The NWSL season has entered the final stretch and teams are jockeying for one of the six playoff positions. The Pride have only made the postseason once since entering the league in 2016, but sit in fourth with five games remaining. While the Pride’s defense has been solid for much of the season, the team’s attacking health will be key for making a postseason run.
The Pride have dealt with several absences during the 2021 NWSL regular season. Alex Morgan (United States), Marta (Brazil), and Ali Riley (New Zealand) represented their countries during the Olympics, causing all three starters to miss several games. Additionally, injuries to Morgan, Courtney Petersen, Phoebe McClernon, and Ashlyn Harris have kept them out of games.
International absences, injuries, and mid-season additions to the back line have created some defensive instability. Gunny Jonsdottir started the season at right back before moving to the midfield when Riley was ready. When Riley went to the Olympics, Ali Krieger moved to right back and Amy Turner partnered with Phoebe McClernon at center back. When Riley returned, Krieger and Turner made up the center back pairing and McClernon moved to left back, replacing the injured Petersen.
The constant changes in the back line are a major reason why the Pride have only had three clean sheets this season, despite having one of the best goalkeepers for most of the season. If not for excellent goalkeeping, the Pride would likely have conceded far more than the 21 goals they have so far.
The Pride have been decent offensively this season. Their 24 goals are third most in the league, but they’ve conceded 21 goals as well. The teams that have scored a similar number of goals — OL Reign, North Carolina Courage, and the Thorns — have all conceded fewer goals.
While the Pride have conceded more goals than they would like, those goals have been pretty evenly spread across the season. In addition to the three clean sheets, they’ve conceded once 11 times and twice five times. The team is 3-0-0 when recording a clean sheet, but the difference in record when conceding once versus conceding twice has had a big impact.
In games that the Pride have allowed one goal, they are 3-0-7. Conversely, the team is 0-5-0 when conceding twice. Through 19 games, they have yet to concede three goals in a single game.
The defense has done well this year to avoid conceding several goals, but that hasn’t been turning into points. As evidenced by their record, more often than not the Pride have ended up with a draw instead of a win when conceding just one goal. That consistent lack of offensive production adds up at the end of the season.
From a statistical standpoint, the Pride are 2-3-7 when scoring once, but 5-0-0 when scoring at least two goals. Saturday’s 3-1 win over Racing Louisville FC was only the second time this year they’ve scored three goals, with the other coming in a 3-1 win over Kansas City on June 23.
The lack of offensive production has largely been due to a lack of weapons. When Morgan departed for the Olympics, the Pride were primarily dependent on Sydney Leroux to provide the team’s goals. While Marta has scored three goals this season, the 35-year-old’s age has been apparent at times when comparing her performance to previous seasons.
To make up for the production lost by Morgan’s absence, the Pride signed English striker Jodie Taylor. The signing appeared to pay off in early August when Taylor scored in back-to-back games. However, her strike against the Portland Thorns on Aug. 14 is her last goal to date.
Before Morgan left for the Olympics, she scored four goals in seven games for the Pride this season. But a calf injury in the bronze medal game meant that her return came much later than originally expected.
While Morgan was away and injured, Leroux stepped up as the team’s offensive producer, scoring a team-leading three goals in 10 games. Taylor was the only other Pride player to score more than one goal in that stretch.
With her goal Saturday night, Leroux has scored eight goals in 18 games this season. Despite her international absence and injury, Morgan is second on the team with five goals in eight games played. The only other Pride players with multiple goals this year are Marta, with three, and both Taylor and Taylor Kornieck, with two each.
Claiming three points against Louisville was big as the Pride look to secure their second playoff spot in team history. But the return of Morgan, who played 29 minutes, was just as important. That was shown when she scored the team’s third goal just four minutes after coming on.
“The goal is to be 90 minutes by the game in Seattle (on Sep. 26),” Morgan said about her return to action. “So I’m going to use the (upcoming) national team games to build fitness. Hopefully, I’m able to get into those a little bit more so I can build up my fitness, but I feel really good. My calf injury, I feel like, took a little bit longer than anticipated. But I wanted to make sure that I was 100%, not 95%. I didn’t want a setback because we only have six weeks left of regular season, so every week is so important.”
The importance of Morgan and Leroux to the Pride offense has been known since the season began. The duo scored the team’s first six regular-season goals and eight of the first 10. Together, they’ve scored more than half of the team’s goals during the 2021 NWSL regular season.
With Morgan injured, the Pride depended greatly on production from Leroux and excellent goalkeeping by Harris. Both came through multiple times when needed, but the addition of Morgan to the lineup will take pressure off of two of the Pride’s most important players heading into the playoffs. Leroux can only do so much by herself and Morgan’s return might be the needed boost to push the Pride to a playoff run.