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Weekend preview: Northwest rivalry debuts

Christine Sinclair, Portland Thorns FC
Christine Sinclair, Portland Thorns FC

Portland Thorns FC forward Christine Sinclair speaks after an opening weekend draw vs. Kansas City. (Photo Copyright Thad Bell for www.womens.soccerly.com | http://www.tpbphoto.com/)

Week 2 in the National Women’s Soccer League will only feature two games, one on Saturday and one on Sunday. Sky Blue FC and the Chicago Red Stars were slated to have the week off, and the FC Kansas City vs. Boston Breakers was postponed due to the now concluded Boston-area manhunt that put a lockdown on the entire Boston metropolitan area.

Seattle Reign FC (0-0-1) at Portland Thorns FC (0-0-1)
Sunday, 5 p.m. EDT — LIVESTREAM
JELD-WEN Field
Series:  First meeting

By Richard Farley

The National Women’s Soccer League drew 13,284 people to four games during its opening weekend. On Sunday, Thorns FC are expected to draw at least 14,000 to the club’s home opener, and if the uncovered sections at the top of JELD-WEN Field’s north end are any indication, that number could climb north of 15,000 before Portland kicks off against Seattle.

It will be the first test of the league’s marquee market, one that’s considered small by other major sports league’s standards. Even compared to other NWSL markets like Boston and Chicago, Portland’s hardly big, but Thorns FC’s home has certain built-in advantages. With a season ticket base eclipsing 7,000, Portland benefits from being the NWSL’s only franchise linked with a Major League Soccer team, an edge which means a world-class facility, an established and rabid fan base, and an advantage when competing for talent with similarly low-budgeted teams.

Add in the fortuitous allocation that gave Thorns FC Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair and Portland’s home opener was bound to be one of the more anticipated events on the NWSL calendar, one that would have drawn a stand out crowd regardless of opponent. That Sunday’s game happens to be against Seattle gives the NWSL its first sampling of what’s expected to be an obligatory regional rivalry.

“Seattle and Portland always have a great rivalry,” Morgan said earlier this week. “I’ve seen it with the Timbers and the Sounders, and I’m going to be able to experience this year with the Thorns and the Reign.

“It’s just the way it is, isn’t it?”

Last year, Morgan was on the other side of the divide, spending the summer with the Sounders Women in the W-League. That she was surprisingly allocated to the Thorns was a minor shock to Seattle fans expecting the league’s biggest star to return to King County. Add in Portland-favorite Megan Rapinoe’s assignment to Reign FC and the NWSL had an early start on replicating Cascadia’s biggest conflict.

But regardless of history, geographic proximity, or the competitive animus that may translate from Major League Soccer’s Sounders-Timbers dynamic, the buildup to Sunday’s game is plagued but one pesky detail: The Thorns and Reign have never played a game. Can two teams have a rivalry before they’ve ever met on the field?

“I don’t know,” Thorns head coach Cindy Parlow Cone conceded, teasing when asked about the rivalry. “Don’t you guys (the media) set up the rivalries more so than we do … [It’s] the fans and the media.”

Rivalries have to start somewhere. This one kicks off on Sunday.

Quick Look: Top flight women’s soccer is set to arrive in the Pacific Northwest and the first women’s version of the Cascadia Derby is shaping up to be quite the spectacle.  The Thorns have already sold more than 7,000 season tickets—only one of the other six NWSL venues even holds that many—and are expecting a crowd in the vicinity of twice that figure.  Regardless of the match’s quality it is certain to break new ground for the sport.

Tactical Short: Jessica Fishlock and Keelin Winters were solid winning balls in midfield last week in Chicago, a job made more difficult by the Reign’s inability to sustain anything in their own attack.  That job gets tougher this weekend with Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair up top for the Thorns, but the question will be whether or not the Reign can maintain any sort of dangerous possession.

Western New York Flash (0-1-0) at Washington Spirit (0-0-1)
Saturday, 7 p.m. EDT — LIVESTREAM
Maryland SoccerPlex
Series:  First meeting

By Jennifer Gordon

It’s been over two and half years since the last professional women’s soccer match was played in D.C.  This Saturday, that drought will end as the newly minted Washington Spirit will play their first home match of the season against the Western New York Flash.

The Washington Spirit have been busy creating an identity separate from the area’s first professional team, the Washington Freedom.  After some speculation that the new franchise would adopt the Freedom name, the new team decided to adopt a different moniker.  After months of developing the franchise, the team is ready for their home opener.

Washington drew 1-1 with Boston on the road on opening weekend.

