The Orlando Pride’s season came to an end where it began, with a loss on the road against the Portland Thorns. The playoff-tested hosts jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead and held on to win 4-1 against a Pride side that made a game of it but was unable to pull completely level to get a fresh start in the match.
Four different Thorns scored in a lopsided final outcome that doesn’t fully tell the story of the game, in which the Pride had to chase the game from 15 minutes on, but looked a threat to pull even for much of the game.
The Pride headed to Portland for a match-up that featured a true immovable object vs. unstoppable force, with Orlando’s league-best offense (45 goals)up against the Thorns’ NWSL-best defense (20 goals allowed). On paper, this match looked like one the Pride didn’t want to face, as they went to league’s No. 1 home field advantage in Portland — today with over 18,000 in attendance — against a team that had only lost one match at home all season.
Making things more difficult is that Orlando had never beaten the Thorns in two seasons, including not scoring against Adrianna Franch — the NWSL’s leader in shutouts (8) — in two previous attempts.
With the injury to Camila, Tom Sermanni decided to go with a new look for his lineup, handing Toni Pressley earning her first start in over two months and leaving Rachel Hill — who has performed very well at the end of the season — on the bench. Portland’s move was notably in the exact opposite direction as the Thorns were able to get Tobin Heath back for her first start of the season.
While there was a bit of back and forth all match, Portland’s midfield had firm control, as the noticeable change of a very deep sitting Pressley vs. the ball control of Camila was everything that Lindsey Horan and Christine Sinclair were hoping for. They continually tortured the Pride and owned the middle of the pitch all day.
That, combined with the Pride employing a very high line and offside trap tactic proved to be the telling stories of this match. The Pride, despite having control for much of the match, couldn't make the deficiencies in both of these areas.
Portland came right out of the gate firing on all cylinders, putting Orlando on its heels. After a first five minutes, during which each team felt each other out, the next 15 minutes would be nearly all Thorns as the Pride couldn’t get themselves settled anywhere on the field.
The left side of the Pride’s defense was being ravaged by Heath but also Meghan Klingenberg, as Marta was having a tough time tracking back. This ultimately led to the first goal by Portland only 12 minutes into the match. Sinclair found a wide open Klingenberg on the left wing. The wingback played a fantastic curling ball to Armandine Henry, who got behind Ali Krieger and headed home to make it 1-0.
It didn't take long for Portland’s second in the 15th, as Heath’s free kick found a streaking Emily Sonnett, who beat Pressley to the near post for a flick over an out of position, and still moving, Ashlyn Harris.
But after the goal, Orlando seemed to settle down and begin getting back into the match. Just eight minutes later, some good buildup play led to a corner. Marta played a short corner to Chioma Ubogagu, who played it back to Marta. The Brazilian’s ball got a flick from Pressley and eventually found Alanna Kennedy at the back post for Orlando’s first postseason goal.
Orlando consistently flirted with a very high line, one that would eventually cost the Pride, and Portland had a couple of good opportunities only to be spoiled by offside. And, in one case in the 27th minute, Klingenberg almost had a 1-v-1, but she couldn't catch up to a through ball from Horan.
From that point until around the 40-minute mark, the Pride controlled much of the match. Sermanni made a much-needed swap of Marta and Ubogagu. This enabled Marta to take advantage of a much worse Thorns right side while allowing Chi to follow Klingenberg around, making her much more quiet than the first 15.
The 40th minute saw Portland gain back some control as Australian international Haley Raso drove against multiple Pride defenders to earn a corner. At this point, the Pride had moved to zonal marking after giving up the first goal. This time the cross found Sinclair but she headed wide.
Portland continued to press in the last five minutes of the first half, nearly getting Sinclair in but again it was offside.
The second half started with a bit of back and forth but the Pride found some early opportunities that they just couldn't close. In the 55th minute, a great direct ball over the top by Pressley found Morgan for a first-time attempt that she sent wide across the box. Marta also had a free kick opportunity that nothing came of.
Then, in the 57th, Sinclair almost found what would have been a wide open Horan in the middle of box. The high line again flirted with being caught out, but Horan and Sinclair weren't on the same page as the ball dropped into an empty box and out for a goal kick.
From the 57th to the 69th minutes the Pride continued to have possession and opportunities but were continually denied by a strong Portland defense. Portland looked content to sit back a little bit and defend crosses and the Pride couldn’t find a final ball.
The inability to find that last ball finally came back to haunt Orlando as the high line was finally burnt in the 71st minute. Horan played a quality weighted ball over the Orlando defense to find Raso, with no one within five yards, who calmly finished past Harris to make it 3-1. Harris on the play seemed disconnected with her back line as she was sitting rather deep and hesitated on what could have potentially been an easy claim or clearance at the top of her box.
The high line almost immediately saw another goal in the next minute as a dangerous cross got behind again but the final ball was wide.
One of the many constant themes of the match was a Hack-A-Morgan strategy that saw the Thorns beating up on the Pride striker consistently. It came to a climax as another tackle by Sonnett in the 73rd found nothing but Morgan’s top half and forced her to the sideline briefly (no foul by the way). Portland featured 15 fouls all match and used plenty of them on Morgan to keep her out of the game as much as possible.
The remainder of the match saw the Thorns never step off the gas pedal as they looked to keep the Pride away from a hometown championship match. With substitutions of three international players in Dagný Brynjarsdóttir (Iceland), Allie Long (USA), and Nadia Nadim (France), the Thorns continued to prove their depth was too much to handle as Sermanni could only counter with Jasmyne Spencer, Rachel Hill , and Danica Evans.
Brynjarsdóttir’s fresh legs proved to be a pain for the left side of defense as she consistently found space to play many dangerous crosses across the six. Orlando began to look out of sorts as fatigue set in late from chasing all game long.
In her first set of touches, Nadim gave Portland a 4-1 lead in the 84th minute by finding a Sinclair at the back post with a ball inches over Kristen Edmonds. The Canadian calmly placed the ball into the back corner.
The Pride finish their second season 11-7-7, seeing huge growth over last year’s ninth-place finish. Leading the league in goals scored and with multiple players up for year-end awards, it proved a successful campaign. While it fell short, we can't help but be optimistic that a full year with Morgan, the experience gained this year and the right off-season moves will see the Pride back in the postseason in 2018.