The NWSL playoffs open Saturday with the Portland Thorns set to become the first team to participate in four different seasons against the semifinal debutantes, Orlando Pride. Dan Lauletta and Claire Watkins go point by point to answer some key questions about the match.
What is the most important thing for the Thorns to do to win this match?
Dan: The cliché answer is that they need to stop Marta. Duh. The slightly deeper answer is that they need cut off her supply line, or at the very least make her do the lion’s share of her work from deeper positions. Ali Krieger, Steph Catley and Alanna Kennedy are all plenty capable of finding Marta to get the Pride attack going. If the Thorns allow that to happen unchecked, then Marta can very easily dictate the terms this match is played on. Remember also that the Thorns only saw her once, and that was two Saturdays ago when she was more or less playing straight off the plane from Australia and far from her best.
Claire: To me, the most important thing the Thorns can do to win this match is show up in a real way from the first minute of the match. Portland has had a tendency throughout this season to coast for the first 45 minutes of many games, relying too heavily on strong play from their defense and keeper and then remembering their identity as a team as second halves of matches progress. Allie Long in particular needs to be a more visible enforcer in the midfield for Portland, and if she shows her presence in the middle of the field, then the Pride are going to ultimately have trouble feeding their front line, as well as keeping the Thorns attack at bay.
Same question, but in reverse. How do the Pride win this match?
Claire: The Pride are going to have to press early and often to get the advantage in this match, and they are going to have to be killer in front of goal to convert the chances that they have. Portland is notorious for relying on strong defense and picking their chances through fluid play from the midfield, and Marta and Alex Morgan are going to have to make the Thorns pay on the counter enough times to allow room to make up for the defensive miscues one has come to expect from the Orlando backline. Orlando has to knock Portland off of their game early, otherwise the Thorns are going to work their way through any other scenario presented to them, especially at home.
Dan: I’ll expand on part of what Claire said and just say the Pride need to stay out of that little pocket in the match when they turn off. They need to do much more than that, but if they lull, the Thorns are very likely to make them pay. Tactically speaking they need to avoid being exposed at outside back. The attack is at its absolute best when Steph Catley takes advantage of space on the left created by the attention opponents put on Marta and Morgan which leaves the right back—Kristen Edmonds?—to stay at home. But right back has been the one spot the Pride have not quite figured out this season.
Tom Sermanni opened the week by firing off a salvo suggesting that the Thorns get preferential treatment at home due to the size and scope of the crowd. Is this a legitimate concern?
Dan: Yes and no. Yes, the refereeing needs to be better across NWSL (and all of soccer, to be fair). No, I have not personally taken note that any one team or venue gets treated more or less fairly as a rule, though my perspective as a neutral is certainly far different than of the coaches. The feeling is not unique though. I’m fairly certain all 10 NWSL coaches believe their team has been on the wrong side of more poor calls than anyone else. And I do thing they tend to even out. One thing Sermanni is correct about is that the Thorns are by far the more physical of the two sides. To that end the tighter the match is called, the better off the Pride will be. So if turning this into a story leads to one extra reminder in pregame meetings not to let too much go, it will be mission accomplished for Sermanni.
Claire: I mostly just considered that remark to be an excellent bit of pre-emptive gamesmanship on Sermanni’s side. And while it does remind all involved that the standard of refereeing this weekend has to exceed what we saw in the regular season, I think a little bit closer to the heart of the matter is that Sermanni is quite aware of how Portland’s squad excels at making their physicality work for them and is trying to match that gamesmanship with his own. I do agree with Dan that a tightly called game works in Orlando’s favor, as does anything that might get into the heads of Portland’s supporters along with the players on the field. That’s mostly what I think Sermanni was going for, and it also allows him to have a bit of a “punching up” moment because the Thorns absolutely do have the greatest home advantage of any team in the league (which is a credit to them), so the Pride are going to need all the help they can get.
No one is really talking about the storyline of Alex Morgan going back to Portland where she began her NWSL career, won an NWSL Championship and was later traded to the Pride right after they launched. Should we care?
Claire: I think the more interesting narrative is how Orlando figured the NWSL out so quickly and reached the playoffs in just their second year. It’s especially impressive because, at the time of the expansion announcement, it looked like Orlando had conceded way too much (specifically to Portland) to be competitive so soon. That has also partially been because they’ve been rewarded for their faith in Alex Morgan, who’s been great this year and whose work with Marta up top has paid exactly the dividends that the Pride front office was hoping for. And while I never got the feeling that Morgan personally had beef with Portland after she left, this is definitely an opportunity for her to cement her legacy for a club that’s believed in her from the beginning of their very existence. She’s arguably the biggest star in a playoff race full of them, and her participation in the postseason this year is an exciting turn.
Dan: Great point about the Pride figuring out NWSL so quickly, though I could argue that any team that lands Marta will look that much smarter for it. But I think Thorns fans are savvy enough to realize a few things about Alex Morgan. One is that she spent a lot of her Thorns time being injured, including the 2013 playoffs when they won it all and the end of 2015 before being traded. Two is that by trading her, the Thorns now have Emily Sonnett, Meghan Klingenberg and Amandine Henry (or insert any other international player but they have had an extra spot the last two seasons). So I tend to agree this is not a front burner storyline, but Morgan is playing as well as she ever has as a U.S. club player, and if she is front and center in a Pride upset, it won’t go down easy in Portland.
Finally, who is an under-the-radar player from each team who needs to play well for her team to win?
Dan: I want to say Kristen Edmonds for the Pride, but I’m going with Dani Weatherholt. An underappreciated, dirty-work midfielder who has gotten better with each passing week, Weatherholt is one player who can match the Thorns’ physicality and make things harder on their counterattack. For the Thorns the easy answer is Katherine Reynolds. If she can play Steph Catley to a stalemate on the Thorns right side and make good on her few inevitable confrontations with Marta, it is difficult to see the Thorns not winning.
Claire: For the Pride, I’m gonna say Chioma Ubogagu needs to be the difference-maker to put her team over the edge. When she’s on, she’s fantastic at feeding her all-star counterparts up top, and she’s got an amount of ball control that rivals many elite forwards in this league. However, when she’s neutralized, the Orlando attack suffers for it in a way that hobbles their entire game plan and puts too much pressure on the squad defensively. She’s got the natural ability to run against the Portland flank and can find success there if she’s aggressive enough. For the Thorns I’m gonna go with a tried and true, almost criminally underrated player: Emily Menges. She’s truly in charge in the Portland defensive third, and if she can hold the defensive line together with authority, there just isn’t going to be an opportunity for the Pride firepower to slip in behind and find an advantage. If she can render the Orlando attack predictable, their match will be over long before the final whistle blows.