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Midfield Possession Key to Orlando Pride Success

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The Pride’s recent struggles have come from an inability to make use of the ball in the midfield.

Carlos Romero, The Mane Land

The Orlando Pride have potentially the most lethal offense in the NWSL. Led by the attacking duo of Marta and Alex Morgan, the Pride led the league in goals scored in 2017 with 45. The addition of Sydney Leroux expected to see that number rise in 2018, but the results so far have not been as expected.

Until recently, it’s been difficult to gauge just how good the Pride would be this season. Earlier in the year, key players such as Marta, Monica, Poliana, Alanna Kennedy, and Emily Van Egmond departed to take part in qualifying for next year’s World Cup. Later, Ashlyn Harris and Alex Morgan briefly departed to represent the United States. But now that the team is at full strength, why is the team struggling to score?

The fact that the Pride are conceding goals is no surprise as they’ve never been league-leaders defensively. In 2016 they conceded 1.5 goals per game, good enough for eighth in the league. Last year, that improved to 1.29 goals per game ranking them fourth in the 10-team league. This year, the Pride have conceded 20 goals in their 15 games, sixth in the NWSL.

The defensive struggles have been acceptable because of the team’s attacking prowess. As with most expansion teams, the Pride struggled in 2016 before exploding last season by scoring a league-leading 45 goals. However, when the goals aren’t coming on the attacking end, the defensive weakness becomes a liability.

The way this team has been built, they’re not going to win a lot of 1-0 games. More often than not, they’re going to have to outscore teams. But that’s been a problem recently, with the Pride only scoring multiple goals in one of the past five games.

Saturday afternoon, the Pride lost a difficult game against the North Carolina Courage 3-0 at Orlando City Stadium. Despite the fact that the Courage have been unquestionably the league’s best team this season, the Pride kept possession for 55 percent of the game. On paper, their 74.9 percent passing accuracy appears good, but it was in the dangerous areas that they struggled.

When attempting to play the ball quickly through the midfield to reach Marta and Morgan up top, the Pride struggled. This created problems multiple times as an interception by the Courage resulted in a counter attack the opposite way.

While part of this is due to the accuracy of the passing in those areas, other factors include the type of passes and support for the ball holder. The Courage did an excellent job Saturday of closing down on Pride players, but the balls played forward were too often over the top, making it more difficult to connect with the forwards.

When the Pride did attempt to play the ball through the midfield, the support was not there for the player with the ball. As teammates ran away rather than to the ball, Pride players were quickly trapped by the Courage defenders closing in and forced to play backwards.

These issues currently hindering the Pride are not something they cannot overcome. They still have the personnel to display the most potent offense in the league. If they are able to play cleanly through the midfield, they have the speed and vision up top to create great opportunities. The ability to fix these issues for the final nine games would easily see the Pride finish second in the league and host a playoff game for the first time in club history.

The Pride were one of the best teams in the NWSL in 2017, finishing third before bowing out to the eventual champion Portland Thorns. With the additions to the squad, they are expected to be even better this season, and currently sit third in the league. The goal of the Pride this season is to reach the NWSL Championship Game for the first time, something that is certainly attainable. However, to accomplish this, the Pride will need better movement and passing through the midfield and into the attacking third. The result could be the team’s first legitimate shot at a league title.