Come Saturday afternoon, it will have only been 27 days since the Orlando Pride last visited Providence Park, and given the team’s lack of trades, major signings, or new, long-term injuries, it would make sense to just link back to our previous preview, update the date and time, and wish Portland Thorns FC fans good luck with the mid-day sun.
During that time, though, there have been some significant changes to head coach Tom Sermanni’s team, one that tried a new formation during that day’s 2-1 loss for the Pride. Searching for solutions against the Thorns’ high-pressing, wing-back-laden approach, Sermanni inserted an extra central defender, played wing backs of his own, and hoped midfielders Christine Nairn and Dani Weatherholt could hold down the center of the field. The Pride took an early lead through Chioma Ubogagu, but the team eventually fell, 2-1.
Since then, Orlando has moved back to a more familiar approach, living in that often-nebulous world between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations. More importantly, the team has gotten its full complement of internationals back, with cornerstone creator Marta (Brazil) and midfield linchpin Alanna Kennedy (Australia) joining midfielder Emily Van Egmond (Australia) and center back Monica (Brazil) as early keys to the Pride’s best look.
It's a look that, in terms of wins and losses, has Orlando performing like their 2017, playoff-qualifying selves, only the way the Pride have collected points over the last month is far different. Last year, Orlando made its first postseason appearance on the backs of an NWSL-best attack, one that finished the 24-game season with 45 goals. Thanks to Alex Morgan (nine goals in 2017) for that, and don’t forget Marta (13 goals, six assists), but this year, Orlando’s current surge – a 2-0-2 record since its last appearance in Portland – has been built on goal prevention. Since conceding twice at Providence Park, Orlando has kept three clean sheets, allowed only one goal, and pushed to a tie for fourth in the NWSL.
|Period||Games||GoalsAllowed/90||Shots Allowed/90||Shots on Target Allowed/90|
|Games 1-3 (up to and including Portland)||3||1.67||12.67||4.33|
Unless you think that Morgan and Marta incapable of rekindling last year’s form this is a scary turn for the rest of the NWSL.
Orlando’s rise to last year’s playoffs met a grim reality come the postseason, when the team gave up four goals in a semifinal loss to the Thorns. Defense, that implied, was the area the second-year Pride needed to address if it was going to take another next step forward. Conceding five times in their first three games this season, Orlando seemed to have left those lessons unlearned, but with recent clean sheets against the Houston Dash, Chicago Red Stars and Utah Royals (while allowing only one goal to Seattle Reign FC), the Pride have proven better students.
Part of that improvement is the presence of Monica, who returned from Copa América in Chile to assume a spot next to Canadian international Shelina Zadorsky in defense. That allowed former U.S. international Ali Krieger to slide back to right back, a position that had been a question mark throughout Orlando’s first weeks of the season. Kennedy also came back from the Asian Cup to resume her position at the best of midfield, alleviating Nairn and Weatherholt from the responsibility of providing the defense’s cover. Add in better play on the ball, thanks to Marta and van Egmond, and the continued improvement of Ubogagu, and Orlando’s showing flashes of a much more complete squad.
The quiet jewel in the set-up, though, is Kennedy, whose lock on the team’s deep midfield is a big reason for the improved defensive results. Almost exclusively a central defender before last season’s arrival in Orlando, Kennedy was thrown into midfield as a way to shield the team’s thin central defense. It proved a masterstroke from Sermanni, who got just enough protection from his Australian international to get this team into the playoffs. This year, with some upgrades both in front and behind Kennedy, Orlando’s proving even stronger without the ball.
That’s where the bad news lies for the NWSL, including for Portland this weekend at Providence Park. In the teams’ previous meeting, the Thorns were able to leverage their midfield dominance to regain control after Ubogagu’s opener. Orlando didn’t have enough to hold out when they didn’t have the ball. This week, though, with Kennedy and Monica back, Krieger moved wide, and van Egmond and Weatherholt covering the ground around Kennedy, Portland should face a more competent corps. If Orlando again scores first, it could prove enough.
It’s the type of progress most NWSL teams will make throughout the season: identifying problems; correcting them; measuring how your changes stack up. And over the last four games, Orlando’s changes have stacked up well. Now, instead of facing a team that needs to regain its contender’s pose, Portland welcomes a Pride side that may be ready for another playoff run.
What to watch for on Saturday:
- While the Pride have surged since their last visit to Portland, the Thorns have hit their first rough patch of the season. Portland is 0-1-3 since it faced Orlando and has failed to keep a clean sheet through seven games this season.
- On the other hand, the Thorns currently boast the league’s second-best attack, scoring 10 goals thus far. Portland’s longest goalless streak of the season has been 112 minutes – the time between Christine Sinclair’s equalizer against Washington (April 20) and Tobin Heath’s goal versus Utah (April 28).
- Saturday marks the end of a stretch of three games in eight days for the Thorns, one that saw Heath and Andressinha make their first starts of the season Wednesday in Houston. Both went over an hour (64 and 66 minutes, respectively) while forward Ana Crnogorčević was given her first full 90 of the campaign.
- In terms of injuries, goalkeeper Adrianna Franch and forward Hayley Raso are still out, but the sunset on defender Emily Menges’ absence (right tybia stress syndrome) is approaching. Last week, Portland head coach Mark Parsons said he was hopeful Menges could return for Orlando, and while a week of more travel than practice may have changed that timeline, the long-time Thorns player continues inching toward her season’s first minutes. Training on Friday should determine her availability for Saturday’s kickoff.
- For Orlando, midfielder Camila has been out all season recovering from right-knee surgery. She's joined on the Pride's injury report by two projected starters. Alex Morgan, who came off the bench Wednesday in Utah, is listed as doubtful with a "left shoulder sprain," while Monica is also doubtful with a "left abductor strain."
- Saturday’s game starts a stretch of three games out of four at home, with visits from Utah (May 25) and North Carolina (May 30) taking the Thorns into early June’s international break. With a visit to Washington in the middle (May 19), Portland has a chance to make up some of its early points lost.