Alex Morgan Is Crushing It Right Now — And Suddenly Orlando Is Actually Relevant

Watch out NWSL: Alex Morgan is on fire and the league’s long-dormant potential powerhouse is awakening. There might be no stopping the Pride — at least until the Olympics roll around. 

Before the NWSL match between N.C. Courage and Orlando Pride on Saturday, Courage coach Paul Riley said his Pride counterpart was still adjusting to the American league. Marc Skinner arrived in Orlando from England, where Riley said the pace is far slower. 

“Marc is getting used to the way that the league plays, a lot of transition game in the league,” Riley said. “I think the benefit of last year, of not playing, is that he’s had a look at the games and realized that transition is key. ... I think in the English game, it’s a lot more side-to-side and, to be honest with you, I fall asleep watching quite a few of the games compared to NWSL. I’m biased, of course, but that’s my take on it.”

The criticism was deserved. The Pride didn’t record a win in the 2020 Fall Series, missed the 2020 Challenge Cup with too many positive Covid-19 cases and finished dead last in 2019, Skinner’s first season in Orlando. 

Now the Pride are soaring, and Skinner has the form of his top players — namely Morgan and Sydney Leroux — to thank. Orlando tops the NWSL table after back-to-back 2-1 wins, including over North Carolina, one of the league’s standard bearers. Morgan and Leroux top the league in scoring after recent pregnancies and their play has been a joy to watch.

Finally, the team with some of the best talent in the world is actually playing like a team with some of the best talent in the world. 

The Pride went 1-1-2 in the 2021 Challenge Cup, about as middle-of-the-road as you can come. While the defense was there (three goals allowed), the offense wasn’t quite clicking, with three goals scored. Since the NWSL regular season began, everything is starting to come together.

Alex Morgan has now found the back of the net in three straight games to lead the league in scoring. Leroux is right behind in a tie for second with two goals. And while she’s yet to score this season, Brazilian legend Marta is still hugely influential, a player who can create something out of nothing like no one else in the world. Add in midfielder Meggie Dougherty Howard — assists on two of three goals in the Challenge Cup — and the Pride offense is looking like it could be one of the best in the league.

Defensively, Skinner has two stalwarts he can rely on, married teammates Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris. Krieger, a defender, and Harris, the No. 1 keeper, are also both balancing team success after welcoming a new baby to the world in February

It’s been all about the moms for the Pride this year: Krieger, Harris, Leroux and Morgan. In 2019, Leroux sped back from giving birth to her second child in June to play in September. Morgan had her first child in May of 2020 and joined Tottenham last fall before returning to the Pride in 2021. 

While Morgan’s stay in England was disappointing — to be fair she was coming off a long respite to give birth — she’s started the 2021 NWSL campaign sizzling. 

In the 2021 season opener, Morgan scored an 84th-minute equalizer against Washington after a long ball over the top allowed her to chip the keeper.

The Pride then beat the Courage 2-1 on Saturday. Leroux opened the scoring by stealing a wayward back pass and smashing a near-post shot. Morgan ensured the three points by torching a defender on the wing to create a one-on-one opportunity before burying a shot inside the far post. She even pulled out a Ted Lasso celebration.

It was a similar story on Wednesday night against the 2021 Challenge Cup champion Portland Thorns. Morgan ripped a stunning volley to open the scoring. Tied 1-1 at the break, Leroux again took advantage of a defensive error to net the winner 17 seconds after halftime.

The Pride haven’t been dominating opponents — they’ve possessed 44 percent of the ball — but Skinner and Co. have found a way to let Morgan and Leroux do what they do best: get in behind defenses and wreak havoc. While it’s hard to give too much credit to Skinner for doing the obvious, it’s clearly working.

The question is: How long can Orlando keep this up?

The Pride’s success relies on players who are vital to their national teams — Morgan, Krieger, Harris and Marta. With Brazil and the U.S. in the Olympics — not to mention a spree of USWNT friendlies to prepare for the Tokyo competition — Skinner will have to figure out how to replicate this success without his best players. Chances are, the Pride will struggle as the NWSL isn’t taking a break for the Olympics, which take place from July 21-Aug. 6.

Vlatko Andonovski and the USWNT, meanwhile, will welcome Morgan’s recent success. No matter the reason, coming back to play after missing a year is difficult, but it appears Morgan is hitting her stride right as Tokyo beckons. 

And that’s a bad thing for NWSL opponents — and the 11 other national teams competing in Tokyo this summer.

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