Analysis

Embarrassment of riches: Thorns' star-studded roster too much for Pride

ISI Photos-Craig Mitchelldyer

Portland and Orlando finished one place apart in the standings, but the Thorns' depth prevailed.

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The final score is always the only story that matters, but to the extent you can infer anything from the Portland Thorns’ 4-1, NWSL semifinal win over the Orlando Pride on Saturday, you’re likely to get a misleading message.

The result was the largest margin of victory for any team in the young league’s playoff history, but it was also a game which, from the point the Orlando Pride halved Portland’s early, 2-0 lead, could have gone either way. For much of the match, Marta’s mastery of the Thorns’ right side looked set to define the match, with the home side spending most of the match searching for solutions.

Ultimately, that solution came down to the same advantage the Thorns organization has had since before the league kicked off in 2013, when a squad which would eventually include Christine Sinclair, Alex Morgan, and Tobin Heath went on to claim the NWSL’s first title. It’s an advantage the Thorns have kept through their lows in 2014 and 2015 and through their post-Morgan rebuild in the winter of 2016. Throughout the NWSL’s existence, Portland has always had the league’s most talented team, and in claiming the organization’s first playoff win since 2013, the Thorns’ talent won out.

Consider that game’s back-breaking moment: the long ball from Lindsey Horan to Hayley Raso, beating Orlando’s overmatched defense, producing the game’s fourth goal. It was high-level international to high-level international, a link resulting from a perfect ball few other than Horan could play to somebody whose pace is as dangerous as any player’s in the league. Over the course of 70 minutes, the Thorns had drawn, pushed, and lured the Pride’s defense until that ball was finally possible, with two of Orlando’s most talented players, Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris, beaten in the process.

Then there was the matter of setup, with Tom Sermanni having to commit his two normally deep-lying midfielders higher in the formation to account for Horan and French international Amandine Henry. The moves were a function of losing a key creative presence, Camila, last week to injury, one that forced Tony Pressley, a natural defender, into midfield. The shift also pushed Marta wide, resulting not only in a lack of connectivity in the middle but a further deficit of talent. With that disadvantage, Orlando could only hold out for so long, especially when it was chasing a goal.

Then consider the subs. The three players Portland brought off the bench are all well-established internationals: Dagny Brynjarsdottir (Iceland), Nadia Nadim (Denmark), and Allie Long (United States). All three are capable of starting for most teams in the league, with Nadim and Long serving long spells in Portland’s best XI this year. The Pride, in contrast, were left hoping Rachel Hill, Jasmyne Spencer, and Danica Evans could provide a spark. By the time they were called on, the game was already setting.

It’s a surprisingly large chasm between two teams which finished one place apart in the standings, but even there, talent tells a story.

Portland achieved that place without 2016 U.S. Soccer Player of the Year Tobin Heath, who made her first start of the season on Saturday after missing her team’s first 22 games with back problems. Starting right-center back Katherine Reynolds also missed half the season, while right wingback Ashleigh Sykes didn’t report to the team until midseason. Henry and Nadim missed a month at the European championships, and the team shifted formation in the middle of the year, yet Portland still relatively cruised to a home playoff game.

The Thorns and Pride may have finished next to each other in the standings, but in terms of squad depth, the teams are still worlds apart.

Orlando is three years behind the game, having only joined the NWSL last season, so it shouldn’t hope to replicate Portland’s depth, right now. For all the progress it made this season, the Pride still needs upgrades at two places in defense, with creativity in midfield, on the flanks and in the attack. The fact the team was able to compete this season against teams that have no such holes speaks to Marta’s unmatched influence, as well as the wisdom of head coach Tom Sermanni’s decisions.

But in a one-and-done scenario when a team with Portland’s depth can concentrate on a few isolated threats, you can get Saturday’s final: A lopsided score in a game that played much closer, even if the losing side managed only one shot on target. There was a chance Marta or Morgan could strike early and spur a smash-and-grab, but that was always going to be Orlando’s best shot. In the face of Portland’s heights, the Pride was left hoping for the miracle of playoff soccer.

Portland won’t enjoy such huge advantages next week. Be it North Carolina or Chicago that makes it through Sunday’s semifinal, the Thorns won’t be facing a team with multiple weaknesses. On the contrary, they will be facing teams that look more like theirs: well-rounded squads, built over a period of time, whose own trial-and-error processes have produced lineups with no obvious flaws.

Come the final, the result may come down to matchups. It may come down to execution, or the plans each coach put into place. Maybe momentum will play a part, and perhaps some health issue could surface tomorrow in Cary, North Carolina.

Regardless, Portland won’t be able to rely on the huge edges it had against Orlando. The Thorns will have more than enough talent to claim their second title, but against the Courage or Red Stars, talent won’t be enough.

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