we had to plan quite late in the day that we weren’t going to have her.

We knew pretty much from day one about the Megan situation, and obviously as much as (Amy Rodriguez’s situation) is disappointing for our team, it’s hard to be annoyed by that when someone’s pregnant.

They all hurt in different ways, but we had to react pretty quickly to the Hope one. The position that she plays is sometimes the hardest one to replace. But we got there in the end.

(Note: Michelle Betos, a 25-year-old who attended Georgia, appears set to start the season in goal.)

2.) The team went out and traded for a Keelin Winters, a midfielder on the fringe of the national team. Combined with the early return of Theresa Noyola and Christine Nairn’s fall in the draft, you have, on paper, a strong midfield. Can you describe what Winters adds to what you were originally given? And how do you plan to set up your midfield?

Keelin has the experience of playing at the highest level domestically both in the States and in Europe (note: Winters spent the fall with Germany’s Turbine Potsdam). She adds experience which, if you look across our team, I think that’s the one thing we lack – experience at this level. She’s a dynamic all-around midfielder who can give you a lot in attack and is a good defensive midfielder, too. That’s probably the main thing that she brings.

How we’ll set up our midfielder could chance game-to-game depending on who we’re playing. We’ll look to try to overload midfielder areas to allow our best players to get on the ball. We field our midfield area is strongest, so we’ll try to overload in there.

3.) Now the inevitable question about your outlook on the season. On one hand, good coaching can cover a myriad cracks, especially in defense (in my opinion). On the other hand, people are looking at the team on paper and saying this is a bottom-two squad. What are your expectations for the season?

I have big expectations. I don’t think it should ever be any different. In the experience I’ve had is coaching and managing club teams, you have to be realistic with expectations.

And there is a realism. Other coaches in the league have stated this, but at the minute everything that people talk about is on paper. The game is not won there.

Coaching helps. Organization helps. Being prepared helps. Getting your players in the best physical and mental state helps, and it doesn’t matter if they’re World Cup winners, have a hundred caps for their country, or they’re rookies who have just come out of college. As long as they’re prepared mentally, physically and they know what their job for the team is, then you have a chance of winning games.

We’ll find out in August who’ve won the most games, and by then we can judge who set the right expectations and (who) didn’t. If anyone (said they’d) set an expectation not to finish in the top half of the league, I think they’d be lying. I don’t think anyone goes into the league not expecting to get into the playoffs.

That should be everyone’s expectation level. For sure, that’s the same with us. We’re setting the bar high and we’re hungry, we’re enthusiastic, and we’re not going to shy away from any obstacle that comes our way. The first one will be in Chicago on Sunday.

(Follow-up, on Rapinoe and Solo situations lending to the temptation to look at this as two seasons in one.)

Potentially, yes. June, July, August for us – those could be a complete game-changer. If we can maintain on the tails of all the other teams come those dates, we have a chance of finishing. Undoubtedly any team getting Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo back into the team will be a better team for it. You can’t deny that. We have that to look forward to.

Injuries, keeping your best players fit for as long as possible, (these) will be a major factor for teams in this league. If you can keep your best players on the field as long as possible you have the best chance of being successful, and we’re no different to that. Already we’ve had setbacks, as we all know. Megan’s been a bit different than an injury, but if can get [Rapinoe and Solo] back fit and healthy, we have a chance of being successful.

I don’t go into [a season] any other way. If somebody wants to tell me we’re going to finish bottom of the league, I’ll put any money on us moving up.

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Seattle Reign, trying to reload, bolster midfield ahead of NWSL season

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It has been a bitter-sweet beginning for the Seattle Reign. Owner Bill Predmore and general manager Amy Carnell managed to secure a place National Women’s Soccer League. Since then, it’s been a bad winter for Reign FC.

First there was the news that Megan Rapinoe would be in France until June. Everybody knew that doing into dispersal, but Seattle but got to deal with that mixed bag.

Then Amy Rodriguez became pregnant – great news for her family, bad news for the Reign. With Rapinoe gone, the U.S. national team forward was going to be counted on to carry the scoring load. Instead she’s going to miss the entire 2013 season.

Combine those losses with midfielder Teresa Noyola’s Dutch contract running through mid-June and Hope Solo’s wrist injury, and Seattle’s only had two notable moments this winter: Luring Laura Harvey from Arsenal and seeing Penn State’s Christine Nairn fall to them in the College Draft. True, these misfortunes have earned them a lot of attention (look at all the links), but Seattle would prefer to make their name on the field.

And that’s why Carnell’s getting aggressive – to give the team a chance to be more than a hard-luck team. Over the past 24 hours, the team’s been part of the first trade in league history while securing the early return of one of their best players. As a result, Seattle’s completely remake their midfield.

source:  The first move came yesterday when Seattle and the Chicago Red Stars confirmed that Keelin Winters (right), a midfielder on the cusp of some national team run, would move west along with a fourth round draft pick. In return, Chicago receives a first round draft pick and future considerations.

