By Katelyn Best
PORTLAND, Ore. – The Portland Thorns take on the Orlando Pride Saturday at 12:30, in the first of two semifinals this weekend. The winner will face the winner of Sunday’s North Carolina-Chicago matchup in the NWSL Championship on Saturday, October 14 in Orlando.
For the Thorns, the match follows a lopsided final regular-season game that saw Chicago Red Stars head coach Rory Dames rest most of his starting lineup. Portland went up 2-0 early in the first half, and although Sofia Huerta got one back for Chicago after subbing on in the second half, a Nadia Nadim penalty kick in the 82nd minute closed out the scoring, and the match ended 3-1 in the Thorns’ favor. Although a win would have kept the Red Stars in third place, meaning a repeat of this matchup in the semifinal, Portland would not have moved out of second place regardless of the outcome.
“Obviously, the points and stuff didn’t matter,” said Thorns forward Hayley Raso, who scored the game’s opening goal, after the match. “But I think we have quite a bit of momentum behind us, and that’s good for us leading into [the semifinal].”
Orlando, meanwhile, are coming off a road win against the Shield-winning North Carolina Courage. By the 51st minute, the Pride were up 2-0 on the strength of goals from Kristen Edmonds and Marta. Not long after Marta scored, Lynn Williams notched two in close succession to equalize for North Carolina. But in the first minute of stoppage time, Alanna Kennedy curled a free kick in from just outside the penalty arc to seal the win for Orlando. The result moved Orlando into third place, sending them to Portland for the semifinals.
While the result of a win this Saturday—namely, a spot in the final—is the same for both teams, the match carries a different meaning for each side. For Orlando, who finished in ninth place in their inaugural 2016 season, it’s the club’s first trip to the playoffs. Making it to the final would also mean playing in front of a home crowd. “Obviously, having the final at home is giving us that extra encouragement,” said forward Alex Morgan after last week’s game.
The Thorns, on the other hand, head into the weekend looking for redemption a year after their upset semifinal loss to Western New York last season. “It was pretty killer,” remembered Portland defender Meghan Klingenberg on a media conference call. “At the end of last season, we were playing some of our very best soccer, and we really felt going into that game we had an awesome opportunity at winning, and we worked really hard, but unfortunately it didn’t go our way.”
Both squads come into this match on a run of good form. Orlando is unbeaten in the last nine matches. “I think we just bonded together midseason,” said Morgan. “It’s been an amazing ride so far… we couldn’t be in a better spot going in the playoffs.”
Meanwhile, although Portland suffered a road loss against Kansas City on August 16, the Thorns are 9-1-1 since week 15.
Orlando’s success this season has rested largely on outstanding performances by Morgan and Marta. The pair have contributed a combined 22 goals (13 by Marta, nine by Morgan) and ten assists (six by Marta, four by Morgan) to the Pride’s league-leading offense. Morgan’s goal total is even more impressive considering she only played 13 matches for Orlando. Marta also has 64 chances created this season—the most, by a wide margin, of any player in the league.
“Obviously,” said Pride head coach Tom Sermanni on the conference call, “Marta and Alex have really gelled well together in scoring goals and making great connections. They’re playing really well.”
Sermanni was careful, however, not to discount the contributions of the rest of his roster. He also pointed to the group of new players the Pride brought in this year, including Ali Krieger, Alanna Kennedy, Camila and Rachel Hill, as contributing to the team’s improvement over their 2016 season. “You put the combination of Alex and Marta, and that, together, and that’s been the catalyst to get the results we’ve gotten and improve our performances.”
The Pride do, however, come into this match missing an important piece in Camila, who suffered an ACL tear in Orlando’s match against North Carolina. The 22-year-old Brazilian has played all over the field this season, including shifts at forward, central midfield, and outside back. She’s contributed four goals and five assists.
Portland’s strength, by contrast, is their league-leading defense. Although the Thorns finished the regular season two points behind North Carolina, they have the fewest goals allowed and best goal differential in the league. “This back line’s been the best back line,” said head coach Mark Parsons on the conference call, “for two years straight. I think it’s about time that [Klingenberg], [Emily] Sonnett, [Emily] Menges, [Katherine Reynolds], and throw [Ashleigh] Sykes in, get recognition.”
In goal, Adrianna Franch has had a tremendous season, leading the NWSL with an 80% saves-to-shots ratio. She recently broke Nicole Barnhart‘s record for most clean sheets in a season, getting her 11th shutout two weeks ago against the Pride.
Portland heads into the weekend with an almost entirely healthy roster. After spending nearly the whole season rehabbing a back injury, midfielder Tobin Heath made her home debut against Chicago last weekend.
“It’s difficult,” Heath said after the game, asked about reintegrating into the team this late in the year. “They played the whole entire season, and I wasn’t a part of that, obviously… on the field, you build that kind of thing throughout the season, so everybody else is up to speed and on that page or whatever, but I’m fortunate, because we basically have the same team as last year, so there’s not too many relationships that I haven’t already developed.”
In four all-time meetings between these two teams, the Pride have never beaten the Thorns. They did play to a scoreless draw two weeks ago in Orlando, in a game that saw the Pride get the lion’s share of chances on goal, with 14 shots to Portland’s five.
“It was a hard one for both teams,” said Parsons. Looking ahead to this weekend, he added, “Orlando is a very good attacking team, they’re well coached… It’s going to be an unbelievable matchup, a great matchup that will bring out the best in us, and I’m sure will force us to find a new level.”
“We need to make sure we’re doing our best to impose our will on the game,” said Klingenberg. “We have to play the way we want to play, control the tempo, make sure we’re pressuring them… just make the game as hard as possible for them.”
There’s only one certainty going into Saturday’s match: the home crowd at Portland’s Providence Park, which sold out last weekend and will likely be packed again for the semifinal.
“It’s always tough to play in front of their crowd,” said Kennedy on the conference call. “Final football is difficult, so I’m happy with the form that we’re in.” Kennedy, who played for Western New York last year, was also in Portland for last year’s semifinal. “I think it would be great if I could do the same thing two years in a row.”
The atmosphere can be a double-edged sword for visiting teams — both hostile and electrifying.
“I expect it to be sold out,” said Orlando goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris after last week’s game. “It’s going to be insane. I can’t wait for it, we can’t wait for it. This is what playoffs are about, this is what winning championships are about. It’s about playing the best, when all odds are against you. We’re ready for that challenge.”