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Orlando Pride Will Face Biggest Test When North Carolina Courage Visit

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Riding a five-game unbeaten run, Orlando will face the league leaders next week in a pivotal match.

Carlos Romero, The Mane Land

The Orlando Pride are on a very good five-match run, during which they are undefeated with three wins and two draws. Those results saw wins against some of the NWSL’s elite, including a 2-0 win against the Chicago Red Stars and a 2-1 win against the Portland Thorns — both on the road. Each of those teams is expected to be in the playoffs or, at worst, battling until the end with teams like the Pride and Seattle Reign.

The Pride have recently gotten back all their internationals and anyone watching can certainly tell the team has a very different vibe since the return of Brazilians Marta, Poliana, and Monica, and Australians Alanna Kennedy and Emily van Egmond.

In fact, it is giving Head Coach Tom Sermanni fits — I’m assuming — because the Pride have never had to deal with this type of depth at any point in their young history. For once, a good problem exists where Sermanni is leaving quality out rather than trying to fill holes.

All these players coming back at this juncture will now be put to their toughest test yet as the North Carolina Courage — and their league-leading statistics in pretty much everything — come to Orlando next Wednesday night, May 23.

When I say pretty much everything, here’s where the Courage stand (as of this writing):

  • No. 1 in NWSL with an unbeaten record of 6-0-2 (20 points).
  • No. 1 in goals scored (13).
  • No. 1 in assists (11).
  • No. 1 in shots (127).
  • No. 1 in shots on goal (57).
  • Three top-five players in shots and shots on goal (Lynn Williams, Jessica McDonald, and Crystal Dunn).
  • Tied for first in fewest goals allowed (5).

You get the point here? This match is going to be one hell of a test for a Pride team that is just starting to find its stride. And all these stats won’t include the Courage’s match against bottom dwellers Sky Blue FC this Saturday.

Now I’m not saying the Pride can’t do it. In fact, they’ve matched up much better against the Courage than a team like Portland. But off-season acquisitions, combined with the growth of young stars, has the Courage at a big advantage this season compared to years past.

One of the biggest NWSL trades this off-season was the Courage’s acquisition of U.S. Women’s National Team forward Crystal Dunn. While they had to give up rising stars Ashley Hatch and Taylor Smith, this was an easy price to pay for one of the — if not the — deepest team in the NWSL. There still remain as many as seven players that have had USWNT call-ups, and they play on every single level.

I mentioned above that Dunn, McDonald, and Williams are all sharing top spots in shooting statistics. Sam Mewis is one of the best central midfielders in the game and her partner in the middle, McCall Zerboni, was recently named to the NWSL Team of the Month and voted the Toughest Player in the NWSL over wildly more known Julie Ertz.

From there you have two USWNT defensive players, with center back Abby Dahlkemper and left back Jaelene Hinkle, who’s tied for second in assists in the NWSL.

So how do you approach a match with what could seem like a David vs. Goliath-esque task? First, you trust the fact that the Pride have actually equaled the Courage in results with three wins and two draws in their last five. You take solace in the fact that you get this first match against the league leaders at home where you’re always most comfortable.

That won’t be enough, though. I think a lot of this is on Sermanni setting up the team to succeed. I can give all the general points: focus, play simple and quick, pick your spots to counter, etc. But the preparation and the tactics are what is going to get a result out of this match (win or draw).

The Courage typically play a 4-4-2, despite having three very talented forwards. Which means someone is sitting on the bench waiting to pounce in case the team is struggling. Williams and starting goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo were late scratches this past weekend with knocks, but no further details have been given. So we’ll have to see if they're available.

Mewis and Zerboni are both great two-way players and each allow the other to move forward while the other can sit. And despite playing in this formation, Hinkle still finds plenty of room to operate in the attack.

Now let’s take a look at the Pride. Here is last weekend’s lineup at Portland, featuring some squad rotation after a midweek match at Utah:

The biggest problem Sermanni has had has been finding the right front six to combine since everyone has been back. If it was me, I would be looking at something like this:

This midfield gives you the best ability to play two ways with North Carolina, putting a lot in the hands of Kennedy to stop the point of the attack, which she is very much up to. I debated inverting the triangle and moving Marta into the No. 10 role, but I don’t see her keeping up with that beast of a central midfield.

She’s better served on the wing where she can float freely inside to combine with Morgan who should be healthy enough to take back the starting target forward role. The other player who deserves to be in at this point is Rachel Hill. The energy this player has is always noticeable and it’ll be needed to track Hinkle in certain spots.

Chioma Ubogagu is too much of a risk in my opinion as she doesn't often show the correct soccer IQ in certain situations, often dribbling into blind alleys and losing the ball in tough spots, which can cost the side in a match like this. Sermanni seems to want to bring Hill along slowly in her second year, but I think she’s the right play here.

This also gives great substitution options with Sydney Leroux, Chi, and Christine Nairn — who I expect would be the three subs if needed— all available.

The defense, which has allowed just seven goals in eight matches, will be under fire and I expect a busy game for Ashlyn Harris. If Harris can stand on her head a bit, the Pride will be in this match.

On the attack, Sermanni has to hope the combination play from the inside out is crisp because Mewis and Zerboni are going to be on players’ hips, knowing they can press with North Carolina’s defense capable of matching up against the Pride’s front three.

This will work if the Pride get Carson Pickett and Ali Krieger into the attack. If they can get out of the back and apply some pressure on the outside midfielders to make some decisions and pull them out, there could be a really good result for the Pride in keeping possession.

Ultimately, it’s going to be tough for the Pride to keep this going, but with some healthy rest and the Courage on a short turnaround, they hopefully will be lagging a bit. I would expect some of the Courage’s better players to get a rest this Saturday against winless Sky Blue FC (something to keep an eye on), but you never know.

If Sermanni can press all the right buttons, the Pride could continue their unbeaten ways. Either way, you’re going to want to be there for what should be an exciting match between two of the NWSL’s best.