After what Orlando Pride Head Coach Tom Sermanni described as the worst first half of the season, the Pride bounced backed in the second half and made a game of things. However, three self-inflicted goals were Orlando’s demise and North Carolina (8-0-2, 26 points) remained undefeated, winning 4-3.
“I think it’s fairly obvious. Tonight we saw the worst of Orlando Pride and then at times the best of Orlando Pride,” Sermanni said. “Our first half performance was probably the poorest performance that our team has put together in two and a half seasons. We were lucky to be down one-nil at half time but then again, I think in the second half our players showed a great deal of character, came right back into the game, kept coming back into the game. But then it was almost like we came back into the game and then took our foot off the pedal.”
There was one change to the starting lineup. Sydney Leroux was listed as a starter but was changed out due to illness for Chioma Ubogagu before the game.
“[Leroux] should be [back for Saturday]. She just had a little stomach bug so we weren’t sure if she was going to be fit or not. So we brought her out for the warm-up and in the warm-up she said, ‘Look, no I’m not ready to go.’ Hopefully it’s just a 24-hour thing and she’ll be fit and healthy again tomorrow.”
The game started exactly how one would expect. North Carolina was fast and furious, and Orlando (3-3-3, 12 points) had difficulty coping with the speed of of Jessica McDonald and Crystal Dunn up top. The Courage continually played through balls up top to them, many of these looked offside, and this led to 17 shots in the first half alone from the visitors.
Dunn got the attack off early. In just the third minute Jaelene Hinkle put a long ball into the box that found the head of Dunn and Ashlyn Harris made her first save of the match. In the next 15 minutes, the visitors took eight shots, five of which were from Dunn and McDonald.
An interesting moment happened in the seventh minute. North Carolina actually scored a goal but referee Christina Unkel, called the goal back for offside even though the flag stayed down. Replays show that Unkel made the correct call. Later in the half the Pride were in a similar situation when Alex Morgan found the back of the net but it was also called back for offside.
While the Pride’s first half was extremely poor, Ashlyn Harris was the best player on the field. She made three saves in the first half, including a good one-on-one save in the 19th minute against Dunn. Harris was quick off her line, forcing Dunn to shoot sooner than she would have liked and the shot went wide. Three minutes later Harris made another save that got got the crowd chanting her name.
But North Carolina would get the breakthrough in the 31st minute. The Pride were unable to clear and a bouncing ball fell to McDonald, who took it on the first touch and put the Courage up. McDonald looked to be offside on the play.
The Pride went into halftime down just one goal. Although North Carolina only had 52% possession, the Courage’s 17 shots, compared to Orlando’s three was the difference and the Pride were on the defense the entire half.
The second half brought a much-needed improvement from Orlando. The team settled down some and was able to possess the ball more and create more chances.
“It’s a bit frustrating, a bit disappointing, especially after coming off such a great win in Portland,” said Ali Krieger. “We were very focused for this game and very prepared. We were very motivated, so having that first half performance was a bit disappointing. We all knew that it was probably our worst of the year. So obviously at halftime we regrouped and I thought we came out in the second half with a better mentality.”
This led to a goal just seven minutes into the half. Morgan was taken down hard near midfield. The Pride had some nice ball movement that led to Marta with space on the left side. Marta was pointing and screaming at Ubogagu at where she wanted Chi to be. Marta put the ball exactly there and Chi redirected it into the back of the net.
The 1-1 score did not last for long, though. Alanna Kennedy turned the ball over and led to Debinha finding the back of the net, putting North Carolina back on top.
Five minutes after that, Sam Mewis got on the end of the ball and the ball hit the post, then Harris, and went into the net. Somehow, Mewis was officially credited with what certainly looked to be an own-goal off a shot that was not going in until it hit the Pride keeper.
Down two goals the Pride kept going strong and Kennedy made up for the turnover that led to a goal minutes earlier with a goal of her own. After taking short corners all game, Christine Nairn finally put the ball into the box and Kennedy headed it into the top corner.
Sermanni then made a double substitution. Rachel Hill and Dani Weatherholt both came on, and the impact was immediate. Marta once again found some free space and she put a perfect cross to the back post and Hill easily leveled the game at 3-3.
The Pride looked to have escaped with a point but in the dying minutes McDonald took a shot that Harris and Shelina Zadorsky both should have prevented but the ball somehow found a way just over the line and Orlando fell, 4-3.
“A bit disappointing. It was an important game and we needed the points to get to the top table,” Marta said through an interpreter. “They were one of the teams at the top [of the standings] so it’s a little hard when you’re home with your crowd and your field and you can’t achieve the win.”
The Pride are back in action again on Saturday as they travel to Chicago to face the Red Stars to start a two-game road swing.