The future considerations seem complicated. Seattle has confirmed Chicago will received one of the Reign’s U.S. Soccer allocated players ahead of the 2014 campaign, so it seems Amy Rodriguez will be going to the Red Stars. If, for whatever reason, Rodriguez is doesn’t come back for the 2014 season, then Seattle’s going to have to send another national team player to Chicago.

Again, that’s unconfirmed speculation, but with Rodriguez’s status up in the air, it doesn’t look like this deal will be resolved until after the season; hence, the future considerations.

My first reaction to the trade: It’s a steal for Seattle. I’ve softened on that a little, but Carnell’s done well for her team. I may tend to over-value Winters, but she is a very good deep-sitting midfielder who has enough ability to function in a box-to-box role (Harvey sees her in a defensive role).

For whatever reason, Chicago saw Winters as their third-best option in the middle behind Shannon Boxx and Leslie Osborne. Even if Winters isn’t better than the two in 2013 (and she very well might be), she’s more valuable in the long run.

To get her, Carnell had to give up Seattle’s first round pick, a commodity that could turn into one of Crystal Dunn or Julie Johnston. Both college players project as future national team regulars, but they’re also defenders – not midfielders. Everybody needs defenders, of course, but for a team like Seattle in need of impact players, there’s an argument for preferring Winters over either defensive prospect.

But the duo’s also relatively unproven. Not every college star makes a smooth transition to the pro game. Even if they do, it’s no certainty they’ll be as good as Winters, who has scored seven goals in 36 games between the Boston Breakers, Seattle Sounders, and German power Turbine Potsdam since 2011.

It’s easy to fall in love with Dunn and Johnston’s potential, but it’s potential. The draft pick is a lottery ticket, one that won’t have access to those players if Seattle makes the playoffs. In my mind, it’s a one-in-three chance Seattle’s pick turns into one of those players. Factor in the probability Winters will remain a better player during the draftee’s time with her team, then the likelihood of Carnell giving away the deal’s best player becomes pretty low. It’s not enough of probability to stop this deal now.

Factor in Seattle’s needs — their desire to get some quality players in who can replace the talent they’ll miss — and Carnell made the right move. The team that was ambitious enough to pluck Harvey from Arsenal continues to be aggressive as the season approaches.

That aggression manifest again in Seattle’s other move: Securing Noyola’s early arrival. The Mexican international and former Stanford star was originally slated to finish the European campaign with ADO Den Haag; however, after a deal was reached between the clubs, the 22-year-old former U.S. youth international will join her new club after the Algarve Cup. The 2011 Hermann Trophy winner will be with Seattle for the club’s first game on April 14.

Mid-week, Seattle’s midfield was Nairn, Canadian international Kaylyn Kyle, then a significant drop. Now they’ve added Winters, somebody who can serve as an anchor centrally, and Noyola, who can team with Nairn to help augment the roster’s lack of goal scoring. If Ohio State alum Tiffany Cameron can carry over some of her NCAA goal scoring prowess (21 goals in 22 games as a senior), Seattle may have enough to survive the spring.

And that’s all they need to do. In a league where half the teams will make the playoffs, Harvey only needs to craft a team capable of surviving the spring. They need to stay within reach until Rapinoe returns.

The defense is big problem, and they’ll need some heroics from Solo if the team’s going to match the front office’s ambition. But thanks to their two most recent moves, Seattle’s back in the game. There are enough flawed teams in this league to give Seattle hope they can steal enough points to stay afloat.

If Harvey’s acumen can match her Arsenal results, the first round pick they gave up is not going to be Crystal Dunn or Julie Johnston. There are enough pieces here to avoid that worst case scenario.

Looking at the lesser known USWNT’ers called into Tom Sermanni’s first camp

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Yesterday’s news was supposed to be about Tom Sermanni’s first callups, but when the U.S. Women’s National Team selections were announced mid-day, Tobin Heath’s move to Paris Saint-Germain swiped the headlines. Beyond that blockbuster, there are a number of subtle story lines within Sermanni selection, plots woven from the predictability that defined Pia Sundhage’s approach.

There was never any drama with the U.S.’s previous coach. Renown for her loyalty, Sundhage’s selections were so predictable that they’d be overlooked. Perhaps one or two new names would dot each team, but there’d rarely be any surprises. Even as Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux were assimilated into the team, the methodical nature of the process drained the intrigue. There was never an Eddie Johnson, where did this come from Jurgen moment. Every Sundhage callup was always (looking at the list) “Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh … Yep.”

Not that a coach should try to create drama. On the contrary, many see Sundhage’s reluctance to rock the boat as a key to the team’s recent success; however, that reluctance meant a number of good players may not have gotten chances other coaches would have provided.

