It’s hard to over-sell a regular season game in the National Women’s Soccer League in early May, just one-sixth of the way into the season of a league built off parity.
But Saturday’s matchup between Portland Thorns FC and Seattle Reign FC is the most important non-playoff game to date in the second season of the fledgling league.
With a win, first-place Seattle (5-0-0, 15 pts.) would go a full 10 points clear of second-place Portland (2-0-2, 8 pts.). Sure, there’s a long way to go in the season, but that gap is significant, and no other team this weekend would be able to get any closer than 8 points adrift of Seattle if the Reign win. A Seattle loss, however, will tighten the table — considerably if the Western New York Flash and FC Kansas City also win.
So this Cascadia game — which might just finally feel like a rivalry after Portland won all four meetings last year — is huge for Portland and the rest of the league. Thorns coach Paul Riley, however, is deflecting the pressure, building the “us against the world” mentality he’s trying to instill into his team.
“Most of the pressure is on them, not us…they have 15 points and we only have 8 points,” Riley said Friday. “They are fully-loaded and they’ve got most of their players in. We’re still trying to get some players in. Some of the young kids are doing well for us, but it’s a big step (Saturday) and we’ll have to be at our best to get the points.”
Riley’s is right in saying that the title will be won in July and August, not April and May, but if Seattle goes 10 points clear, this season could start looking like LA Sol 2009/FC Gold Pride 2010/WNY Flash 2011 of WPS: a front-runner and the rest of the pack. Riley knows that scenario all too well, as he led the chasing pack with Philadelphia in 2010 and 2011.
Seattle will be without Nahmoi Kawasumi, and Jess Fishlock could be fatigued after flying back from World Cup qualifying in Wales, but the real factor could be the crowd at Providence Park in Portland.
“To be honest with you, you should try and calm them down as a coach, but I’m going to go into the locker room and fire them up (Saturday),” Riley said. “I think that they are ready to go, and I think they are excited to get on the field. I think the energy level could get us through, from the crowd and from our own energy.”
And it wouldn’t be a budding rivalry without a little chatter:
“The schedule gods were very kind to them, so they got them in a good position and they are the favorites (Saturday) night, but they are coming into our home and I think it’s going to be a very difficult game for them.”
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