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Thorns show how far NWSL has come
The way Seattle Reign coach Laura Harvey sees it, the evolution of the National Women's Soccer League is best captured by the Seattle-Portland rivalry.
"This rivalry is very special. It's the most intense that I've ever been involved with as a coach, and I've coached a club in London who was a big team," Harvey said after her Reign battled the Portland Thorns to a 2-2 draw on Saturday at Providence Park.
Harvey has coached the Reign from the start of the NWSL in 2013. Her teams in 2014 and 2015 went a combined 29-5-10 and finished atop the regular-season standings both years. They did it playing a possession-based style that buoyed the credibility of the new league.
"Not to blow our own trumpet, but the team we created in 2014-15 raised the bar, in my opinion," Harvey says. "I think it raised the bar on how the game could be played, and it also raised the bar on who we could attract to this league."
She points to Portland's roster, which includes French star Amandine Henry and previously has included Spain's Veronica Boquete, as examples of the caliber of player coming to the NWSL.
"I'm sure if you ask all the foreign players, this is the hardest league in the world, without a doubt," Harvey says.
Thorns coach Mark Parsons agrees that those Seattle teams were special.
"Go back to 2014 and 2015, the two best teams in the league were Kansas City and Seattle. They played the best attacking and possession soccer I think the country has seen at club level."
At the start of 2017, both Parsons and Harvey see a league with deeper rosters but with teams still learning how best to play together.
"Quality players can't get in (games). The individual quality is really high. The organization and the standard of soccer hasn't been great yet. It normally takes five or six games," Parsons says. "Across the whole league, it's been the transition game. It's been athletic. It's been fast. It's been press and play long."
Harvey agrees that teams are relying on the improving speed and athletic ability on rosters.
"Over the last year and leading into this season, it's gone a little bit more transitional and a little bit more long ball," Harvey says about the style of NWSL soccer. "It's not the way I love to play the game, but it's sometimes the way you have to play the game."
Saturday's game "was a really good example," she says. "We didn't want to (play long ball), and that is for me why we didn't win the game."
Seattle had to settle for a draw after leading for all but 10 minutes, because Allie Long came up big. Long beat Seattle's Carson Pickett to head home a Meghan Klingenberg cross for the tying goal in the 82nd minute and cap a second-half push from Portland.
Second-half surge: Seattle's pressure had Portland behind on the scoreboard and stuck in its own end for significant stretches of the first half.
Parsons then asked Lindsey Horan to push forward and help Christine Sinclair pressure Reign defenders. And the Thorns' pride kicked in at halftime, when Long says the talk was, "We cannot let them come in here to our home and physically think that they can just play around and do what they want. So we raised our level of physicality, we raised our level of pressure. We were chasing the game, so we knew we had to raise our game and just go."
Klingenberg key: In addition to her one-time cross to Long for the tying goal, Klingenberg was a difference-maker with her ability to negate Seattle's attempts to pressure the Thorns defense. The national team left back had missed the previous game and a half with hamstring tightness. Rookie Meghan Cox started her second consecutive match, but gave way to Klingenberg at halftime.
"It's great to have her back on the field, and that's not a knock on anyone else," Parsons says. "Having her do what she did tactically and technically got us out of our defensive third with positive first touches, and then her ability in the final third to create and combine — well, that was a great spark."
The Raso factor: The back injury that has prevented Tobin Heath from playing so far this season has forced changes to the way Portland attacks. Heath is one of the most gifted players with the ball at her feet. Hayley Raso is one of the fleetest forwards in the league.
"Raso's so good in behind, she's so fast, we want to get her in behind. Before Tobin got hurt, we wanted to keep the ball more," Long says.
"I thought Raso was outstanding. Last week, she was superb, (too)," Parsons says.
On Saturday, Raso's speed led to both Portland goals. In the first half and on the right side, Raso beat reigning NWSL defender of the year Lauren Barnes one-on-one before delivering the cross that resulted in an own goal off of Seattle's Jess Fishlock.
In the second half and on the left wing, Raso got free on the left wing and delivered a deep cross that deflected back to Klingenberg, who one-timed her cross for Long's goal.
Parsons on the offense: "It's been tough in the final third. Nadia (Nadim) is coming back from injury; we're building her minutes. Raso's had a few knocks. … We've been missing Tobin. We've got (Australian forward) Ashleigh Sykes coming in June. There's still hope that Savannah Jordan might turn up at one point. There's going to be a lot of quality in the final third in this team."
Jordan, who the Thorns drafted 18th overall in January, plays for Glasgow City in Scotland.
Franch big again: Among the four saves for Thorns goalkeeper Adrianne Franch were two that denied former University of Portland star Megan Rapinoe — a diving effort in the 77th minute and a sharp-angle chance in extra time.
Parsons says Franch's solid play is a reflection on the work of goalkeeper coach Nadine Angerer.
"I thought her feet were great tonight — long and short. And then her hands," Parsons says of Franch. "She made some big (saves) to keep us in the game."
Where they stand: At 2-1-1 (seven points), the Thorns are second in the NWSL behind 4-0-0 North Carolina (12 points). Three teams are one point behind Portland.
Next: The Thorns are on the road the next two weeks. They play at FC Kansas City at 1 p.m. PT Saturday and then visit Boston on May 19. The next home game is May 27 against Boston.