The North Carolina Courage’s win over Portland Thorns FC on Sunday locked in their second consecutive NWSL Shield. Meanwhile none of the other teams can so much as clinch a playoff berth this weekend. Such is the 2018 NWSL season that featured one dominant side, two stragglers — the already eliminated Sky Blue FC and Washington Spirit — and a half dozen teams scrapping for the three remaining playoff spots.
At times, it has seemed like the Orlando Pride were the obvious challengers to the Courage. A year ago, the Pride shook off a rough start to surge up the table and finish third before losing their semifinal in Portland. This year’s squad was to feature a full season of Alex Morgan and also added midfield bite with the acquisition of Christine Nairn. Sydney Leroux was considered an obligatory acquisition after she expressed an interested in playing in the same city as her husband, Dom Dwyer. But Leroux has enjoyed a solid season on both sides of the ball for her newest club.
So why do the Pride appear to be treading water? And why do less talented teams continue to take points off them, even when the eye test often shows the Pride doing more than their opponents?
“I wish I had an answer,” head coach Tom Sermanni said as part of his postmatch remarks following Sunday’s 2-2 draw to Sky Blue. “We need to be able to put games to bed when we dominate them so much and we also need to stop giving up chances that are so easy for our opponents.”
The match against Sky Blue can be viewed through several lenses. On one hand, the Pride rallied from a goal down at the hour mark and nearly won it in stoppage time. On the other they dropped points to a hapless, winless side against whom they should match up favorably in almost every area of the park.
“It’s been really frustrating,” the normally understated Sermanni said. “It’s been our season, to be frank. Tonight is a snapshot of our season. A bit like Forrest Gump, a box of chocolates, you never quite know what you’re going to get once you open it up. I think tonight is just another snapshot of virtually every game we’ve played this season.”
The Pride ended April 1-2-2, spending much of the season to that point without Marta, who was helping Brazil qualify for the next World Cup and Olympics. At the time, I wrote that their grueling May schedule would likely be the determining factor as to whether they were going to contend to host a semifinal or flounder through the summer. They took 10 of 15 points in May and looked to be on their way. The Pride then proceeded to sleepwalk through June, closing the month by blowing a late lead at home to the Houston Dash after dominating at least 70 minutes of the match, and then getting thrashed by the North Carolina Courage on national television when they conceded three goals in three minutes.
“Honestly, I think without fail, we were soundly beaten by North Carolina [June 30, referenced above] and we beat Chicago soundly 5-2 [May 26],” Sermanni said. “But apart from those two games, every game we’ve had this season has been similar to tonight’s game. As I say, I would love to be able to say it’s this, or it’s this, or it’s this. It’s either individual lapses where we suddenly get caught out, it’s ball watching when we’ve got the ball and then suddenly we get caught on the counter attacks, or we’re dominating games and we’re just not ruthless enough to put chances away.”
The Pride currently sit third, same as they finished a year ago. But there is danger in reading only the points column when looking at the table, especially this late in the season. Sermanni’s side has played 20 times, one more than the Thorns and two more than the Red Stars. If you look at maximum possible points, the Pride are behind in both, meaning that they have work to do. The good news there is that the Thorns will be in Orlando this weekend and then, after an August 18 trip to North Carolina, the Red Stars will at Orlando City Stadium on August 25. Just like in May, the remainder of August will show whether the Pride have an on switch they can reach or if inconsistency will sabotage their season.
Sermanni did not have much to say about Marta hitting a poor penalty that Kailen Sheridan easily saved for Sky Blue late in stoppage time on Sunday, but if the Pride wind up missing the playoffs by one or two points, it is a kick that will haunt the club for the entire offseason. For as much as the Pride have stumbled in two home meetings against Sky Blue, they managed a 3-2 victory on June 16 and would have won by the same score had Marta put away her PK on Sunday night.
Had Marta won the game though, it would have been the Pride collecting three points in spite of themselves.
“What we talked about when we came out was actually playing much more direct tonight. We wanted to play more direct because we knew Sky Blue would sit back and keep the back four in place pretty much most of the game,” Sermanni said. “They sit back deep and they are quite happy with us playing in front. I think the reason for the slow tempo was we didn’t actually play long. Despite our best instructions, our team still decided to play lots of passing football. Problem with that is when teams sit in and they’re really disciplined they go in a 4-4-2, like they did, it becomes hard to play at a high tempo because they’ve got lots of bodies behind the ball and they get in good positions and they keep things tight and it takes a little bit of time for the game then to start getting stretched and their players start to get a little bit tired. It wasn’t until that happened and it wasn’t until we started actually playing a little bit more direct that we then started stretching them, then space opens up, then the tempo increases.”
The Thorns are next, and the reigning league champions have faced a different sort of inconsistency than the Courage. Portland has been more about going game-to-game. This one might be the single most important of the season so far in terms of the playoff race.
“We’re still in the hunt,” Sermanni said. “We win next week against Portland and we’re in a really good position, but I don’t think we should be in this position; we should be four, five, six points better off than we are.”
NWSL Attendance Watch
— Is it even possible to serve a free kick to a better spot than Tobin Heath did on the Thorns’ goal on Sunday?
— Dash fans showed their displeasure with Christen Press, who shunned the team by refusing to report after being traded to Houston on draft day, by booing her during introductions and then again every time she touched the ball. But Press had the last laugh, taking advantage of an Amber Brooks miscue and scoring the equalizer in the 77th minute of what became a 2-1 victory for her Royals. Count me in for loving both sides of this. I love the (too rarely seen) passion from the stands at BBVA Compass Stadium, and I love Press sticking it right back to them on the field. By all accounts, Press was also very generous with her time after the match interacting with fans.
— Why is Sky Blue being credited with some sort of moral victory for playing the Pride so tough on Sunday? Their season began four-and-a-half months ago and they still haven’t won. Winning is a skill similar to team defending, and it is one Sky Blue has yet to master this season. At least they spent 14 minutes in the lead. Believe it or not, that was the first time this season the New Jersey squad was ahead in a match. They played the first 1,499 minutes of their season without being in front in a match.
— The Spirit used their three sub cards to put Andi Sullivan, Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh in a match they trailed 1-0. Shortly after using all the substitutions they conceded a second and eventually lost by that 2-0 score to the Reign. That was supposed to be the trio that helped vault the Spirit back to playoff contention this season, but injuries, ineffectiveness, and what appears to be a general team malaise has left them grateful that Sky Blue is keeping them out of futility discussions. In fact, if you remove the Sky Blue matches from the Spirit’s last two seasons, they are 3-28-7 against the rest of the league (4-0-1 vs Sky Blue.)
— I try to steer clear of referee criticism here, but Emily Sonnett backing into Jess McDonald’s knee after being torched by McDonald’s dribble was as clear a penalty as there has been in NWSL this season. And yet, no call.
— On the flip side, the red card to Carli Lloyd was spot on.