And now the last vestiges of the former franchise are being erased from the Spirit’s home field, the Maryland Soccerplex.  A new scoreboard has been installed with the new team’s name and sponsors replacing the old one which the contained the Washington Freedom name and logo. Perhaps it makes sense to erase reminders of past the professional league failures and turn a new page.

Fans won’t have to look far on Saturday to find a connection to the area’s women soccer past however as players from the former franchise can be found both teams’ rosters.  Most notably, Saturday’s game will mark the return of US national team superstar Abby Wambach, who will suit up from the visiting Flash. Wambach started her professional career in D.C. alongside Mia Hamm, the women’s soccer legend who’s international goals mark Wambach is on track to break.

On the other side of the pitch, all three players allocated to the Spirit from the US national team pool have connections to the Washington Freedom. Lori Lindsey, Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris all played for the Freedom at different points over the last decade.

Lindsey and company will look to build off their 1-1 draw against Boston last Sunday as the Spirit look to prove early season naysayers wrong.

The Spirit’s defense, however, held Boston’s dangerous attack scoreless until stoppage time and the Spirit’s young offensive duo, Tiffany McCarty and Stephanie Ochs combined to record a goal. The Spirit defense will have to record another outstanding performance if they hope to secure a win against Wambach and the Flash.

Spirit Head Coach Mike Jorden commented that his defense will “try to press a little higher” to keep the Flash offense from getting the ball and also do what they can to keep Wambach from getting on the end of crosses and set pieces.

That’s what Sky Blue FC did last week in a 1-0 win over the Flash, which left Western New York feeling like they missed out on at least a point.

“I thought we created enough chances away from home to at least take a point away from that one,” Flash coach Aaran Lines said after the game.

The Flash are uncharacteristically at the bottom of the table after dropping their first game last weekend.   In the past three seasons, the Western New York Flash have won three championships in three different leagues. Western New York will look to Saturday’s game to get back to their winning ways.

On a media call Thursday afternoon, Lindsey alluded to the Flash’s winning pedigree.

“There is a winning mentality up there and they want to win,” said Lindsey, who played in Western New York last year in the WPSL Elite League. “I think he is an organized coach, so they’ll bring competitiveness and organization to this game. They’ll definitely fight after losing Sunday…. I think it will be a dogfight for sure. “

Quick Look: The Spirit will play the first match hosted by a women’s pro team at the SoccerPlex since the end of the 2010 Washington Freedom season, and they will do it against Wambach, a staple on the Freedom teams in both WPS and WUSA.  They nearly came to the match off an opening day win but a stoppage time goal reduced them to a draw.  The Flash meanwhile were the only team to lose their opener and did so in a particularly painful way, conceding an own goal while missing a penalty and last second sitter.

Tactical Short: The Spirit have a rather diminutive back line which will put the onus on the defensive midfield to prevent the Flash from serving it to Wambach in the air.  Attention, Lori Lindsey.

Boston Breakers (0-0-1) at FC Kansas City (0-0-1)
POSTPONED
Shawnee Mission District Stadium
Series:  First meeting

By Thad Bell

The Breakers never made it out of Boston on Friday to get out to Kansas City for the match. Although Logan International remained open, the Breakers never got on the plane and the NWSL announced that their match with the Blues had been postponed until a date not yet determined.

FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andovski said that his team is “looking good, little bumps and bruises” following opening weekend’s 1-1 draw with Portland.

NWSL’s first goal scorer Renae Cuéllar had a little flu bug earlier in the week but returned to practice and got back up to speed fairly quickly.

Merritt Mathias was carried off during last week’s match but it was just cramps. She was walking around with no problems after the match Saturday.

Nicole Barnhart caught a cleat on the arm in the incident that led to a penalty kick last match but Andonovski said she would have been ready. “It hurts a little bit but she is a warrior and she is ready, she is always ready.”

Sinead Farrelly was expected to start last weekend for FC Kansas City but the team found out late Friday that she had not received clearance to play. Apparently she had not been released by Apollon Limassol, her former team in Cyprus. It was an oversight in paperwork by the teams and league but she had to sit and watch as Casey Loyd started in her place.

“All week I was training for that game, I heard it was sold out and it would have been awesome to be in the game but there was nothing I could do,” said Farrelly. “It was more like confusion and shock, I didn’t hear about until the day before, it was just out of nowhere. To be on the bench and cheer on my team, especially when they scored, we were all freaking out it was so exciting.”

Farrelly is now clear to play.

Note:  Chicago Red Stars and Sky Blue FC do not play this weekend, as originally scheduled.

Additional reporting from Dan Lauletta and Jeff Kassouf.

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