Portland showed how to defend against Orlando, without doing much to threaten on the other end
The Orlando Pride entered Saturday’s match against Portland on an offensive tear, winning five of their previous six games and scoring 17 goals in the process. But that high-flying attack ground to a halt against the Thorns and raised some questions about whether Orlando might be a bit of a ‘flat-track bully’ – beating up on their weaker opposition but struggling to break down tougher teams.
After all, Orlando’s five-game winning streak came against the teams currently ranked 10th, 6th, 9th, 7th, and 9th in the table. Meanwhile, against the other playoff teams, they’ve only managed a single win – and scored just six goals – in seven games.
Of course, this narrative may only be as strong as the current week’s results. And they could easily turn the tide next week. But there are some reasons to think that Orlando is uniquely likely to devastate weaker teams while struggling against more organized opposition. And the signs were all in clear evidence against Portland.
Orlando attack with lethal quickness
The hallmark of the Orlando attack is the speed of their assaults. The ball pings back and forth in the backline, while they wait for a chance to open. And when it does, they pounce. Marta is the orchestrator, finding pockets of space to receive the ball and quickly pass it along. Morgan is the tip of the spear driven through the opposition’s backline when she can rush onto the ball and bury her chances in the back of the net. And the supporting cast has done excellent work to facilitate this process. Camila has come into her own as a driving attacker. Ubogagu has finally found a role that allows her skill on the ball and quick touches to flourish. Weatherholt and Kennedy have done strong work as the water carriers who keep things afloat while the attacking four get themselves into position to spring an attack.
They have made a wonderful show of it over the past several months and done more than enough to earn their spot in the playoffs. But they, as yet, haven’t really shown that there’s much of a Plan B here.
Writing about Orlando back in May, I argued that they had turned a corner and looked ready to make a run up the table (for once, I got one right!). But I also noted that this progress was more a function of doubling down on a strength than it was about having solved their weaknesses. Put simply: Orlando doesn’t have much of a midfield.
Now, they’ve excelled in spite of that fact by moving the ball with lightning pace out of the back: sending balls over the top, or relying on Marta and Camila to pick out through-balls for the strikers to run onto. They are explosive in the attack, and it can simply be overwhelming if you lack team speed, or if your defensive unit is even slightly ragged. Leave five extra feet of space between the center backs and Morgan will slip right through and score before you have a chance to realize your mistake.
However, without a more diverse range of attacking options, you run the risk of good teams counteracting your strengths. And that’s exactly what we saw happen on Saturday.
Orlando needs space to run into; Deny them that space and the goals will dry up
Portland appear to have come into the match with a clear, and fairly simple, game plan: defend compactly and starve Orlando of the space they need to thrive.
That’s not an easy task. It depends on a comprehensive performance by the entire defensive unit. Defending deep can limit the danger from through-balls, but it also puts your back against the wall. One mistake in defensive positioning, one missed tackle, one poor clearance, and you could find yourself down a goal. But if the team is well drilled and the individual performers are up to the task, it can be stultifying.
In the center, Sonnett and Menges put on a clinic, consistently stepping up to clear away crosses and long balls up the middle. On the wings, Klingenberg and Reynolds worked hard to close down on wide attacks, not giving them time to pick out a pass, and ushering them into less dangerous positions.
Their midfield setup was also designed to facilitate this work. Portland is often quite fluid tactically, shifting freely from 4-3-3 to 4-5-1 to 5-4-1 and even stopping in a traditional old 4-4-2 in the middle sometimes. They shifted a bit less this week, with Sykes occasionally dropping back as an auxiliary fullback on the right, allowing them to set up a seven-woman backfield, as the back five combined with Long and Horan in the middle. The idea of dropping back is to put quick pressure on Orlando anytime they advance into the final third; not necessarily to win the ball but simply to disrupt and frustrate the Pride’s attack. Close down their passing lanes and you force them to either retreat or play a low percentage pass.