Sermanni’s first team features a few of those names, though those inclusions are mostly because of the size of the call-in. To bring 29 players in for a look, you have to pick a few new faces.

Let’s go ahead and count down the surprises from 10-to-1 in terms of … let’s call it “intrigue.” We start with someone who’s no surprise at all (but deserves a mention):

10. Ali Krieger, D, Washington Spirit – Krieger is not a new name (she’s one of the best right backs in the world), but this is her first camp since tearing up her knee in Olympic qualifying. A strong following of devoted fans will be happy to see the former Frankfurt star back in action. She’s an obvious pick as Sermanni’s starting right back.

9. Whitney Engen, D, Liverpool – Engen’s signing in Liverpool earned some press, and despite the creation of the new NWSL, the former North Carolina standout plans to stay in England. She was one of the victims of Sundhage’s predictability. Despite strong play at both collegiate and WPS levels, Engen rarely got a look under the previous coach.

8. Ashlyn Harris, G, Duisburg/Washington Spirit – Harris has never been capped but has the talent to be a regular in the team. Under a new regime, players like Harris may be able to win coveted spots, like the place behind Hope Solo. She’ll join the Spirit once her German commitments end, with player and agent hoping to negotiate and early departure (her contract runs through May).

7. Kristie Mewis, M, FC Kansas City – The number three pick in last Friday’s College Draft, the former Boston College star represents a possibility for a thinning midfield. Not yet 22, Mewis can also slide farther up the field to play as an outright forward.

6. Crystal Dunn, D, North Carolina – The MAC Herman Trophy winner helped the Tar Heels reclaim their national title. Still 20 years old, Dunn has played in the middle at U-levels but projects as a wide option for the senior team.

5. Julie Johnston, D, Santa Clara – Like Dunn, a collegiate star who Sermanni will get a chance to evaluate in person. Johnston is also a potential solution for the once-precarious fullback situation.

4. Jane Campbell, G, Concorde Fire South – The high school senior is the biggest surprise on the team, passing over a number overseas and NWSL names that justified this selection. This could be Sermanni just wanting a first-hand look at a prominent prospect, but Campbell could have also gone to the concurrent U-20 camp. Players like Turbine Potsdam’s Alyssa Naeher or Western New York Adrianna Franch should have gotten this spot.

3. Yael Averbuch, D, Göteberg (Sweden) – Averbuch was not only hurt by Sundhage’s loyalty to the regular squad members but left out by system that didn’t use a real defensive midfielder. One of a handful of national team hopefuls who passed on the NWSL, Averbuch’s club performances hint she’s reaching the peak of her career.

2. Keelin Winters, M, Chicago Red Stars – Winters recent success at Turbine Potsdam makes her a key part of the new Chicago team. Capable of playing a defensive midfield as well as a box-to-box role, Winters has the versatility to be a good bench option for the national team.

1. Christen Press, F, Tyresö FF (Sweden) – Perhaps the most exciting callup, Press is a former MAC Herman Trophy winner spent last season in Sweden, where she elected to stay rather than joining the NWSL. He 17 goals in last year’s Damallsvensken were second only to German star Anja Mittag’s 21. With a slew of talents in front of her at forward, it will be difficult to crack the squad for a real game. But at least now Press is getting the chance.

Here’s Sermanni’s full call-in, courtesy of U.S. Soccer:

U.S. Women’s National Team Training Camp Roster by Position

GOALKEEPERS (5): Nicole Barnhart (FC Kansas City), Jane Campbell (Concorde Fire South), Ashlyn Harris (Washington Spirit), Jill Loyden (Sky Blue FC), Hope Solo (Seattle Reign FC)

DEFENDERS (9): Rachel Buehler (Portland Thorns FC), Crystal Dunn (North Carolina), Whitney Engen (Liverpool FC), Julie Johnston (Santa Clara), Ali Krieger (Washington Spirit), Heather Mitts (Boston Breakers), Kelley O’Hara (Sky Blue FC), Christie Rampone (Sky Blue FC), Becky Sauerbrunn (FC Kansas City)

MIDFIELDERS (10): Yael Averbuch (Göteborg FC), Shannon Boxx (Chicago Red Stars), Lauren Cheney (FC Kansas City), Tobin Heath (Paris Saint-Germain), Lori Lindsey (Washington Spirit), Carli Lloyd (Western NY Flash), Kristie Mewis (FC Kansas City), Heather O’Reilly (Boston Breakers), Megan Rapinoe (Lyon), Keelin Winters (Chicago Red Stars)

FORWARDS (5): Sydney Leroux (Boston Breakers), Alex Morgan (Portland Thorns FC), Christen Press (Tyresö FF), Amy Rodriguez (Seattle Reign FC), Abby Wambach (Western NY Flash)