NWSL – Portland vs Orlando: A hero rises, the vanquished falling with pride

Portland Thorns vs Orlando Pride, 17/04/16

Shooting oneself in the foot, whether through hubris or incompetence, is a well-worn narrative device, its path through human existence winding widely from Ancient Greece to the Portland Thorns.

It began early, both ball-in-the-face obviously and also in a more subtle way, a character trait that the audience doesn’t realise is destructive until the hero is careering off the cliff top, in need of drastic change to be saved.

The obvious first; in the 12th minute Orlando Pride got a free-kick at the side of the area on their left-hand side, not a hugely good position to get one in. However, the whipped ball from left-back Catley going straight through the Portland keeper Betos and into the net, making Catley the Pride’s first ever goalscorer (they’re an ‘expansion team’ this season, basically meaning that they’re newbies for English audiences).

The slow-building bullet to the metatarsal for Portland in the first half was their strategy to keep the ball, aiming to build rather than to attack more quickly and directly. They kept the ball well in the early period of the game, though under little pressure, but as the half went on it invited Orlando’s very good pressing game onto them.

It largely took until the 16th minute for Portland to give their crowd something to cheer about, their captain and left-winger Heath taking on two Orlando players on the wing and winning a corner.

The home crowd only had to wait another 9 minutes for an equaliser. A driven cross from Heath, just inside the box on the left, was deflected through the first Orlando defender and read by Brynjarsdottir (the commentator called her by her first name Dagny) who drove it from close range into the top of the net.

Orlando, though pressing the Portland defence well, sometimes left space through the middle open as they tried to cover Portland passing options. If Portland got through the middle, Orlando would tend to drop deep and compact, which at times looked dangerous considering that a goalkeeper had already made a bad error in the match so far.

In fairness to Betos, she had a good game for the rest of the match, coming out for a few crosses well and generally being good with her feet. In the second half, Orlando were pressing the Portland the defence, the ball going back to Betos with two forwards baring down on her, but she got the ball away to her right-back on the sideline with a good pass.

This said, a lofted goal-kick to her left-back was intercepted and headed to Orlando’s forward Morgan who had left-winger Spencer in support. Morgan wasn’t quite quick enough in making the obvious pass to her teammate, who was in good space, and by the time that Spencer got it Betos was closing down on her and made a good save.

Nearing the end of the first half, Portland began to work out how to beat Orlando’s pressing, namely by trying to play long balls over the top instead of passing around the back. At half-time their coach Parsons mentioned to the broadcaster that, if they managed to beat their opponent’s initial press, Orlando’s defence was often disorganised and could be got at.

In the second half, this was what Portland tried to do, but they also seemed better organised in defence, with more movement and numbers up-field in attack too. This flooding forwards resulted in a disallowed goal soon after the second half started. Portland’s striker Nadim crossed from the left, central midfielder Long not quite timing her run and glancing the fantastic ball into the near post corner, but the flag was up.

The second half became more end-to-end as it went on, neither team able to keep up their intensity in pressing. Both teams put some good passing sequences together to get through the middle third, but often were forced wide once they got into the final third.

In the 62nd minute Orlando had a good chance to go ahead again, the ball bouncing off heads from a corner and Pride’s central midfielder Kyle popping up round the back at the far post, but just clipping it over as the ball bounced.

It was the home side Portland who eventually took the lead, their self-inflicted bullet wounds healed, what didn’t kill them only making them stronger. A pass in the centre of midfield, just inside the Orlando half, was deflected high; Portland’s Heath controlling and passing it quickly to central midfielder Horan who found herself unmarked and in space just inside the box. She coolly slotted it past Orlando’s keeper into the bottom left corner.

Orlando, though they lost this game, should continue to have the Pride that’s in their very name, as they played well and came close again to scoring in the final five minutes. England’s own Lianne Sanderson, who came on in the second half as a substitute, crossed from Orlando’s left on the corner of the box, two more substitutes in Hagen and Weatherholt almost getting on the end of it at the back post.

Played again, this match could have swung either way, with both sides showing positive signs. Heath was subbed off in injury time, to a warm round of applause from the Portland crowd. They, like all true heroes, hadn’t just over come their opponents, they had overcome themselves as well.

[FT: Portland 2 (Brynjarsdottir 25′, Horan 82′); Orlando 1 (Catley 16′)]

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