Lauren Sesselmann

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.

2013 NWSL team preview: Seattle Reign FC

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Over the next two days, ProSoccerTalk will be providing quick capsules of the eight teams participating in the new National Women’s Soccer League. Next up: Seattle Reign FC.

Earlier today we talked to Laura Harvey, the former Arsenal Ladies manager who has recently seen ‘general manager’ added to her head coach’s responsibilities in Seattle. The 32-year-old is used to the dual role, her job in London asking her to build as well as coach the squad, but with Harvey abruptly taking on the extra duties after Amy Carnell resigned on Monday, there is a sense of disorganization emanating from Reign FC. If the club carries similar problems into the regular season, road games at Chicago, Portland and Kansas City will punish them ahead of their home opener on May 4.

Unfortunately, scheduling and front office transitions aren’t the only problems for Seattle. They’re not even the biggest issues. Reign FC will start the season without their three original U.S. allocations, and featuring a roster stocked in midfield but thin everywhere else, there are questions whether they can score or prevent goals.

The transition to the NWSL was always going to be difficult for a coach who had significant talent advantages in London, but thanks to some preseason misfortune, Harvey’s first task will be to revitalize hope in Seattle.

Who you know: Seattle were allocated three of the most recognizable names in U.S. women’s soccer: Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe, and Amy Rodriguez. At the time, Seattle’s looked like one of the stronger allocations, even if Rapinoe was going to be in France until June. But then word came that Rodriguez was pregnant and out for the year. With Solo having recently undergone wrist surgery, none of the team’s big three will be with them in Chicago.

Carnell did go out and trade for Keelin Winters, a strong, all-purpose midfielder on the fringe of the U.S. Women’s National Team, but until Solo and Rapinoe return this summer, this team will lack the star power that could attract some Sounders fans to the team’s games in Tukwila.

Who you should know: Teresa Noyola is a former MAC Herman Trophy winner who will provide the creative presence in Harvey’s midfield. Christine Nairn, a Herman Trophy finalist last year, and Welsh international Jessica Fishlock can provide goals from the middle, while Canadian Kaylyn Kyle adds a deeper presence. Though it lacks headlining talent, Seattle’s midfield is as deep as any in the league.

What it means:  According to Harvey, Seattle will try to overload the middle in an attempt to make their midfield advantage decisive. The extent to which they can force their early matches into a batter of midfields will determine their survival.

If Seattle can stay within reach of the rest of the league, they’ll likely have a base to build from when their stars return. If the Reign can’t be within a couple of games (say, six-to-eight points) come mid-June, their Solo and Rapinoe aren’t likely to save them.

The first game in FC Kansas City history will take place Saturday against the Portland Thorns.


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2013 NWSL team preview: FC Kansas City

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Over the next two days, ProSoccerTalk will be providing quick capsules of the eight teams participating in the new National Women’s Soccer League. Next up is one of the league’s early favorites, FC Kansas City.

If there’s one team that can be the Dallas Mavericks to Thorns FC’s Miami Heat, it’s FC Kansas City. At least, if we take the thin speculation that’s festered since early winter’s allocation and give it far too much weight, Portland are the favorites and FCKC are dark horse that can chase them down.

It’s a surprising status for a team that lacks one of the league’s marquee talents. Instead, FC Kansas City combines rock solid  allocations, a fortuitous draft, and shrewd free agent signings to form one of the most well-rounded teams in the league. Whereas teams like the Thorns and Boston Breakers accent tremendous strengths with potentially worrisome weaknesses, Kansas City looks solid everywhere.

The question is not of faults but of potential. If another team with more firepower finds their stride, can FC Kansas City remain that galloping dark horse set to un-tell our narratives? Would you rather have a team that comes with guarantees, or one higher upside?

Who you know: Though she’s settling into a midfield role with the national team, Lauren Cheney (pictured) will be counted on for goals, something that weren’t easy to come by when she arrived in WPS from UCLA. When played at forward, she’ll be KC’s main option with the hope she’ll form a strong relationship with Kristie Mewis, the attacking midfielder that surprisingly fell to number three in the draft.

Becky Sauerbrunn, one of WPS’s best defenders, will be the cornerstone in central defense, while national team backup Nicole Barnhart will be the No. 1 in goal.

Who you should know: Casey Loyd may be the league’s ultimate X-factor. As skilled as anybody in this league, the former North Carolina Tar Heel was one of the final picks in the supplemental draft, falling after concern she wouldn’t play this season. With her commitment, head coach Vlatko Andonovski has a player who severely increases the team’s upside.

Canadian international Desiree Scott could be one of the league’s best defensive midfielders, Mexico’s Renae Cuellar will help Cheney in attack, while the likes of Melissa Henderson, Jen Buczkowski, Lauren Sesselmann and Sinead Farrelly round out a team that has very few obvious weaknesses.

That’s not a description that can be applied to a lot of teams in this league.

What it means:  When U.S. Soccer announced Kansas City had been awarded a NWSL franchise, it looked like an isolated team with no pre-existing footprint, one that might struggle to attract (or be allocated) talent. Reality has painted a drastically different picture. This team may lack a superstar, but top-to-bottom, it’s one of the most talented groups in the league – a title contender.

The first game in FC Kansas City history will take place Saturday against the Portland Thorns.

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