The Orlando Pride dominated play for most of the match Sunday afternoon against league leader Portland Thorns FC, only to fall, 2-1. Portland went down 1-0 after a world-class strike from Jasmyne Spencer in the 67th minute, but then the Thorns became more direct with their play with 20 minutes left in the game and got two goals and the win.
Playing direct is something teams have to be able to do to squeeze out points, and we've seen Orlando City do this on multiple occasions this year in MLS.
The direct play actually plays into Portland's strengths. The Thorns have great outside players in Meghan Klingenberg and Tobin Heath that can get behind and serve excellent crosses. The Pride were able to avoid Heath as she left the game in the 62nd minute, but Portland began to lump balls forward to Klingenberg's side and she began to serve balls in. The Pride were unable to cope, as Head Coach Tom Sermanni said following the game, "We never adjusted to them playing direct."
The question is: What can a team do to combat a direct attack?
The first things a team can do as they see the opposition playing long balls is drop a little bit deeper or provide pressure on the service. The key part of that phrase is a little bit. So many times you will see teams drop really deep into the defensive third only to be defending for the final quarter of the match. The Pride were consistently higher up the field and left tons of space between the back line and goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris. Harris looked out of position on the Thorns goals, but she wasn't; the keeper has to play higher up in correlation to her back line. She becomes the sweeper keeper and has to be there to cut the long balls. If the back four dropped another three to five yards, Harris wouldn't have to be out as far and would be in a more standard position to make saves.
The other part of the first goal was there was no pressure on the center back of Portland -- she was able to basically take a free kick in the run of play. Providing some pressure on the ball can force an errant pass or a mistake that can be countered.
On aerial balls that are played over the top, the two center backs should not be even with each other. One needs to attempt to go for the ball while the other drops behind and covers. This simple defensive principle of pressure and cover is implemented all across the field.
If the back line drops, so does the defensive midfield. The defensive midfield have to be the second ball winners and find outlets. Kaylyn Kyle was excellent in this game at winning balls and distributing them out of pressure, and she was at her best on Sunday afternoon winning tackles. The Pride kept a higher line than they needed to and need to drop back several yards. They also still needed to press in the attack to keep the Thorns from attacking for the rest of the match.
The Orlando Pride looked good for most of the match on Sunday and weren't able to defend two key moments.
"We played great, two little lapses punished us," Pride goal scorer Spencer said after the game.
Defender Steph Catley continued Spencer's point about the two lapses, saying, "That's football...We played some great football against the number one team."
They deserved better, but we have to remember this is their first year and, much like Orlando City, they will need to learn from the mistakes. The Pride have proven that they have the talent to be a playoff team, and we will see how they cope with missing players for the international break for the Olympics. The month of July will be critical to the club's success.