It’s a setup that demands a lot of the central midfielders, and to the extent that there was a problem, this is where it manifested. Allie Long has never really been a true holding mid, and some of the reasons for that were all-too-apparent here. She is a pretty good ball-winner but isn’t really a ‘holding’ midfielder, in the sense of managing space and providing a defensive shield. She overcommits to challenges, which is dangerous if she misses and lets the opponent behind her. But it’s even more dangerous when she connects. She drew one yellow and easily could have had two more. It’s the NWSL, where most refs operate on the principle ‘if the leg isn’t broken it wasn’t a booking,’ but even so, she was living on the edge. It was no surprise, therefore, that Parsons made a switch relatively early, bringing on Amandine Henry for Long in the 60th minute. The difference was immediate and noticeable. Presumably, Henry was being given a rest after a cross-continental flight to play for France. But if Portland and Orlando meet again, one would expect her to play the full 90 and bring a bit more calm and coherence to the role.
The final piece of the puzzle is physicality. As I have often noted, the NWSL is notable for the amount of rough play that goes uncalled. And Portland certainly counted on that. They aren’t an especially physical team, but they did their best to act like one in this game. With a pliant referee, they were able to get pretty stuck in and make things exceptionally difficult for Orlando. Morgan, in particular, seemed to get increasingly (and understandably) frustrated with the physical play, which disrupted her touch and movement.
All in all, it was a nice bit of tactical suppression. Coach Mark Parsons deserves credit for identifying Orlando’s weakness and moving to exploit it. And his players deserve a lot of credit for executing the plan well. The center backs and Franch in goal deserve special plaudits for their quick reactions and careful attention to the Pride strikers.
And this has been a theme all year for Portland, who have secured a home playoff berth primarily on their ability to kill off games and frustrate the opposition. That’s certainly not what I expected going into the season, but it’s been interesting watching them adapt and manage games in this way.
Orlando needs a Plan B
The Pride have some devastating offensive pieces, but it’s possible that they aren’t quite the unstoppable force they seemed to be a couple weeks ago. This is a team built primarily around movement off the ball and use of open space. Deny them that space and they look far more human.
Portland, despite a lot of physical proximity to the goal, without the space in which to move quickly, they found little joy, often resorting to shots from distance or poor angles. All in all, they managed to get off 14 shots, but only two that were on target.
The problem is that they simply don’t have the resources to build attacks through intricate passing in tight spaces. Marta is, of course, one of the all-time greats under those conditions, and Ubogagu has her moments. But there isn’t much else. And with a limited set of options, the defense can over-commit to shepherding those players away from dangerous positions. As the saying goes: “you can’t stop Marta; you can only hope to contain her.” But without additional outlets to build intricate triangles around the defense, ‘containment’ will often be enough to get the job done.
We’ve seen a couple modest efforts at unlocking this problem, none of which have been developed fully enough to really work. First, you can push wide and send in crosses. The problem here is that Orlando isn’t particularly good in the air, and Portland (really) is. Second, you can shoot from distance and force them to come out to close you down. But this is problematic too because Orlando doesn’t have much in the way of good long shots, with Camila being the major exception. Third, you can turn defense into offense, pressing aggressively in your opponent’s half. Win the ball there, and you’ll have precisely the space that you were looking for.
This final approach was the most successful. For the opening 20-25 minutes, Orlando was pressing high and making things very difficult for Portland. This has been a consistent problem for the Thorns all season. It’s not entirely clear why they are still so listless playing out from the back, but it’s certainly an opportunity to be exploited. However, that sort of high press is exhausting, particularly in the Orlando afternoon sun. And it’s also dangerous. Orlando has made a lot of progress defensively from the early season problems, but that’s largely due to solidifying the shield in front of the backline. Press high and you risk opening up gaps there. Give a player like Sinclair space to operate, and you risk being hoist on your own petard. A quick outlet to Raso or Nadim could turn a broken press into a goal conceded in mere seconds.
Orlando have a very good team and will be very interesting to watch in the playoffs. But if they want to win the title, they would do well to think about how they will pierce this sort of deep defensive wall. After all, the three teams left for them to think about are far stronger defensively than the opponents they have been battering in recent weeks. A viable Plan B would go a long way toward making their dreams of winning a championship become reality.