The Orlando Pride fell behind early but equalized through Marta’s penalty and the teams split the points in a 1-1 draw in front of a nice opening day crowd of 9,017 at Orlando City Stadium. Marta’s first of the season was vital, after Gunnhildur Jonsdottir gave the visitors a lead just three minutes into the match. But the Pride (0-0-1, 1 point) responded well and both teams proved difficult to break down, especially in the second half.
Orlando and Utah (0-0-1, 1 point) each was lacking in sharpness, as is typical early in the NWSL season. With teams not getting many preseason tests, or having some of their players in camp at all due to international duty, the offensive precision can suffer and that seemed to be the case on this night, with each team only mustering seven shot attempts and creating just five chances.
“It was kind of the game we expected. We knew they would come out, be well organized, and start to really press us and work really hard to get a result here,” Pride Head Coach Tom Sermanni said after the match. “They’re a new franchise and they kind of brought that enthusiasm to the game.”
With everyone except Camila (knee surgery) and Australian internationals Alanna Kennedy and Emily van Egmond available, Sermanni deployed his squad like this:
Utah struck first on the game’s first scoring chance. After a pair of Pride corners went nowhere, Utah finally got out of its own end and headed into the attacking third. Diana Matheson sent a dangerous cross into the box just as Jonsdottir made a run through the Orlando defense. The Icelandic attacker got her foot on the end of the cross to volley it past Ashlyn Harris to make it 1-0 in the game’s third minute. It was the first goal in Utah Royals FC history.
“I thought we got just a little bit disorganized. Our two center backs got dragged out to our left hand side, probably a little bit too far across — both of them,” Sermanni said of the early defensive breakdown. “And that left us a little bit short in numbers at the center in the back there and Dani kind of filled in but didn’t probably get in there quite quick enough. And then the second thing is that we allowed the cross to come in a little too easily.”
The Royals’ midfield dictated play in the first half, as Christine Nairn, Toni Pressley, and Dani Weatherholt had difficulty maintaining possession in traffic. Kelley O’Hara tried to double the Utah lead in the 15th minute but her shot was comfortable for Harris. Two minutes later, Ali Krieger fired just over the bar off a corner kick that found her at the top of the box.
In the 19th minute, left back Carson Pickett fired a cross into the box for Weatherholt that the Pride midfielder hit on the volley, the ball smashed off of Utah defender Becky Sauerbrunn and a penalty was awarded for handball. Whether it hit the USWNT captain’s arm or not, it definitely hit her in the face and she needed a moment to gather herself. After she did, Marta slotted home the Pride’s first goal of the season to level the score in the 21st minute.
“It was a credit to Carson’s vision to see me running in behind there,” Weatherholt said of the play that led to the penalty. “Our coaches tell us as midfielders to make runs past the forward line. Carson played an incredible ball and I wish it went in but we got a handball out of it, and Marta placed it.”
Orlando looked a threat to score a second in the 28th, when a ball over the top was flicked on by Sydney Leroux to Alex Morgan, who race in and fired on target but Abby Smith made a diving save. In the 37th minute, Leroux got to the end line and fizzed a cross to the back post for Marta, but the shot got deflected out for a corner.
That was the last good chance for either team in the half but it wasn’t the last significant event. In the 45th, Morgan tried to reach a long ball over the top but Smith got there at the same time. The two players collided and Morgan got the worst of it. After receiving attention from the training staff, the striker walked off under her own power straight to the locker room. She is undergoing concussion protocol.
The Pride held 55% of the first-half possession, completed 75.5% of their passes (to Utah’s 69.8%), and led in shots, 5-4 (2-2 on goal).
Chioma Ubogagu started the second half in place of Morgan, but it was Leroux who almost started the second half with a bang. A well-timed run on a long ball from the back got her in behind the defense. However, she took a heavy touch just inside the top of the box and the ball got too far out in front, allowing Smith to come off her line and collect.
“I think it just got away from me,” Leroux said. “I took an extra touch and I should have actually just hit it with my left foot, but first game...hopefully that won’t happen next game.”
“I thought if we had scored, I think, early in the second half when we had a couple good chances, we’d have gone on and won the game quite comfortably,” Sermanni said. “But the more it stays at one each, the more they defended and dug in and kept well organized.”
Two minutes later, the Royals got a free kick and the cross in started ping-ponging around the box before Harris caught it while backing toward her far post.
Leroux got her head to a ball in the box in the 49th minute but could only make glancing contact with it, making for an easy stop for Smith.
That was just about it for the decent chances in the game. Both coaches used up their three substitutions as the players grew more fatigued in the game’s final half hour. Second-half sub Rachel Hill probably had the biggest impact of the replacements, crossing in a ball for Leroux in the 75th minute that Smith got to first, and then sustaining a big collision in the box in the 81st minute — that play somehow ended in a Utah free kick even though it appeared a 50/50 challenge and Hill got by far the worst of it, having to get treatment.
Jonsdottir got the last look at goal in the fifth minute of stoppage time, getting onto a failed clearance but firing over the bar. The final whistle blew moments later and both teams shared the spoils.
Shots were 7-7 (3-2 on target to the Pride), with Orlando holding 54% of the possession and winning in the passing game, 75%-68% and earning more corners (4-1).
All in all, it was a sloppier game than we’re used to from Orlando, but it looked like a typical opener. The defense did fall asleep on the early goal but after that Utah didn’t create much danger.
“It was a hard-fought game,” Leroux said. “It was hard to get a rhythm. I felt like there were a lot of stoppages. But I feel we can build on this and move forward.”
The Pride are back in action next Saturday on the road against the Washington Spirit. Pregame coverage starts at 3:30 p.m. on Lifetime. Marta, Poliana, and Monica will not be part of that game, as the three Brazilian internationals are leaving for national team duty.