Thorns vs. Pride: The Good, The Bad, and the Historic

On Saturday the new-look Orlando Pride traveled to Portland to take on the Thorns, who are the defending NWSL Shield holders. The Thorns had very little turnover between last season and this one so they came into the match with a comfortable chemistry between most of the players. The most significant change in the offseason has been at goalkeeper, and it proved to be the place where there was the least effective communication for the hosts.

Meanwhile the Orlando Pride have seen a lot of churn in the offseason, between players leaving the team, being traded, or being cut, as you might expect from a team that only had a few months to be put together between the announcement in fall of 2015 and the kickoff of their inaugural season in 2016. But there is little doubt that the new players the Pride acquired would bolster the team both in the defending and attacking end of the pitch, and the most interesting part of watching the team is seeing how long it will take the chemistry to gel between everyone.

Match Summary

I said in my preview that it would be a bit ambitious to predict a victory for the Pride against a Portland team that is returning so many players from last season, especially given the host team's Shield-winning performance from last year. I had thought the Pride might salvage a draw on the day, but they wound up losing the match 2 - 0. The first half goal for Portland came on a PK by Nadia Nadim, after Alanna Kennedy was called for a handball in front of Ashlyn Harris's goal. Portland notched the only goal of the first half, even though the Pride led the halftime statistics in the categories of Shots (7 - 6) and Corner Kicks (2 - 0).

Early on it was clear there are nice partnerships being created for the Pride between returning and newly signed players. Within the first ten minutes Jasmyne Spencer and Chioma Ubogagu were trying to connect on attacks, but the balls were always just a step out of reach or a little off the mark. And the Pride were forcing the Thorns into multiple turnovers deep in Portland's defensive end that resulted in chances but no good finishes for Orlando. There was also an obvious improvement on defense, as the back line were keeping Ashlyn Harris from having to defend too many quality strikes on goal.

Some  of the more exciting moments of the first half included:

  • 8th minute: Spencer finds Ubogagu with a pass just off the mark; Chioma unable to get a good strike at the ball and it's an easy roller for Franch to stop.
  • 10th Minute: Spencer pounces on a muffed block by Adrianna Franch, but her shot goes just wide.
  • 15th Minute: Spencer forces a corner by challenging Franch on a lazy pass.
  • 16th Minute: Ashlyn Harris and Portland's Sinclair clatter to the turf after a hard collision in the Orlando penalty area; Harris sinks to her knees for a moment but is able to continue.
  • 22nd Minute: Ashlyn Harris again driven to the ground after another hard collision, this time with Amandine Henry.
  • 23rd Minute: Monica takes a wild shot that goes harmlessly out of bounds.
  • 24th Minute: Harris makes a diving header to clear a ball at the top of the 18-yard box.
  • 28th Minute: Jamia Fields and Jasmyne Spencer both have chances but neither player can find the back of the net.
  • 30th Minute: Ubogagu tests Portland's Adrianna French with a hard ground ball that the Portland keeper is able to dive on and smother.
  • 31st Minute: Handball in the penalty area called against Alanna Kennedy; Nadia Nadim takes the PK to put Portland up 1 - 0.
  • 41st Minute: Pride create more chances when several players have the ball deep in the penalty area in front of Portland's goal, but they cannot convert the chance to a score.
  • 42nd Minute: Ubogagu spiked by Adrianna Franch; free kick awarded to Orlando just outside the area. Kristen Edmonds takes the kick and it falls to an area where several Pride players have an opportunity at it. Unfortunately Jasmyne Spencer and Chioma Ubogagu collide hard as they both try to go for the ball and play is stopped while trainers come out to attend to Spencer.

The second half began with the same intensive pressure from Orlando. Within the first ten minutes Orlando had no fewer than four quality strikes that tested the Portland defense and threatened to level the score. But by the 60th minute it was clear that Orlando was flagging a bit compared to Portland, and the home side was starting to assert itself as the team creating the better chances. This culminated in a 67th minute goal by Christine Sinclair from a beautiful pass by Allie Long. The play beat both Maddy Evans and Ali Krieger before Sinclair managed to put the ball home past a sprawling Ashlyn Harris.

To this observer's untrained eye, it looked like the change in momentum was due more to the fact that Orlando had expended so much energy early playing a high-pressure style that they were running out of gas, whereas Portland had managed to weather the storm of the Orlando early attack and were now starting to open up and exploit some of the gaps made possible by the tired legs of the visitors.

As the final minutes ticked away, the match had a chance to get very ugly for Orlando indeed. On two occasions in the final ten minutes, Allie Long sunk the ball into the back of the net, but both apparent goals were disallowed by the offside flag. But Orlando also had some late chances to get on the scoreboard. Kristen Edmonds, Steph Catley, and Chioma Ubogagu all had great solo chances, and Catley fed a ball in that missed connecting with Spencer by a fraction of a second for a score.

