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Storylines: Portland Thorns at Orlando Pride

Orlando and Portland meet with playoff momentum on the line.

Kris Lattimore

The Portland Thorns (8-6-5) continue their East Coast road trip, heading down to Florida to face the Orlando Pride (8-6-6). Orlando and Portland have split their past two games, but they haven’t played against each other since May. After the loss away at North Carolina, the Thorns aren’t in control of their playoff destiny anymore; however, most of their playoff opponents also have to play North Carolina as well, and the rest of the Thorns schedule looks beatable. It’s up to the Thorns to execute and take care of the things they can take care of.

Starting XI

The first choice selection for the Thorns finally feels set. With the Thorns’ injury report free of anything except Meg Morris’ and Katherine Reynolds’ season-ending injuries, the team more or less picks itself: Adrianna Franch is the starting goalkeeper. The midfield of Sinclair-Horan-Boureille is locked in. The Emilys aren’t getting dislodged from central defense. Tobin Heath and Hayley Raso are clear starting wingers, with Crnogorcevic switching with them from the striker position. Caitlin Foord may eventually have something to say about all this, but she’s still working her way back to fitness after a long-term injury and will most likely remain an impact sub for the next few weeks.

The only real selection questions at the moment are at fullback. Ellie Carpenter was allowed a week of rest last game after playing 270 minutes for her country in the Tournament of Nations, but with her and Midge Purce both healthy and in form, there’s a legitimate competition at right back. It’s possible that one of the two will eventually slot in at left back for Meghan Klingenberg, a combination that was deployed to such devastating effectiveness at home against the Utah Royals. Parsons might still be holding that particular card closer to the chest to deploy it during the playoffs, though.

Scouting the Opposition

The Orlando Pride have been one of the most consistently unpredictable teams this season. They perpetually drop points that they probably shouldn’t, losing to the Washington Spirit in the second week of the season, throwing away a lead against the Houston Dash, and drawing 2-2 at home in a wild game against Sky Blue FC last weekend. It’s their record against other potential playoff teams that has kept them in such a strong position all season. However, they now trail the Thorns in the playoff race and with the Chicago Red Stars and Utah breathing down their necks, they’re on the verge of throwing away a playoff position they’ve been in nearly the entire year. It’s desperation time for them.

In the two games the Pride have played against the Thorns this year, they’ve played startlingly different lineups. Marta didn’t even play in the game the Pride won. In the meantime, Sydney Leroux has somehow become the team’s top scorer, though she will be out on Saturday will illness. We should see as strong a lineup as Orlando have to offer in this game. They seem to have settled on a back three, with Alanna Kennedy moving back there now that the midfield feels more settled. Emily van Egmond, Dani Weatherholt and Christine Nairn are a technical and talented midfield. Rachel Hill can be dangerous up top, and Chioma Ubogagu offers a lot going forward on the wings.

Gameplan

Don’t panic: The Thorns offense is working. Despite the loss away at North Carolina, the team worked themselves into good positions. All that remains is for the strikers to pull the trigger a little earlier in the attack. If Orlando persists with their back three, it will be playing right into Portland’s strengths on the wings. The Thorns will have to improve their open play crossing if they want to take full advantage of the overload, though: They’ve scored very few goals from those positions this season.

The interesting development in recent weeks is the fullback balance. Against North Carolina, Klingenberg was clearly the one with license to attack, while Purce had more defensive responsibilities. This is a reversal from earlier in the season when Klingenberg was the more defensive fullback. It’s time for Klingenberg to step up and deliver offensively, and the forwards to get in position to put away her service, for the current setup to be justified.