The Orlando Pride finally took the field on Sunday night, opening their regular season history in Portland. The fledgling club took an early lead before yielding an equalizer and eventually a late game winner. Here are some thoughts from the weekend’s most anticipated match.
Alex Morgan was cheered loudly: Most United States national team players get cheered at every NWSL venue so this was a tough read, but the fan base in Portland is passionate and emotional. Morgan played there for three seasons with very mixed results. She scored eight goals in 18 games in 2013, the season that ended with a championship. But she got hurt late in the season and saw only 19 minutes of playoff action. She was rarely at full health again after that and her tenure ended when she asked for a trade to Orlando.
If anyone was put off by Morgan’s trade request—which was family related and not due to any tumult with the club—it did not show. It was evident on the webcast that Morgan was cheered lustily and several reporters at Providence Park reported that the ovation was universal. It would have been interesting to see what the Riveters’ reaction would have been had Morgan scored but she had a rather quiet evening in her return to the Rose City.
The Thorns are clearly a work in progress: Several Thorns had extraordinary nights—Lindsay Horan and Tobin Heath top the list—but watching the match it was sometimes difficult to tell which side was the expansion team. The central midfield trio of Horan, Allie Long, and Mana Shim seem to have some things to work out, and for a stretch during the second half it seemed like every time the Thorns got into the attacking third the offside flag went up. (Shim was starting in place of Christine Sinclair who has an Achilles injury so the shape could well change going forward.)
There were also moments of magic. Nadia Nadim’s feed to Allie Long that was called back for (a debatable) offside was splendid. And Heath is playing as well and as consistently as she ever has. Her single touch to Horan for the game-winning goal was an understated moment of brilliance that helped turn the result.
The two big questions surrounding the Thorns this season are how their plethora of talented players will gel and how the team will survive when so many of them go out for international assignments. The second part won’t be known for some time. Neither will the first, but opening night was an example of talent shining through even when the team did not necessarily put an authoritative stamp on the match.
Pride are good in back: The strength of the Pride figures to be their defense and goalkeeping and for the most part that was the case on opening night. Not only did they defend well but Steph Catley showed her chops by scoring on a free kick and Laura Alleway nearly did the same with a long-distance laser that hit the crossbar.
That said there were breakdowns on the two goals. The opener was a Heath pass to Dagny Brynjarsdottir but before that, Alleway and Josee Belager allowed Nadim to keep the play alive by beating both of them to a header. Right after that, Becky Edwards took Nadim down in the box and may well have been whistled for a penalty had Bryjarsdottir not scored. They got stretched on the game-winner due to a deflected ball but when Alleway went to take on Heath there was no one to back her up and mark Horan when she received Heath’s layoff. Overall though there were more good moments than bad.
They’ll need to get the ball to Morgan: Tom Sermanni went with a three-woman midfield sending out Edwards, Kaylyn Kyle, and Maddy Evans. All three are serviceable players but of the three only Edwards offers any semblance of attacking ability. And Edwards is probably better lying deeper on top of the back line and playing the linking game.
Whatever the case there was rarely enough dangerous play in getting the ball ahead to Morgan and her running mates Jasmyne Spencer and Kristen Edmonds. Spencer was the most active of the bunch but that was often a product of dropping back to collect the ball too far from goal to have an immediate impact. She did have one golden chance on a feed from Morgan but was unable to play her first touch far enough away from Thorns’ keeper Michelle Betos who was able to then position herself for the save.
Lianne Sanderson’s arrival off the bench helped stir things up a bit but in general the Pride were rarely dangerous even they were doing a good job of possessing the ball for stretches. They play the Dash next, who showed on Saturday that their new midfield is quick and dynamic. The Pride will need to find a way to slow that down in order to make inroads into the final third and beyond.
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