With two matches left in the regular season, Thorns FC travels to Orlando City Stadium to take on the Pride for the second time this season.
The Thorns (13-5-4) are coming off a somewhat-surprising 0-1 road win over the current holders of the Wooden Spoon that saw the Breakers outplay the visitors in every way except on the scoreline. From the kickoff Thorns FC looked stale, flat, and unprofitable in a match they were expected to post a comfortable result. Portland had to rely on scrambling defense, some horrific Boston finishing, and the hard graft of Hayley Raso and Christine Sinclair to see off Boston and secure Thorns FC’s fourth win in the last five and a home semifinal.
Orlando (10-6-6) has been the Cinderella story of the last half of the NWSL season. Since early August they have found the form anticipated since the acquisition of Marta, ripping out an undefeated seven-game run and climbing into playoff position - albeit tied on points with Chicago and below them on tiebreakers. The Pride’s last match was scoreless in Seattle until injury time when Morgan put the Pride up at 90+2. Only to have a 94th minute Fishlock strike claw back the two points and postpone Orlando’s trip to Cary (or Portland) in October.
Be advised: this is not the Orlando of match day one. Any thoughts of the Thorns’ Opening Day 2-0 win should be taken with extreme caution. The Orlando of April 15th was a cub. The Orlando of September 23 will be a lioness.
What’s at stake?
A role in deciding who they will play here on October 7th. Portland winning the Shield would require Carolina to nosedive, trailing flaming wreckage during the final month. However, a Thorns draw or win in Orlando, combined with a Houston loss to Chicago, would pull the Red Stars up to third and help book a semifinal date with a Chicago that has looked far less threatening to PTFC than either North Carolina or—at least on paper—Orlando. A win? Nice. A draw? Fine.
What seems just as important as the result, though, is rediscovering Thorns FC’s productive attack and pressing defense that went missing in Boston. A single off-form match is a blip. Two in a row might be construed as a bad omen for the onrushing post-season.
Simple: they will come into the match hanging onto the last playoff spot and need the win to lock it down. Chicago is playing away, but playing the Houston point-vending-machine, and seems likely to get at least a draw, barring complete implosion. On the other hand, the Pride are playing home, fighting for a playoff spot, and they’re on fire. Anything less than a win, even against the team two places above them, would seem like a loss.
Thorns Starting XI
If Tyler Lussi and Ashleigh Sykes remain on the disabled list, the Allie Long Striker Project seems likely to retain its funding for another match, despite the underwhelming results. It would be difficult to find a better argument for Mark Parsons’s use of her as a late-match substitute for Amandine Henry than her playing up top. Unfortunately, if Lussi and Sykes are still out, Dagny Brynjarsdottir’s hip flexors are still questionable, and Savannah Jordan yet to see real minutes, Long may be the only option to run out alongside Nadim and Raso.
The midfield of Sinclair, Henry, and Horan seems a lock. In the back, I suspect we will see Emily Menges return to duty from her bereavement leave, and that will be a great relief to Emily Sonnett, whose play against Boston was erratic without her partner-Emily. Menges’s return should move Katherine Reynolds and Meghan Klingenberg back to their regular positions and return Celeste Boureille to the bench.
A.D. Franch had a huge night in goal in Boston, and with her distribution problems apparently solved, the only real question at this point is why she hasn’t had a sniff at USWNT action.
Until this week the Thorns’ official timeline on the long-delayed return of Tobin Heath was “by the playoffs”. However, she played nearly 20 minutes for the U.S. against some tomato can (Fiji? Nauru? Some kind of Pacific island place, I’ll remember it in a moment, I swear) last Tuesday night and looked, if not magnificent, at least healthy. Coach Parsons stated after the USWNT match that Heath will travel to Orlando and play for “a short period.”
The Pride went 4-6-4 through early July, but with some odd outliers. They dropped points to teams like Sky Blue and Houston, but beat Carolina. Since then, however, Orlando is on a tear: 14 points from six games and undefeated over most of July and August. As I noted above, the “Sudden Ascendance of Orlando” has been the story of the last month of the NWSL season.
But Orlando’s five wins during this stretch have been over Washington, Sky Blue, Boston, FC Kansas City, and Boston again.
Orlando has scored more goals than any other team in the league—42—but almost two-thirds of those have come in bunches of three or more, and of those 26 goals, eight came at the expense of the woeful Breakers.
