As the NWSL regular season winds to a close, Seattle Reign FC and Portland Thorns FC are set up for an epic finale. The league’s most heated rivals meet tonight at 7:00 p.m. PT, with the match at Providence Park carrying enormous stakes. The winner will clinch second place in the NWSL table, and in turn gets to host a semifinal playoff game in their home stadium. Should the teams play to a draw, Seattle retains its second-place spot and hosts Portland the following weekend on UW Medicine Pitch at Memorial Stadium.
Needing anything but a loss to play a postseason game in Seattle, Reign FC will look to its defense to keep the potent Portland offense at bay. Few people on the team have a better understanding — or view — of Reign FC’s historic defense than goalkeeper Lydia Williams. As the league-leader in clean sheets, Williams has worked in concert with a gifted group of defenders to frustrate opposing attackers all season.
“The defense that we have takes pride in not allowing goals and not allowing other teams to have an easy time breaking us down,” Williams said. “Everyone in the defensive line respects each other and works together. We all want each other to get better and individually learn and develop.”
In its first year playing for head coach Vlatko Andonovski, Seattle has undergone a defensive transformation. After taking over a team that allowed 37 goals in 2017, Andonovski and the club have allowed just 16 heading into the final fixture. This season has seen the team post two different shutout streaks of at least three matches, including a stretch of 519 minutes from July 21 to August 25 in which the team did not concede a goal. All of this comes despite six new defenders (Yael Averbuch, Steph Catley, Alyssa Kleiner, Theresa Nielsen, Megan Oyster, and Christen Westphal) on top of the change in coaching staff.
Williams says the eclectic defensive group has allowed the team to grow and gel with each other through the rigors of a long season.
“It’s hard with players coming in and out and different nationalities,” Williams admitted. “But it shows how mature our team is and how we’ve adapted to that.”
On Friday night in Portland, the team will be forced to adapt to a Thorns attack featuring U.S. Women’s National Team standouts Tobin Heath and Lindsey Horan, as well as one of the best goal scorers of all time in Christine Sinclair. The international soccer superstars — paired with the ferocious rivalry — always makes for an exciting 90 minutes when Seattle and Portland share the pitch.
“It’s not easy to play against them,” Andonovski said. “Tobin Heath is playing some of the best soccer of her career, but I don’t think there will be one player that we specifically need to stop. We need to do it as a team to make it difficult for them and limit the 1-vs-1 chances.”
While the match certainly carries massive postseason implications, Reign FC players are relishing an opportunity to participate in one of America’s premiere soccer showdowns.
“Playing in Portland against Portland is always a lot of fun,” midfielder Jess Fishlock said. “We know exactly what to expect. We’re just going to go down there and do our jobs to the best of our abilities. Hopefully we can bring home a semifinal.”
Seattle is the only NWSL home Fishlock has known, and she’s been with Reign FC for all 18 of its Cascadia clashes. With such a rich history between the two sides, Fishlock struggled to pinpoint one exact moment to call her favorite.
“Let me get my list out,” Fishlock joked. “The game we won [in 2014] 1–0 when Kimmy scored. That was a great game. The game that was 2–2 [in 2017] was a great game, when I scored a goal and then scored an own goal. That was a fun game to be a part of too. Obviously, the 3–2 win we had was an epic game of attack and goals. The 5–0 we had at home [in 2014] was brilliant. Basically, all the games we’ve won have given me a good memory.”
A handful of players around the league, including Seattle defender Alyssa Kleiner, have made memories from both sides of the Seattle-Portland rivalry.
“It has been such an awesome experience getting to play for both Seattle Reign FC and Portland Thorns FC,” Kleiner shared. “The rivalry is there because both teams have a huge fan base that is just so dedicated to contributing to their team’s success. It sets a great example for the rest of the league in building women’s soccer as a whole.”
As both sides prepare for their biggest game of the season thus far, Seattle is confident in the approach that has kept them near the top of the table all year.
“Vlatko is very detail-oriented when it comes to defense,” Williams said. “We work a lot on how we want to defend and how to start the attack. I think that’s the great thing about how we play, we want to start the attack and possession from the back.”
In addition to the impact on the playoff picture, Friday’s game could also potentially impact the NWSL record book. Should Seattle allow three or fewer goals, the club will set a new single-season record for fewest goals conceded, as well as set a new mark for best goals against average. If Reign FC keeps the Thorns from scoring at all, Seattle will hold the record for most clean sheets in a season (13).
“As a team, we have done a phenomenal job defending,” Kleiner said. “Vlatko always talks about how it is a mindset, and it truly is. Being disciplined comes along with that. We buy into the process and I believe that is what has made us so successful this season.”
Fans hoping to see how the match unfolds can watch the action on the Lifetime Network. For the second time this season, Seattle and Portland will be featured as the network’s Game of the Week.
“I would expect nothing less than a full house,” Kleiner said. “This game decides home field advantage for the playoffs. Portland will definitely have their game faces on along with the army that stands behind them. But the good thing is, we know the environment and will have an army of our own.”