Some second-half highlights included:

  • 48th Minute: High pressure by the Pride results in a strong shot by Ubogagu that forces Franch to make an excellent save.
  • 50th Minute: Orlando defense handles a dangerous attack deep in the attacking end, clearing the ball out before a shot can reach Ashlyn Harris.
  • 51st Minute: Emily Sonnet commits a handball foul resulting in a free kick for Orlando. A short corner from one of the three players over the ball results in Steph Catley getting the ball and delivering a dangerous shot against Portland's goal.
  • 52nd Minute: A pair of sloppy saves by Adrianna Franch gives Orlando two dangerous chances, but in the scramble the Pride are unable to capitalize and put either ball in the net.
  • 54th Minute: Naida Nadim has a dangerous chance chance inside the 6-yard box, but Harris is able to save it.
  • 65th Minute: Camila takes a wild shot that goes high over the Portland goal into the 10th row of the crowd.
  • 67th Minute: Allie Long beats Maddy Evans on a deep pass to Christine Sinclair, who manages to outpace Ali Krieger as she streaks toward the Orlando goal and blasts a shot past Ashlyn Harris to add to the Portland tally.
  • 76th Minute: Kristen Edmonds has another chance at a free kick that bends around the wall and has some nice movement. Unfortunately Franch was cheating to that side and was able to dive on the ball for the save. 
  • 83rd Minute: Allie Long gets past the Orlando defense and scores an apparent goal which is disallowed for offside.
  • 86th Minute: Another apparent goal by Allie Long is disallowed for offside. This one created off a free kick taken by Sinclair.
  • 90th Minute: Steph Catley makes a stong crossing shot into the face of the Portland goal that lands in Franch's arms a mere fraction of a second before Spencer arrives. It appears it would have been a goal for Orlando if the timing were a bit better.
  • 93rd Minute: Chioma Ubogagu takes a free kick created when Allie Long fouled Jasmyne Spencer deep in Portland's end. However, Ubogagu's kick goes wide and spares Portland from surrendering a goal.
  • 94th Minute: Allie Long has one more opportunity, but she is smothered by the Orlando defense and is unable to get a clean shot; the result is a slow roller that Harris easily stops.

The Good

  • High Pressure from the Pride - For much of the game, it looked like the Thorns had been using the worst tailors in NWSL--in other words, there were Pride defenders hanging on them like cheap suits. The Pride forced the Thorns into repeated turnovers for most of the match, especially when there were errant or lazy passes between defenders and Thorns goalkeeper Adrianna Franch.
  • Pride Win the Quick Draw Battle - The Pride nearly doubled up the Thorns in terms of shots taken, winning that battle by the count of 19 to 11. Many of these shots resulted from takeaways created by the pressure they were applying all  match.
  • Pride Create Chances With Teamwork - The Pride led the stat block for the match both in Passing Accuracy (318/419 to 310/437) and Crosses 14 to 9.  So the players are clearly working to find their open teammate and not just shooting wildly every time they get close to the ball--however, as we will see a little later they are not yet finding each other in stride to provide the best chance for finishing the score.

The Bad

  • Second Half Fading - I'm not going to lie--it looked like the energy level of the Pride compared to the Thorns dropped off during the second half. Tom Sermanni used all three of his available subs by the 78th minute, but it still looked like the visitors lost a step on the home side later in the match, especially on defense, as the Thorns had several easy goal-scoring plays that were wiped away by the offside flag in the final ten minutes of regulation. I trust that the coaching staff know the stamina of all their players better than I do, but I did find myself wondering if it might not have been better to have some fresh legs on defense in the final minutes of the match instead of the swaps they chose to make.
  • Playing Just Off the Beat - While I was pleased to see the vision and proactive attempts at creating chances with their teammates, it was clear that the Pride are still working on their timing between the players. A number of attempted crosses and passes were falling just out of reach or required the receiver to take an extra beat to settle and square on the ball. You can see that once the team learn each others style and strengths a little better they should be able to create many more chances, but it was just off enough to give Portland's defenders and goalkeeper a chance to recover.
  • Failure to Capitalize on Mistakes - I mentioned in the opening that the Thorns have a new goalkeeper this year, and it was evident that Adrianna Franch and her teammates are not always on the same page. There were lots of lazy back passes and sloppy blocks committed by both Franch and her back line. This was a bit frustrating to watch because at times there was no Pride player around to grab possession, and at the times there were they failed to get the ball in the back of the net, either by an errant shot or a misplaced pass attempt to a teammate. While this goes under my "bad" points for the match, I think it's a good sign the Pride are already forcing opponents into these kind of mistakes, and if they can just tighten things up a little bit, I can see these chances resulting in many scoring finishes a few matches later in the season.

The Historic

  • New TV Partnership - Yesterday's match represented the launch of a new partnership between the NWSL and A&E Networks Corp, as the broadcaster's Lifetime channel will be broadcasting an NWSL Match of the Week nationally every Saturday afternoon over the next 24 weeks. This match was the first Lifetime Match of the Week for 2017, and the Pride will feature in 7 of the 24 games, including next week's home opener at Orlando City Stadium. 
  • Hope Opener Record Crowd - The Pride still hold the single match attendance record (which they will try to break next week), but it's been a point of pride for Portland that they have boasted the largest average attendance for every regular-season match in each of the NWSL's previous seasons. Yesterday's announced attendance of 16,145 represented a new record crowd for a season home opener in Portland.

All in all I still expect a good season from the Pride. I just think this match revealed that against a quality NWSL side there are still some issues of chemistry between the new and returning players for the Pride that more time together will help to improve. Orlando's statistical leads in shots, completed passes, and crossing passes shows they are just on the cusp of creating a strong and well-organized side. Hopefully a lack of disruptive International Play this season will result in the team showing consistent improvement throughout the season instead of the inconsistent churn in starting lineups that thwarted the team in their maiden season last year.

What was your take on the match? Did you see reasons to be optimistic about the future, or did the loss make you fear for the season ahead? Was there anyone who stood out as having a surprisingly good performance? Did any players concern you by performing below your expectations? Let me know in the comments below!