There’s really no telling which Portland Thorns team will show up in Kansas City on Saturday.
The Thorns have been Jekyll and Hyde this year, exploding to some victories to show their potential (6-1 over Washington, 7-1 over FC Kansas City, 6-3 over Boston) and being embarrassed on other occasions by teams that didn’t even make the playoffs (two road losses to Boston, and a 5-0 home loss to Western New York).
But much like last year, Portland did enough to earn the No. 3 seed in the playoffs and a semifinal in Kansas City.
“It was a season that was not so easy, with plenty of ups and downs,” midfielder Veronica Boquete said. “It was hard for every player and everyone on the staff to find a way to be in these playoffs, but now we are here and we feel strong.”
Last season, under then coach Cindy Parlow Cone, Portland clicked at the right time and won a championship. This year, under Paul Riley, hopes the Thorns have perfect timing once again.
“It’s about putting your chances away,” he said. “I think the two teams are pretty evenly matched and it’s going to come down to those big moments again. We’ve been inefficient in a lot of big moments this year and hopefully we can become efficient real quick to get the job done.”
How that job gets done is the question. Riley began the year by openly discussing how the Thorns’ goal was, above all, to outscore the opponent, even if it meant getting into high-scoring shootouts. A 6-3 win? The three points count the same.
But there was a distinctly more gritty, disciplined Thorns team on the field in Sunday’s win over Seattle, leading to a rare 1-0 result for Portland. Riley’s mindset has clearly shifted with the arrival of the postseason, too. He feels that getting into a wide-open match with FC Kansas City would be a mistake.
“This is not going to be a slugfest, I don’t think,” Riley said. “We said going into the Seattle game, we thought if it was a slugfest, we’d probably get beat. We need to keep the game tight, which is unusual for us. We’ve opened a lot of games up this year, but now it’s playoff time, and everything is on the line.”
Despite 13 new players on the roster, the similarities between last year’s Thorns team and 2014 are striking: inconsistent results, waiting for players to arrive midway through the season, and injuries down the stretch.
Alex Morgan was hurt late last season, a knee injury suffered August 7, 2013, in Boston. She was forced into a reserve role during the playoffs. This year question marks surround left back Stephanie Catley, who missed the Reign match with a foot sprain. And Nikki Marshall, who has started every match the Thorns have ever played, tore her ACL in that one, and her streak will end this weekend.
Midfielder Tobin Heath is still not 100 percent despite playing 66 minutes on Sunday, when the Thorns beat Seattle in a must-win game to clinch a playoff spot. Heath has been dealing with an LCL sprain in her right knee.
She had a more mysterious right foot injury heading into the 2013 championship game, and didn’t practice the entire week leading up to the match. And then she stepped up and hit a world-class free kick with the injured foot to win Portland a title.
“It would be better if she were 100 percent, but I think a 70, 80 percent Tobin might be better than a lot of other teams have on their field,” Riley said.
Riley and the Thorns will be hoping the 2014 postseason plays out just like 2013 one did.
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