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Alex Morgan's Departure Accentuates Orlando Pride's Need for Offense

Already desperate for goals, the Pride have lost one of the world’s top strikers for several weeks. Can the team stay in the playoff race until she returns?

Soccer: International Friendly Women's Soccer-Romania at USA Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The off-season was going swimmingly for the Pride before Tuesday morning. The club held onto the bulk of the 2016 squad that looked like it had playoff potential. They brought in national team star and rock-solid defender Ali Krieger for next to nothing. Versatile fullback Camila was also brought in to shore up the depth down the right flank. But after weeks of rumors and controversy, the club finally announced that face of the team and superstar forward Alex Morgan would spend several months with French heavyweights Olympic Lyon, missing a chunk of the NWSL season.

Morgan herself released her reasoning for the move, believing she can elevate her game by playing with one of the best club teams in the world. But in her own words, she’ll be gone until June.

“As for the timing of my move, I’ve agreed to a play in France starting next month and to return home to Orlando and play for the Pride after Lyon’s season ends in June.”

Assuming the NWSL starts around the same time this year, she’ll miss out on a minimum of six weeks, potentially more. With only 20 matches in a season, that could be close to half of the year. The club has high aspirations with a competitive roster loaded with international talent. But after missing out on the playoffs in their inaugural season due to a lack of offense, this is more than one step back.

Morgan may not have set the league on fire after moving to Orlando, but she still had a hand in five of the Pride’s 20 goals in 2016, or one-fourth of their offensive production. The most damning statistic may be that of the five matches Morgan missed due to international duty, the Pride were held scoreless in three. For a team that struggled to produce in the final third, they will need to find answers and quickly.

But the question is, will the remaining attackers step up to fill that void, or will Orlando need to rely on its newly bolstered defense to keep the team competitive until Morgan returns? The Pride could certainly bring in reinforcements in the form of a replacement striker, but hardly anyone in the world has the deadliness of Alex Morgan in front of goal.

To make matters worse, Morgan might not be the only Pride attacker out the door. Equalizer Soccer’s Dan Lauletta mentions that Australian Lisa De Vanna is “likely not returning.” De Vanna may have only joined the Pride at the tail end of the 2016 season, but her scoring touch in the international game is well-known.

That would leave Sarah Hagen, Jasmyne Spencer, and Kristen Edmonds as the only proven scorers on Orlando’s roster. They accounted for all but one of the goals not scored by Morgan or Lianne Sanderson — who was traded mid-season — but again that number wasn’t good enough for the Pride to reach the playoffs. And there will be rippling effects for Mogan’s absence for the rest of the offense.

Defenses no longer have to account for a world-class striker. Teams often committed two defenders to mark Morgan to keep her in check, freeing up space for her teammates. Can the offense continue to produce at the same rate under more pressure? Edmonds broke out in 2016, posting the highest statistical totals of her professional career. She’ll not only need to stay consistent, she’ll likely need to improve.

The bottom line is, something will need to change. Tom Sermanni does have a plethora of young attackers to give the spare minutes to. Sam Witteman got a fair amount of minutes in her rookie season and Christina Burkenroad and Jamia Fields have shown flashes of their potential in limited playing time. But relying on them to break out and be contributors to a playoff team is a lot to ask for.

The answer may be in the Pride’s defense. They were decimated by injuries and international duty in their inaugural season, resorting to deploying defensive midfielder Kaylyn Kyle at center back in key situations. The result was 30 goals allowed, tied for second-to-last in the league.

Injuries are always difficult to overcome, but the injection of Krieger into the back line should drop that number. But it also allows the Pride’s incumbent right back, Canadian international Josée Bélanger, to potentially shift back to her former position as a forward. Bélanger converted to a fullback with Canada and she’s been a marauding defender that can contribute to the attack for the Pride, but Josée has scored 26 professional goals for club and country and the Pride could now use that experience up top.

Whatever Sermanni and the Pride coaching staff have in store to fix their desperate need for goals, it will need to come quickly to stay afloat in the highly competitive NWSL.