The Pride have had difficulty scoring against good opponents; the two draws in those six most recent games? 1-1 in both Chicago at home and Seattle away. Against teams with a better record, Orlando has scored only four goals in six games, including going scoreless against Portland and Chicago.
The partnership of Morgan and Marta has made probably the single most critical difference for Orlando’s form. With 21 goals between them, Marta, in particular, continues to show why she’s among the best players in the women’s game. Her overall conversion rate is 27%, but when she gets a good look at goal she’s a sniper: 12 goals on 24 SOG, only two of which came from the penalty spot.
Add in Morgan’s nine goals, Camila’s four, and Spencer’s three along with Marta’s eight assists and Camila’s five, and the Orlando attack has to be keeping Portland coaches and defenders up at night.
Orlando’s vulnerability is likely to be in the back. The Pride’s 29 goals conceded places them by far the worst of the top four teams and barely above sad acts like Boston and FCKC. On paper, their back four of Steph Catley, Ali Krieger, Monica, and Camila looks solid, but Ashlyn Harris has struggled in goal this season and both the Brazilians and Catley are required to push upfield, which can leave them vulnerable to being caught on the counter.
What to Expect
Both teams have had two weeks to rest, while both had players in action during the international friendlies between September 16th and 19th, but the time off was unevenly distributed.
Portland’s Horan played 74 minutes, and Long played half an hour for the USWNT against New Zealand on the 16th, while Hayley Raso came on in the 71st minute for Australia against Brazil. Orlando’s Alex Morgan played the second half for the USWNT; Catley and Marta saw the full 90 for their national teams.
On September 19th, Horan went nearly an hour, Raso a full half, and Heath the aforementioned 18 minutes. Again, Orlando’s Marta and Catley played their full matches while Alex Morgan played only the second half.
With two full matches in seven days, Marta and Catley may be feeling more than a little gassed on Saturday and Horan a trifle jaded. But the remainder of the two sides should be in fighting trim.
This game has to be seen as a preview for a likely semifinal matchup and, as such, will be both a test and a form of scouting for both teams. Both teams’ rosters and tactics have changed significantly since April. Both will be looking to find the others’ weaknesses and work out the most advantageous matchups not just for this match, but for a possible meeting in the first week of October or even in the final.
To win, Portland needs to generate chances and hammer shots on Orlando’s suspect defense. That means possession—Thorns FC saw less than 50% of the ball and completed a wretched 64.9% of their passes in Boston—and finishing. Portland’s top scorer (Sinclair) converts less than 19% of her total shots (and only 25% of her SOG); Nadim converts less than 25% (5% from the run of play). Only Raso has a conversion rate better than 30% and that just barely (she buried five of her 15 shots, although since eight of those shots were on goal, her finishing comes out as a nifty 62.5% of her SOG).
The Thorns’ finishing needs to improve, and Orlando would be a good place to improve it.
For Orlando, the opposite is true; Orlando needs to run lavishly at Portland and get Marta and Morgan behind the defense. Try and play through the middle, and the Pride are likely to find, assuming that Sinclair and Henry and Horan do their jobs and the Great Wall of Emily is rock-steady, that tiki-taka against Thorns FC is a mug’s game. Going Route One, however, might just catch the Portland defense napping; nick a quick goal and then Orlando can loll about in the muggy September heat and play whack-a-Thorn all afternoon.
The keys to victory in this match seem straightforward. But could Sermanni or Parsons attempt to sandbag this match to set up a surprise for the playoffs? Could we see something unusual, or unexpected?
For Orlando, it would seem far too risky; even a draw might make the unpleasant prospect of a semifinal trip to Cary too likely for Sermanni to consider anything cute. My guess is that he will simply send his lionesses out to hunt and kill.
But would Parsons intentionally fiddle with his XI, or his tactics, to try and kid Sermanni into seeing something that won’t be there in two weeks? The 2016 semifinal result seems to suggest that the more an opposing coach, and team, sees of a Parsons’ Thorns the better they get at defeating them. Parsons’s reputation is as a coach who excels in the season but stumbles in the playoffs. Might the Thorns boss try something sneaky for this match, given that his team doesn’t “need” the win in the same way Orlando does?
Watch it on: Lifetime
When: Saturday, September 23 at 12:30 p.m. PT (currently the Lifetime schedule shows no pregame show; the match kicks off at 12:30)
Where: Orlando City Field in Orlando, FL
Portland Thorns: 13-5-4, 2nd place in the NWSL, 0-1 win at Boston
Orlando Pride: 10-6-6, 4th place in the NWSL, 1-1 draw at Seattle