The Orlando Pride are finally above the red line in NWSL. Level on points with the Chicago Red Stars for third place and five points clear of the fifth-place Seattle Reign, the Pride have everything in front of them.
They also have three contenders for those playoff spots in their way.
With just three games left in the regular season, the Pride have Cascadia rivals Seattle, fifth in the league, and the Portland Thorns, sitting at second, at home before visiting the reigning champions and table-topping North Carolina Courage on the last weekend of the regular season. Three-game runs don’t get much more difficult than that, especially not in crunch time.
The good news for the Pride is that their attack is scorching. They haven’t been held scoreless since July 1 and are on a run of multi-goal games that stretches back to Aug. 8. It’s not a coincidence that the 3-0 drubbing of the Washington Spirit is also the beginning of their current five-game win streak. Orlando is the hottest team in the NWSL and looks like it belongs among the elite of the league. Those victories all came against the bottom half of the table, however, with wins over the Spirit, Sky Blue, FC Kansas City, and twice against the Boston Breakers. Now the Pride get a chance to test their mettle against the other end of the table.
The Pride are a combined 3-6-1 against the Reign, Thorns, and Courage over the past two years, but Orlando has yet to face these foes with both Alex Morgan and Marta in the lineup. The dynamic duo will face the ultimate test of the league’s top two defenses in Portland (19 goals allowed) and North Carolina (18 goals allowed). If they can have their way with those two teams, the Pride have to be considered one of the favorites to make the NWSL final at home in Orlando City Stadium.
But the most important match might be this weekend against Seattle. The Reign are one of two teams threatening Orlando’s playoff position — with Sky Blue just a point behind them — and with a six-point game on Saturday, the five-point lead the Pride have opened up is anything but secure. A win guarantees Orlando a berth in the postseason due to owning the tie breaker over Sky Blue. A draw puts more pressure on the final two Pride fixtures and hoping for some help, and a loss turns at least Portland into a must-win scenario.
“We are coming up against a team vying for the top four next week [Seattle], and coming up against two teams in the top four [Portland and North Carolina],” Pride Head Coach Tom Sermanni said, following the Pride’s win over Boston last weekend. “If we make fundamental errors at the back, we’ll get punished.”
The best case scenario for Orlando would be a win against Seattle and a Washington Spirit result against Sky Blue, guaranteeing the Pride a spot in the top four and relieving at least some of the stress of the final two weeks. Then it becomes a question of catching Portland for a home game in the semifinals, which puts a different kind of pressure on next weekend’s fixture.
“If we get a favorable result this weekend with Seattle, and or Sky Blue, and we win next weekend, I think we are going to be pretty close [to securing a playoff spot]. Probably not mathematically, but I think we will be pretty close,” Sermanni said. “We looked at that little stretch of games in August, those home games as really critical to start a push. We’ve done that really well. And then we have looked at the last three games. Kansas away, [Boston at home], and the other home game against Seattle as being this other little known crucial run of games. So to get that result next week, I think will put us in a really good spot."
The Pride have arguably been the best team in the league over the past six weeks. But this is where the arguments stop and Orlando has an opportunity to show that it belongs with the elite of the NWSL.