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Storylines: Orlando Pride at Portland Thorns

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Jeremy Reper/ISI Photos

Three games to go.

This Saturday the Orlando Pride come to Portland for the first of two semifinal matches kicking off that weekend.

The Thorns (14-5-5) earned their home semifinal several weeks ago and enter it coming off a 3-1 home win over the Chicago Red Stars. That match saw Chicago head coach Rory Dames rest most of his starting lineup. Whether this was meant to simply give his starters a breather, or whether Dames was really playing some sort of incomprehensible playoff-position strategy, the Chicago gaffer isn’t saying. If it was a cunning plan it worked like a mechanical ass-kicker, bringing Orlando here and sending Chicago to meet North Carolina in Cary.

Orlando (11-6-7) clawed their way into third place on the table, and their semifinal date here, in the 92nd minute of their final regular season match with North Carolina, where Alanna Kennedy scored to down the Courage 2-3. Other than the result itself, the single most critical moment of the match was in the 35th minute, when Orlando midfielder Camila went down with what turned out to be an ACL tear and had to be subbed off. Camila’s injury will keep her out of the semifinal and take a powerful piece off the board for Tom Sermanni’s Pride.

What’s at stake?

A trip to the final match in Orlando.

Win and go on. Lose and go home. It’s that simple.

Thorns Starting XI

Perhaps the most pleasant dilemma Mark Parsons has to face is choosing his starters for this Saturday.

The regular starting Thorns are, in the main, healthy, and the starting XI against Chicago would be easy to pencil in again. But based on their second-half appearances against Chicago on Saturday, Dagny Brynjarsdottir, Tobin Heath, and Allie Long could also fit into the starting XI easily.

One hint to Parsons’ XI might be the Thorns’ performance in their last meeting in Orlando. Here are the player PMRs for that match:

  • Raso: +14/-7
  • Sykes: +12/-4
  • Nadim (60’) +15/-4
  • Sinclair +11/-6
  • Horan +15/-8
  • Heath (30’) +9/-5
  • Long (60’) +9/-4
  • Henry (30’) +7/-2
  • Klingenberg +8/-6
  • Menges +19/-9
  • Sonnett +11/-4
  • Reynolds +11/-5

The defense seems set; A.D. Franch is a lock to start in goal, and even Klingenberg—who had the roughest time in Orlando—still has to be considered a sure start over any of the bench players.

In the midfield Horan seems a given, and it’s hard to imagine not starting Sinclair, so the real question is: does Heath start over Henry? I think that depends on whether Parsons is more worried about conceding goals or scoring them.

In Orlando, the Thorns looked unlikely to score for most of the match. Heath’s entrance made the Portland attack look more dangerous, and if the Thorns have had a real shortcoming this season it has been making goals, not denying them.

So. If it was up to me I would go with Heath and hope to score early. That, in turn, makes the choice of starting forwards a trifle tricky.

Despite her gaudy PMR, a lot of Nadim’s value in Orlando was defensive, and if Parsons’ intent is to go a goal up quickly, I’m not sure she’s the weapon of choice. A front line of Brynjarsdottir left, Raso central, and Sykes right might create more chances.

On the other hand, leaving Henry out of midfield might make having a tough two-way player like Nadim up front more appealing.

Still, all things considered, that’s a good problem to have.

Laughing in the Purple Rain

Sermanni has a pack of attacking lionesses to send out to hunt Thorns. The choice of Morgan at striker is as obvious as the rains down in Africa. Behind her Marta will be fresher than she was in August, and Chioma Ubogagu seems a certainty.

Camila leaves a large hole in midfield to fill, however, without an obvious replacement. Rachel Hill, who came on after Camila’s injury, is unlikely to replace her offensive value. Could Sermanni choose to run out Jasmyne Spencer alongside Morgan? Spencer hasn’t played a full 90 minutes since May, and a playoff match might seem a chancy time to try that again.

Behind the attackers, the Orlando defense doesn’t have as many attractive options as up front. The DM pairing of Dani Weatherholt and Alanna Kennedy seems a sure thing, and any starters other than the backline of Steph Catley-Ali Krieger-Monica-Kristen Edmonds in front of Ashlyn Harris in goal would be surprising.

What to Expect

From Orlando? Fireworks, would be my guess.

Orlando works best when their midfield works the ball up to where they can get Marta or Ubogagu open for a quick strike, or a long forward pass up to Morgan running through the opponents’ backline. When the Pride is on form goals can come suddenly, and in bunches.

We know Orlando is going to shoot a lot; over the regular season the Pride took 261 shots and put 134 of them on frame, scoring 45 goals, the most in the league. That translates into a conversion 17% of the time a player in purple took a shot, and 33.5% of the time that player shot on target.

I’d expect Orlando to go direct up to Morgan whenever possible, using her to push the Thorns’ defenders back and open space above the 18-yard box for Marta, Spencer, and/or Ubogagu.

From Portland? Patience.

Portland’s 226 attempts rank second to last in the league. The Thorns put 109 of those attempts—48%—on target.

But when you look at the conversion-to-shot ratio, Portland is just a fraction less productive—16.4%—per shot than Orlando, and a fraction better at converting—33.9%—per shot on goal.

Fewer overall shots and shots on goal but slightly more goals per shot on goal is likely the product of Thorns FC’s preferred style; lots of possession and very dependent on tough defending to keep the match within reach.

So we’re likely to see what we’ve seen a lot of this season; Raso and Sykes running the channels, Sinc pulling strings from the top of midfield, with Heath creating as well as threatening from her AM/winger/withdrawn forward (when you’re Heath your “position” tends to be whatever you want it to be at the moment) and service coming up from Horan and the fullbacks. Lots of short passes and movement to get into good position before shooting.

My guess is that the overall shape of the match will depend on whether Orlando can get an early goal.

If so, Portland will be forced out of their patient attack and have to scramble, and the game may become a wild rumpus.

If not, the match may very well look like the last meeting in Orlando, low-scoring, with Orlando hammering at Portland’s defense and Portland playing rope-a-dope looking to score on a counterattack. Whether that will happen, in turn, will depend on how well Portland forechecks and breaks up Orlando attacks inside the Pride’s half of the field.

Are there any other factors to consider?

Yes.

PRO has assigned a very inexperienced official as the center referee.

Timothy Ford’s professional experience consists of a total of less than a dozen matches. His work in the middle for the Sky Blue match here in June was utterly shambolic.

After the disgrace that was Marco Vega in last season’s semifinal I had thought the NWSL would have at least tried to ensure the most experienced (if not the “best”) officiating crews working the semifinals and final. Based on this jamoke apparently that’s not the case.

If his work in the Sky Blue match is any indicator Ford is also a “let ‘em play” referee, so the possibility that the coming match may degenerate into a hockey game is not out of the question.

Let’s hope not.

The Final Words.

Many of Thorns who played and lost the 2016 semifinal will be on the field Saturday.

Tobin Heath as quoted at NWSL.com as saying that she sees the coming match as “redemption” for that wrenching loss to Western New York. In that interview Heath laid down her dictum for this Saturday’s game:

“We’re not letting what happened last year happen again.”