How the Morgan-Marta partnership resurrected Orlando's NWSL season

ISI Photos-Jeremy Reper

Two of the world's biggest stars have turned the Pride into a contender, but is it enough for a playoff berth?

The Orlando Pride heads into the weekend on the outside looking in at a National Women's Soccer League playoff position with six games left in the regular season, but that is hardly reason to be alarmed.

After a 1-3-3 start and then a two-steps-forward-one-step-back march to .500, Orlando is a legitimate contender in NWSL thanks to a series of bold moves and the emergence of the partnership between dynamic attackers Alex Morgan and Marta.

Morgan and Marta have played together before, in 2011 with the Western New York Flash. Morgan was a rookie. Marta was the best player in the world, and there wasn’t a whole lot of debate about it. Christine Sinclair was also on that team and Morgan was something of an understudy to the both of them. The Morgan/Sinclair reunion in Portland lasted three years and produced a championship, but they did not often look like they were on the same page. The Morgan/Marta reunion is not yet two months old, but already it looks fruitful.

This is one of the difficult teams when you’re bringing a new team together," Pride coach Tom Sermanni said. "It's okay to say, ‘Let’s get this great player and that great player,’ but it takes time for players to work together and to know the timing of things and the rhythm of things. And we are beginning to see that happening, that players are now reading other players, and that's what is making the difference. So when you get an Alex Morgan and a Marta getting on the same page, you get an unbelievable potent strike force."

Orlando’s improved defensive integrity is a factor, too, but the key to the Pride stabilizing has been Marta, and the key to the club reaching contender status has been the re-addition of Morgan. In the last two matches in particular, Morgan and Marta were a sight to behold, emerging as one of the most dangerous duos in the league. Take the first goal on Saturday, in a 5-0 rout of Sky Blue. Marta, under pressure in midfield, not only gets out of trouble, but does so by putting a perfect ball over the top to Morgan.

Morgan beat Christie Pearce on the play in a manner that Pearce has rarely been beat in her nearly 20-year career. But the greater point is that with so much attention on Marta, there was no defensive cover to deal with Morgan.

Turn back the clock to the Pride’s win over Sky Blue in New Jersey on June 28. The match-winner was scored by Rachel Hill — her first and heretofore only professional goal — and assisted by Steph Catley. Not included in the score sheet was Marta. But if you watch the buildup to the goal, it is Marta who stretches Sky Blue’s defense out of shape, which opened the door for Catley and then Hill to get into space to create the opportunity.

Morgan returned the next game, and has five goals in seven games this season. Orlando is 4-2-2 since that day in New Jersey.

Other players have benefited from Marta’s arrival as well. Jasmyne Spencer is in career form and Chioma Ubogagu has proven that she can contribute at multiple positions including, if desperately needed, outside back.

A plan finally coming together…slowly

The 2017 version of the Pride began the season with a confounding penchant for giving away sloppy goals. In fact, if Orlando winds up missing the playoffs, it will likely be points squandered early in the season that will keep players up at night rather than the time it took to get Morgan and Marta going together. Midfield giveaways contributed to some of the defensive woes, but overall the club was not cohesive in back early in the season.

Orlando’s arrival to this point took longer than initially hoped by ownership, which entered the league with lofty goals. The 2016 expansion season had a promising start before the entire backline, plus keeper Ashlyn Harris, went to the Olympics. Catley came back hurt and did not play again. Laura Alleway played less than 90 total minutes.

Josee Belanger retired over the offseason but the addition of Ali Krieger from Washington filled that void. The Pride also shipped Sam Witteman to the Courage in exchange for Alanna Kennedy, who was expected to anchor the back line. Neither of those things panned out. Kennedy spent the early part of the season giving the ball away in egregiously bad places leading to Tom Sermanni pushing her up into midfield. In turn Krieger was shifted central and Kristen Edmonds became the right back more often than not.

ISI Photos-Jeremy Reper

ISI Photos-Jeremy Reper

The personnel changes did not work instantly, but in time began to pay off. Kennedy’s play improved exponentially as a defensive midfielder and Krieger has been solid in central defense. Toni Pressley, in the best shape of her career, did admirable work for a spell as the “other” central defender but has since been passed over by Monica. Right back remains the weak link on the field, but Edmonds, who was a revelation last season, has shown week-over-week improvement. The fact that Marta & Co. have kept the ball moving toward the other side of the pitch more often only helps.

In Saturday’s demolition of Sky Blue, the Pride drew a penalty kick holding a five-goal lead. Morgan and Marta, the only two Pride players ever to take penalties before, were both on hat tricks. Not only had the Pride never had a hat trick, neither had Morgan or Marta in either of the two U.S. leagues in which they have played. Marta picked up the ball, but instead of trying for personal glory (a goal also would have put her even with injured Megan Rapinoe atop the golden boot race) she walked into the throng of Pride players near the box and handed the ball to Maddy Evans, playing in her final match before retiring.

Evans’ penalty was saved by Kailen Sheridan, one of the few things that went wrong for the Pride on the night. It is another Marta moment that won’t be evident in any box scores.  But it showed a connection between one of the most famous players in the world and one of the most inconspicuous. It is the type of cohesion that hasn’t existed in Orlando’s short history — one which just might help put the Pride over the top in the battle for the final playoff spot.

Whether or not all of this is enough is the question. There are six matches to go, including two against the Boston Breakers and another against FC Kansas City, both of which sit near the bottom of the table.

Orlando final stretch features home games against Seattle and Portland before a trip to North Carolina to end the regular season. That Sept. 9 visit from the Reign is the most important of the group. The margin for error is slim, but the Pride finally plays like a side capable of taking on all comers in the battle to play deep into the NWSL season. At the center of that is Marta and Morgan.

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