The excitement of a new season tends to blunt all evils, but you couldn’t blame Thorns FC and the Orlando Pride if they were a little tired of seeing each other.
Sunday’s game at Providence Park will mark the fourth time in 13 months the clubs have squared off against each other. They did so last year, in 2017’s home opener and, after one more regular-season meeting, saw each other again in the NWSL's semifinal round. Even when the Thorns advanced to the 2017 NWSL Championship game, they couldn’t totally avoid the Pride. Portland beat North Carolina at Orlando City Stadium.
Thanks to the trade that sent Alex Morgan to Orlando in late 2015, Portland and the Pride will always be linked, but amid Orlando’s growth from 2016 to 2018 contenders comes concerns that transcend such loose links to the Thorns. After soaring up the standings last year, finishing third thanks to the league’s best attack, one question defines the Pride’s outlook: Was last year a fluke, or can Tom Sermanni’s team sustain its 2017 form?
If that question sounds familiar, it’s because we asked the same of a Portland opponent three weeks ago. When the Timbers touched down in Chicago to face the Fire, they met a team coming to grips with their own 2017 breakthrough. The Fire had transcended last year’s modest, preseason expectations, made the playoffs for the first time in five years, yet entered 2018 with a new set of challenges. A type of winner’s conundrum enveloped the team, leaving them unsure if last year’s solutions could translate to this year’s results.
The Pride are in the same situation. Though the team returns the stars that made last year’s success possible, questions surround almost all of their key parts. Can Alex Morgan, having never dominated at club level before 2017, replicate her all-league form? Can Marta, at 32 years old, continue being the most impactful, hardest working player in the league, when she’s not on international duty? Will Australian Alanna Kennedy, when she returns, continue to excel in an unnatural midfield role? And can Ali Krieger, who turns 34 in July, continue to provide the speed the team needs in its back four?
Some of those answers will be yes. There’s every indication that Morgan has truly turned a corner, while it’s difficult to imagine Marta slowing down. But in an ever more competitive NWSL -- one that sees three non-playoff teams from last year, Utah Royals, Seattle Reign FC and Washington Spirit, ready to compete for playoff spots – it’s not enough for some questions to be answered. Any weaknesses that emerge between 2017 and now could be the difference between a postseason return and an early offseason.
Through two matches, the jury is out. Orlando had the better chances in week one against Utah but also gave up an early goal, eventually earning a 1-1 draw with a team experiencing its first competitive time together. The next week, without a concussed Morgan and departed Marta, the Pride succumbed to Mallory Pugh and Washington, even if they outperformed their 2-0 result.
To the extent Orlando can push on from its 1-1-0 start, the answers lie beyond its two stars. Against Washington, the team relied on former Flash and Reign midfielder Christine Nairn to make connections through the middle, albeit with mixed results. New defenders Selina Zadorsky and Carson Pickett ultimately succumbed to Pugh’s late-match push, while Sydney Leroux, playing in Morgan’s No. 9 spot, provided decent all-around play, if little threat on goal.
Two other new arrivals, Brazilian right back Poliana and Australian midfielder Emily van Egmond, will return from national-team life to crucial roles, while holdovers Rachel Hill and Chioma Ubogagu, who had bright moments against the Flash, could also play key. For Sermanni, those players round out a core of supporting talent that must come together to create a platform for Marta and Morgan to excel.
Every NWSL contender has its share of stars. Portland has Christine Sinclair, Lindsey Horan and Tobin Heath. North Carolina has Crystal Dunn, Sam Mewis and Lynn Williams, while Chicago has Sam Kerr, Julie Ertz, and Vanessa DiBernardo. All of them are capable of outplaying their opponents week-in, week-out. It’s the talent around them, though, that will distinguish teams at the top of the standings. Without a squad capable of supporting its stars, postseason hopes could flame out.
Orlando scored 45 goals in 24 games last season, riding the Marta-Morgan connection to its first taste of the postseason. This year, though, the competition for the league’s four playoff spots will be more contentious than ever. If the Pride takes another step forward and returns to the postseason, it will likely be because of its core.
What to watch for on Sunday:
- Morgan suffered a concussion in the Pride’s first game of the season, forcing her to miss Orlando’s trip to Washington. Any concerns about her health were answered in the international break, though, with Morgan scoring four times across two U.S. games against Mexico.
- Orlando could also be without Hill, who is listed as doubtful with a quad strain. Brazilian midfielder Camila is on the 45-day disabled list as she recovers from knee surgery, while Kennedy, Marta, Monica, Poliana and van Egmond are all on international duty.
- As far as Thorns injuries, Mark Parsons provided updates mid-week, saying Emily Menges and Tobin Heath are unlikely to feature against Orlando. Lindsey Horan, however, was “50-50,” with the team waiting to see how she responds after picking up a calf injury against Mexico.
- New Portland acquisition Ana Crnogorčević, joined the team mid-week after international duty with Switzerland. According to Parsons' mid-week update, the former Frankfurt player could make her debut against Orlando.
- Portland and Orlando have met five times across the Pride’s two-year existence, with the Thorns winning four times, drawing once, and posting a plus-seven goal difference. The Pride’s only point against Portland came last September at Orlando City Stadium, when the teams played to a 0-0 draw.
- Sunday marks the third-straight year the Thorns have hosted the Pride in their home opener. Portland produced a 2-1 victory in front of 16,073 in 2016, while 16,145 attended the Thorns’ 2-0 victory in 2017’s home opener.