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Match Preview: Portland Thorns vs. OL Reign
A conversation with Jacob Cristobal of Ride of the Valkyries to preview Saturday's rivalry game + Mike Norris' shared his thoughts on his first Cascadia derby as head coach.
The Portland Thorns head up I-5 to face OL Reign in the second match of the rivalry double-header at Lumen Field this Saturday (5 p.m. PT, CBS Sports Network). To help preview the big game, we traded questions with Jacob Cristobal of Ride of the Valkyries:
Stumptown Footy: What matchup are you most looking forward to seeing on the pitch?
Jacob Cristobal of Ride of the Valkyries:
Portland's attackers vs. OL Reign's holding midfield. Due to injuries and time away from the team, OL Reign's midfield has mostly been anchored by Jess Fishlock and Emily Sonnett. The question OL Reign fans have had since the trade was announced on Draft Day is who starts when you have the full availability of Rose Lavelle, Fishlock, Quinn, Olivia Van der Jagt, and now Sonnett, with concerns that Quinn and Van der Jagt would draw the short straws in that scenario, despite the revelation last year that Van der Jagt can very much hang as a pro. Sonnett as part of the holding midfield for OL Reign has had some good moments and some bad moments this season. The big question will be which Sonnett experience happens on Saturday night, because the moment Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver are timing their runs, it could turn into a long game for OL Reign's back four and goalkeeper Phallon Tullis-Joyce if the Reign's midfield isn't closing down channels and preventing balls from getting into the box.
STF: The Reign ended what could be considered a bit of a slump with a decisive 4-1 victory against angel city, do you think that’s what they needed to kind of get their feet under them again? Especially going into a competitive rivalry game.
JC: Yep. Going into last Saturday's match vs. Angel City FC, they needed to win to break out of a weird slump. Sometimes that comes through a gritty, back-to-basics win that you grind out for 90 minutes, and sometimes you play the expansive style you want to and score four goals while rueing that you could have scored even more. To be able to continue it into Wednesday's Challenge Cup match down at San Diego (by the way, OL Reign are unbeaten against the California teams since they joined the league last year) with a rotated squad was something Laura Harvey praised in her postmatch press conference on Wednesday night. No injuries and being able to continue to play the way they wanted to en route to that solid result keeps the momentum strong for them going into Saturday's match.
STF: What’s the current state of the Reign while Lavelle recovers? Who’s stepping up? Who should we look out for?
JC: We've primarily seen Bethany Balcer occupy the attacking-mid space that Lavelle would fill when healthy. She doesn't play the role in nearly the same way as Lavelle, but it creates some mismatches when she and the target forward (often Jordyn Huitema) rotate to create overloads in the box and make it difficult for the opposing centerbacks to track runners. We've also seen Jess Fishlock be the ball pusher because of course she has that positional freedom to be anywhere she wants. She's Jess Fishlock. Much like with Emily Sonnett as one of the holding midfielders, having an attacking midfielder by committee because of Lavelle's injury sometimes works, sometimes it doesn't. Of course, if you have a healthy Lavelle in your midfield, your team is that much better, but this is where OL Reign's depth and quality has worked out and why they're in the top half of the standings with Portland. Plenty of players have been getting minutes out of necessity, especially in the midfield.
STF: Anything else you want to add?
JC: Going into this match, it felt weird that the Reign and Thorns are just meeting up at this point of the season. Had to look it up and there were two seasons in which they didn't meet up until July! 2015 and 2019. And it's happened once again, in you guessed it, another World Cup year! Crazy right? Fascinating it's worked out with the schedule this season, and that's with the Challenge Cup adding more meetings between the two sides.
STF: Score prediction and why?
JC: 2-2 draw. Both sides know how to score, but I'm going to say the rivalry will bring chaos goals because neither side, nor their fans, can know peace.
Stumptown Footy’s answers to to Jacob’s questions:
Jacob Cristobal: The team had some coaching upheaval this off-season but new head coach Mike Norris has hit the ground running, with the team currently one point off the top of the table. What does he have the team doing that’s made them successful so far?
STF: I'd say Mike has done well in bringing some stability to a team that has faced a lot of upheaval. People have complained about him keeping the lineup largely the same but I think it helps the team adjust and grow from a fixed point. Lately, he's been mixing it up slowly which I think is a great decision at this point in the season -- subbing in newbies as well as giving other players the chance to shine in new positions (like Crystal Dunn in the midfield)
JC: Similar to the Reign with Lavelle, Portland has been missing a key USWNT player in Becky Sauerbrunn for several weeks now due to injury. How has the team adapted to her absence and who has been stepping up to fill those big shoes?
STF: I think we're really lucky to have a deep bench when it comes to the defense. We've got players like Emily Menges who are able to step up into kind of that leadership role that Becky brings. Kelli Hubly, Natalia Kuikka, and Meghan Klingenberg are also starters that are able to bring consistency. Another player who has really stepped up are Reyna Reyes. She just scored her first professional goal and has really been great on the wing.
JC: Recently it was announced that OL Reign are up for sale, joining the Thorns in that department. Have there been any updates on that front for Portland?
STF: Honestly, no haha. It's been relatively silent since the announcement in December. I wish I did have more information since I'd like to know as well.
JC: What do you think is the biggest question or concern about the Thorns roster when their international players are away at the World Cup?
STF: We have so much young talent that it'll be interesting to see how they can do without the veterans like Sinclair and Sauerbrunn around. I think if they can step up quickly and well it could be great to see, but.. I also could see it being tough being thrown in there all at once. So I guess honestly it could either go great or we could have too many players who have a lot of individual talent trying to come together in a cohesive way.
JC: What's your score prediction and why?
STF: Oof this is gonna be a tough one. Seattle has been on a run lately while Portland has been in a bit of a slump. Optimistically, I want to say 2-2 since the energy of a rivalry brings a lot. Realistically, I could see it ending 2-3 Seattle since it's at home.
What head coach Mike Norris has to say:
On preparing for the Derby:
“It’s the same so far. Prep work it the same, I’m sure it’ll feel different Saturday… we’re preparing for that, but I’m sure once I get there it’ll feel different”
On Laura Harvey’s Seattle side:
“They’re one of the most organized [teams] and they’re tactically structured… they’ve got individual talent within that as well, on top of that the local rivalry — the intensity is going to be there. I know we’re going to need to be well organized, it’s not just going to be a fight and a scrap, but we need to be ready for one. It’s going to be a street fight and we need to prepare well for that.”
On the short turnaround:
“You couldn't probably ask for a better game to end the three games. There was not much sleep last night with turnarounds. But you've just got to be really good at prioritizing what needs to be done and what's important.”
What are you expecting from Saturday? Any score predictions? Let us know in the comments!