Playoffs are here and now for Thorns

Team not worried about past struggles on the road

By Paul Danzer, Columbian community sports reporter

Published:

 

In one respect, at least, Paul Riley is not interested in the past.

The Portland Thorns coach said that his team's recent struggles away from home — three losses and three draws in their last six road matches — won't factored into Saturday's 10 a.m. National Women's Soccer League semifinal match at FC Kansas City. The memory Riley is promoting is Sunday's 1-0 home win over Seattle that propelled Portland into these playoffs.

"That's what built the confidence this week," Riley said of the win over the league's top team. "That's what the locker room's been about. That's what I've been about. And we've been going about our business (believing) that we are the best team in the world right now.

"Nothing else that happened before matters at this point."

That history includes last season's semifinal match, which the Thorns won 3-2 at Kansas City — overcoming a 2-0 deficit to win in overtime. That match was played in 90-degree weather in Overland Park, Kansas. FC Kansas City now plays at 3,200-seat Durwood Stadium at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. But the weather figures to be similarly sticky.

Portland won two of the three games between the teams this season, losing 1-0 at Kansas City on June 28 and winning twice at home — including a 7-1 win at Providence Park on July 13 that was an exception in a rivalry that has featured tight games over the two NWSL seasons.

Riley sees Kansas City as a similar team to his, one that prefers to play possession soccer while also pressuring when the opponent has the ball.

"I think we both play a similar style of soccer," Thorns defender Rachel Van Hollebeke said. "We like to possess, we have very talented midfields and front lines."

Both Portland and Kansas City scored 39 goals in their 24 regular-season games. Kansas City allowed 32 goals, Portland 35. The match features the four players with the most shots on goal this season in Portland's Christine Sinclair (40) and Alex Morgan (36 in only 14 games) and Kansas City's Amy Rodriguez (38) and Lauren Holiday (35).

Rodriguez was second in the league with 13 goals and Holiday was tied for second in assists with seven.

A seven-game win streak at midseason propelled Kansas City to second place. Kansas City has not played since Aug. 9, the final game of a busy stretch of five games in 14 days.

Riley said he's glad his team is entering Saturday's match having performed under playoff-like pressure to beat Seattle.

Portland's most hectic stretch came in July, when the team played seven matches, four on the road. Van Hollebeke said that schedule was difficult and might have contributed to Portland's late-season struggles away from home.

"Hopefully we'll be a little fresher," she said.

This is not the same Thorns team that won twice on the road in the playoffs last season. Riley was not the coach last season. Only seven of the players available for Portland on Saturday were on the team that won the 2013 NWSL title after finishing third in the regular season.

Riley, in fact, knows some of the key Kansas City players at least as well as he knows his current players. Several of them played for Riley's Philadelphia team in Women's Pro Soccer.

"Half their lineup played for me in Philadelphia, so I know their mental state, I know their physical state," Riley said. "I'm hoping I play on their mind a little bit in the locker room before the game," Riley said, noting that the Kansas City players might be wondering "What's Paul saying about me now in that other locker room right now?"