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ON SOCCER/BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Thorns have lots on line in matchup Friday with Reign

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Pesky Diego Chara (right) will be one of several well-rested Portland Timbers ready to go Saturday at home against Colorado.Let the real football season begin!

Not the tackle football league that this week begins playing games that count, but MLS, where the final quarter of the regular season will sort out the tight playoff race.

After getting four points out of last week's challenging three-game assignment, the Portland Timbers occupy sixth place in the Western Conference. They are tied with Seattle at 41 points, one more than seventh-place Vancouver.

Three of Portland's next four games are against teams below the playoff line, beginning with Saturday's 7:30 p.m. visit from a Colorado outfit that is next to last in the West.

The hamstring injury to first-choice goalkeeper Jeff Attinella aside, the Timbers should be primed to take advantage of this stretch. Coach Giovanni Savarese's decision to leave Diego Valeri, Diego Chara, Liam Ridgewell and Andy Polo home from last Saturday's quick trip to New England — and to not use Samuel Armenteros or Jorge Villafana in the 1-1 draw — should help those players be more productive during the stretch run.

Villafana's value was on display in the Aug. 29 win over Toronto FC that halted the Timbers' four-match losing run.

Villafana started next to Ridgewell for the first time since the 2015 MLS Cup final and looked right at home on the left side of Portland's defense.

Because it was his first match since June 9, Villafana did not bomb forward as much as he will once he gets his feet under him. But his competitiveness and defensive smarts were on display even when his legs were heavy in the later moments of his 80-minute return to Providence Park.

A smiling Villafana said he felt comfortable protecting Portland's left flank, particularly with Ridgewell to his right and Chara in front of him.

"I know how they like to play, how they move, what they like to do, so it made it easy for me," Villafana said.

The other returnee, Lucas Melano, has played with great energy in his first two appearances off the bench for the Timbers. That he might have scored twice already should be viewed as a positive sign for a Portland team seeking more productive scoring since the trade of Fanendo Adi.

Melano missed a golden chance to be the hero late in the match at New England. Sebastian Blanco's cross somehow eluded him a yard in front of an open goal. The job for Savarese is to make sure that moment doesn't weigh on Melano going forward, because the work rate Melano has played with over a short sample size is encouraging and seems to fit what Savarese wants from his forwards.

n On Sept. 1, Adi scored his first goal since his trade to FC Cincinnati — an 88th-minute winner that clinched a United Soccer League playoff berth for his new team.

n In other USL news, the turnaround season for Portland Timbers 2 continued on Sept. 1, when Victor Arboleda came off the bench to score three minutes into stoppage time for a 1-0 win over Saint Louis FC. Currently fifth in the USL Western Conference (eight teams make the playoffs), Portland plays two of its final six games at home, including a 2 p.m. Sunday match at Providence Park against last-place Tulsa.

Friday showdown for Thorns

Having rounded into playoff form and locked up a spot in the National Women's Soccer League semifinals, the Thorns on Friday figure to experience a playoff atmosphere at Providence Park.

If Portland beats Seattle in the 7 p.m. clash — something it has not accomplished this season — the Thorns will play host to the Reign in next week's semifinal playoff round. A draw means the Thorns play at Seattle in the semifinals.

A Reign win on Friday could open the door for Chicago to jump past Portland into third place (the Red Stars entered the week needing wins at home against Sky Blue on Tuesday and at Utah on Saturday for a chance to leapfrog the Thorns).

The fourth-place team has to travel to North Carolina to face the runaway regular-season champion Courage.

So Friday's match is essentially a playoff. With the NWSL championship battle set for Sept. 22 at Providence Park, the Thorns can play three home games over the next three weeks if they keep winning.

Which makes for nice drama and all, but the quality of soccer remains to be seen. Seven Thorns were away with their national teams since the team won at Washington on Aug. 24. Gone were Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan, Emily Sonnett and Adrianna Franch with the United States, Christine Sinclair with Canada, Ana Crnogorcevic with Switzerland and Andressinha with Brazil.

Seattle had six players absent during the international break, including regular starters Jodie Taylor, Jess Fishlock and Theresa Nielsen.

The internationals were expected back with their clubs by midweek, but with less than two days to recover and prepare mentally and physically for this showdown.

Such scheduling is hardly ideal for putting a quality product on display, but is a fact of life for the NWSL, which depends upon funding from U.S. Soccer to pay the salaries of national team players.

Heath has been particularly impressive down the stretch, with three goals and two assists over the Thorns' past four matches. Heath also took the corner kicks that resulted in two goals for the U.S. on Aug. 31 against Chile, a game in which she also earned a penalty kick.

An in-form Heath will help Portland weather the loss of Hayley Raso, who suffered a season-ending back injury in the Aug. 24 win at Washington. Also expected to help fill the Raso void is her fellow Australian attacker, Caitlin Foord.

n Seattle star and former Portland Pilots standout Megan Rapinoe did not play in the two U.S. friendlies against Chile, her status for Friday's showdown has been in doubt because of a broken rib.

Rapinoe, a native of Redding, California, recently partnered with U.S. Soccer and the Shasta Regional Community Foundation, using social media to help raise money for recovery from the Carr Fire that has ravaged parts of Northern California including Redding.

Lloyd focused on World Cup

One NWSL star who won't be seeing the playoffs is Carli Lloyd, whose Sky Blue FC entered the final week of the season without a win in 2018.

Despite that futility, Lloyd insists the season has not been wasted effort.

At age 36, Lloyd — two-time FIFA Women's Player of the Year — is determined to be a part of the U.S. national team for one more World Cup. Given the amount of talent available to coach Jill Ellis, Lloyd understands she must continue improving to earn a spot for next year's tournament in France.

After her Sky Blue FC team recently lost in Portland, Lloyd expressed her frustration at all the losing but said the season has still been productive.

"I feel that my game has evolved and continues to get better, although that may not seem to be to other people," Lloyd said following a 2-1 Thorns win on Aug. 22 at Providence Park. "At the end of the day, I know that I'm putting in the work and I'm doing all that I can and trying to lead by example."

A defiant sounding Lloyd said she is better than ever at reading the game and at moving without the ball. She insists that all of the losing with Sky Blue should not be shaping outside opinion about her play.

"I'm feeling fit, strong. If people want to talk age, they can talk age all they want. I've defied many, many odds my entire career and I will until the end. The only thing that I can do is continue to put in the work, which I will," Lloyd said.

Lloyd sounds confident she will earn her chance to contribute one more time for Team USA. And the way she played in last Friday's friendly against Chile — creating about a half-dozen scoring chances after coming on at forward at halftime — it is hard to imagine Team USA in France without Lloyd.

"(I will) continue to get better every single day. And I know when my time comes I'll be ready," she said. "I'm a winner. I'm a fighter. I've been on the world stage. I know how to get things done."

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