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Roses and Thorns: Two sides, one coin

Marta, Marta, Marta.

Marta has so much on her shoulders these days, friends. The load she carries, an increasingly dire Pride team, has gotten heavy of late, and you can see it. This was her after Kailen Sheridan saved her penalty last week.

This is a team sport, and even the five-time world player of the year cannot do everything. That’s one of the reasons Portland was able to dominate Orlando this weekend; “stop Marta” was a big part of the Thorns’ defensive strategy going into this game, which saw the visitors throw two or three players at her every time she was on the ball.

When we look at Marta’s passes in the fancy new Opta stats widget, almost all the successful ones are sideways or backwards (Orlando is attacking toward the bottom here).

That’s not to mention that there just aren’t very many passes. She was hardly able to get involved in the play, and when she did, she was usually either pressured off the ball or forced into a negative pass. Celeste Boureille, sitting in the number six slot, did yeoman’s work on that front. Here she is chasing the Brazilian out to the wing.

Here Boureille and Ellie Carpenter are starting to corner her.

Finally, here she is realizing she has nowhere to go—right after this she turns around and takes a heavy touch, which Carpenter pounces on, before sprinting up the wing and sending a cross toward Ana Crnogorcevic.

Of course, to merely say the Thorns kept Marta quiet is reductive. They also aggressively shut down Kristen Edmonds and Chioma Ubogagu, at right and left wingback, respectively, with both Tobin Heath and Hayley Raso tracking back to help Meghan Klingenberg and Ellie Carpenter. All four of those Thorns players proved to match up favorably against their marks, which highlights, for me, what’s both the most important and least interesting takeaway from this game: Portland just has more quality players at more positions than Orlando does.

As Richard Farley noted already, the Pride had to make some tough choices here. While the Thorns were able to shut down Orlando with tough defending on the wings and by throwing numbers at Marta—center back Shelina Zadorsky certainly wasn’t going to pose much of a threat playing in the midfield—everything the home team did was a compromise. You simply cannot, numerically, keep Heath, Horan, and Christine Sinclair quiet all at once; you certainly can’t deal with all of them and Raso and Carpenter and Kling. Tom Sermanni was clearly most worried about the Thorns’ left side, and as a result, most of Portland’s attacks went through Raso and Carpenter, who were left wide open on the right.

Orlando and Portland, in this game, represent two sides of the same issue.

At a completely abstract level, this game is about where on the field you choose to put more of your players, which necessarily opens up space elsewhere—and if both teams defend the players they see as the biggest threats, the one with more threats is usually going to come out on top. Having to rely on a few key individuals is always going to make your opponent’s defensive calculations simpler. The better team doesn’t always win, in soccer, or any sport. But mostly, they do.

A rose to Lindsey Horan, destroyer of worlds.

Lindsey Horan scoring on set pieces is almost a joke at this point. When she scored the opener this week, it was as clear as ever that this is not simply an issue of negligence on the part of opposing defenders; she’s just bigger and stronger and faster and better than pretty much anyone around her, which makes her almost impossible to mark. Horan is the boring truism I wrote above about teams with more good players usually winning personified—she’s hard to stop because she’s better than almost everyone she goes up against.

This week, Alanna Kennedy got the job of marking her on set pieces, and failed, where Sofia Huerta, Lynn Williams, and many others have failed already. Kennedy, who’s tall and good in the air, is probably a better fit for the job than Williams and Huerta, but what’s clear from the replay is she’s just outmatched physically. As Horan makes her run, Kennedy stays right on top of her the whole time, even putting an arm around her, and Horan still gets to the ball first. It’s hard to imagine what she could have done better there, short of magically getting faster or stronger.

But the joke about Horan always scoring on set pieces is another reductive observation. She’s unstoppable right now, anywhere on the field. The way she’s playing right now, she can impose her will on anyone—as she did, repeatedly, on Saturday. If she wants the ball, she’s going to take it, and if she has the ball, there’s really no way to stop her from doing what she wants. Every other player in this league should be terrified of her. I am terrified of her, and I don’t have a soccer ball she wants to take, or a reputation she could destroy.

A conciliatory rose to Alanna Kennedy.

I can’t bring myself to be too hard on Kennedy, who, as noted already, got stuck with the hardest marking assignment in the league. But Kennedy didn’t just get beaten by Horan, she also got torched by Raso on the second goal, and nearly handed her one in the first half on a lazy backpass under pressure.

Barring the first ten scrambly minutes, Portland dominated the whole game, throughout the field, so it’s not like mistakes by Orlando’s back line handed them the win. Still, this back five—throw in Zadorsky, too, at defensive mid, and call it six—had a rough night. The specific ways they messed up, however, are instructive in terms of hammering home what the Pride’s defensive priorities were.

There’s this particular “oh shit” look defenders get when Tobin Heath is running at them; all they can really do is back off and stay focused on the ball to try to avoid getting dribbled. In the 52nd minute, with Heath cutting inside and across the defensive line, Kennedy, Toni Pressley, and Zadorsky all had that look, and in that light, it’s completely understandable that they totally missed Sinclair out in space off to their left, letting Heath lay off a simple pass to set the captain up.

A minute or so later, when Raso is on the ball, Pressley takes a different approach, stepping immediately out of position to challenge her. Raso isn’t going to win that battle every time, but she does this time, and from there, with the space Pressley leaves behind, it’s just a footrace with Kennedy.

Different players, different strategies, different mistakes—and there’s no reason to think Portland won’t be able to keep forcing opponents to make similar trade-offs.