2018 NWSL Semifinal 1: Seattle at Portland

On Saturday afternoon in Portland, the Seattle Reign will return to the scene of their 3-1 thumping from last Friday and attempt to deliver a different result. If they’re able to win, they’ll be rewarded with a third consecutive game at Providence Park for next Saturday’s 2018 NWSL Final.

The Portland Thorns will have confidence going into this match, and will relish the opportunity to secure a spot in the Championship match in front of their own fans. Though the stand has hosted the final match previously, and though the Thorns have won the final match previously, these two circumstances have never come to pass simultaneously. If you’re counting, that’s three more adverbs than should ever be in a sentence together, which must mean maximum excitement.

How’d we get here?

Without both Megan Rapinoe and Allie Long, the Reign weren’t able to capitalize on Jess Fishlock’s bright opener to hold on to their early lead last Friday at Providence Park. The Thorns roared back to life after a slightly tepid start and ended up scoring three unanswered goals on the way to their win. With the three points, Portland snatched locked up 2nd place in the table and the attendant home playoff match. As a consequence, if they’re able to win, they’ll get to play for the 2018 NWSL Championship in front of their home fans.

Seattle Reign at Portland Thorns

Saturday at 3PM Eastern on Lifetime TV

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Allie Long: Questionable with a right knee sprain.

Megan Rapinoe: Questionable with rib soreness.

Hayley Raso: Out with L2-L4 transverse process fracture

These three players are extremely important to their teams.

The Thorns don’t have anyone who can replicate Raso’s speed, but where last season that might have been a critical problem, this year, they’ve got exceptional flexibility and depth to enable them to change tactics without missing a beat.

And, they’ve got a fairly recent game tape to watch to see how their adjustments have worked on Saturday’s opponent. Spoiler alert: they worked very well.

Seattle isn’t quite as lucky. Raso is a big part of Portland’s strategy on attack, but she’s not nearly as important to the Thorns as Megan Rapinoe is to the Reign. Even not having been healthy at times this season (15 starts and 16 appearances), Rapinoe has been a dynamic force of nature that most teams just can’t contain. On Tuesday’s call with the media, Vlatko Andonovski indicated that between Rapinoe and her also-questionable midfield mate Allie Long, Rapinoe was closer to being ready to go for Saturday. That’s very good news for the Reign, because without at least one of these two contributing, it’s hard to see how Seattle can improve upon their results from last week. You can be sure BOTH players will make every effort to be ready to go, and I’d expect to see both in the starting XI.

Portland is flying, and for all the worthy praise that will be sent in Tobin Heath’s direction for her own highlight-reel footwork, it is Lindsey Horan pulling all the strings for the Thorns.

Last year’s Thorns had a world-class defensive midfielder in Amandine Henry. She’d advance just far enough up field to force her marking player(s) to step to her and create the space behind where she’d deposit inch-perfect passes to Portland’s attackers. Or, she’d pick out a 40 yard field-switching cross that would gently greet Tobin Heath in stride.

This season, it’s Horan doing all of these things and more. She’s often the player who retreats all the way back to receive the first ball sent out by Franch. She cuts off bad passes, has deceptive speed of her own and can fire a strike from anywhere with unstoppable power and perfect technique. Seriously:

Players in every league in the world attempt that kind of shot all the time and routinely launch it into the stands. Horan (who apparently didn’t require defending for some reason) adjusts her sprint to deal with the deflection and bounce and demonstrates the exceptional body control and technique critical to converting chances like this. She’s not always on the scoresheet, but she’s a major reason behind most of the goals the Thorns have accumulated this year.

Rib soreness or not, I’d expect Megan Rapinoe to look her dominant best for the Reign. That’s going to give space to Jodie Taylor and Fishlock that they didn’t have last week. It should be enough to make this match a more even contest.

Still, with the way the Thorns have been playing, it’s going to take something special to deny the Thorns a chance for a Championship on their home turf. Portland returns to the Final, and will get to play at home for one more week. That’ll make for some good TV!

Portland Thorns 3-2 Seattle Reign