This is what we’ve waited for all year. The Orlando Pride have risen from the bottom of the NWSL and into the playoffs, finishing the season as the league’s hottest team, on a 6-0-3 streak to end the 2017 campaign. Now the team will play its first postseason game against a team that’s been nearly as scalding hot down the stretch — the Portland Thorns.
Mark Parsons’ squad was, unlike the Pride, widely considered one of two favorites to win the whole darn thing this year before the first ball of 2017 was even kicked. Orlando, by virtue of winning at Shield champs North Carolina last weekend, punched the most difficult ticket to the championship by having to play in front of the throngs at Providence Park — multiple time zones away and on artificial turf.
These teams played recently to a 0-0 draw in Orlando. What do you think the two sides learned in that meeting that they’ll look to exploit in this NWSL semifinal match?
Katelyn Best: In some ways, that was kind of a weird game. So many players were coming back from international duty, some of them on a delayed flight from Australia, and it was also, according to Meghan Klingenberg, "really hot." I think the semifinal is likely to look a lot less sluggish on both sides, both because of those physical factors, and because, obviously, so much is on the line.
That said, there are definitely takeaways for both teams. Alex Morgan and Marta both got marked out of the game by Portland's very solid back line when they tried to possess into the box; Orlando had their best looks going over the top, when it was only AD Franch's brilliance in goal that saved the Thorns on a couple of occasions.
For Portland — and I know what a trite answer this sounds like, but it's an honest one — I think seeing Tobin Heath back on the field was something of a revelation. Heath is a player Mark Parsons had built his offense around coming into the season, and when she got injured, all his well-laid plans went to waste. To me, when she came into that match, it was immediately apparent that there had been a gaping hole in the lineup all season. They simply don't have another player who can pull defenses out of shape and create chances as consistently as she can. So, going into this one, the question is, how in-form is she? Her touch has definitely been a little rusty the last two, but if she can get it together for this weekend, she can absolutely make the difference for the Thorns.
How will Portland try to take advantage of the Pride losing Camila for the season?
KB: Camila is definitely a big loss for the Pride. She's fast and good on the ball — one moment I remember from the September match was when she burned Emily Menges, who does not get burned very often, on a set piece — and also contributes a lot defensively.
You'd know better than I would who Tom Sermanni plans to start in her place, but suffice it to say there will be a big hole in the midfield that not just anybody can fill. Obviously, assuming she would have been in that same central midfield slot, players like Lindsey Horan and Christine Sinclair will have that much easier a time controlling that area of the pitch.
What do you think the key match-up will be that decides this contest?
KB: There are a couple good answers here, but I'm going to go with a fun one and say Hayley Raso/Steph Catley — and you could throw Ashleigh Sykes in there, too, if you wanted to. In part, I say this because I like the symmetry of three Australians on the same side of the field. In all seriousness, though, Raso has had a breakout season, and her speed poses a real challenge to wide defenders. I was lukewarm on Sykes when she first arrived, but she's played well, both offensively and defensively, in the last couple matches, and her partnership with Raso is something to keep an eye on.
Injuries?/Projected starting XI?/Score prediction?
KB: Barring some unforeseen training disaster, Portland's full roster (minus Meg Morris, who's been on the disabled list most of the season) should be available. I expect Parsons will go with the same setup he's started most of the latter part of the season: AD Franch in goal; three center backs in Emily Menges, Emily Sonnett, and Katherine Reynolds; Meghan Klingenberg and Ashleigh Sykes at left and right wingback, respectively; a midfield trio of Amandine Henry, Lindsey Horan, and Christine Sinclair; and Nadia Nadim and Hayley Raso up top. Look for Tobin Heath to come off the bench in the second half.
No comment on that last one. We all thought Portland was going through to the final last year, and things didn't turn out that way — and I don't like to think of myself as superstitious, but at moments like this, it can't hurt, you know?
Big thanks to Katelyn from Stumptown Footy for stopping by and providing some good intel on the Thorns. This should be a fun match.