After a brief 30-minute weather delay before the match, the Orlando Pride (7-5-4, 25 points) broke their two-game losing streak by beating the Washington Spirit (2-10-4, 16 points), 2-1, thanks to goals by Sydney Leroux and Marta. The win moved them back up to second in the standings.
It was a match that appeared much tougher than it probably had to be as the Pride barraged the Spirit with 31 shots, 12 on target, in what can only be described as a frustrating night at finishing.
On a losing streak and about to head on a two-game road trip, everyone agreed this was a “must-win” as the Pride looked to get back to form.
“I am really proud of the players in a match that ended up being much tighter than it should have been,” Head Coach Tom Sermanni said after the win. “We knew this going to be a must-win match and the players deserve a lot praise for coming back. We deserved that game.”
Forward Sydney Leroux, who had a goal and assist on the day echoed Tom’s words.
“Today was a must-win. That was it,” she said. “We all knew. Going down we knew we were going to come back.”
Despite Tom Sermanni’s talk of needing better chemistry, we saw a different formation from the past match against North Carolina, moving back to a 4-3-3 with Marta playing the No. 9 (for injured Alex Morgan) and Chi Ubogagu coming in on the left. Christine Nairn also picked up the start in midfield triangle, replacing Rachel Hill from the 4-4-2 last week.
Both sides were missing players as Orlando was without Danica Evans (excused absence) and Alex Morgan with a calf strain she picked up in the loss to North Carolina. Washington had a laundry list as out were Cali Farquharson (left tibial stress injury), Cheyna Matthews (pregnancy), Mallory Pugh (right PCL sprain), Arielle Ship (right ACL), and Tiffany Weimer (left knee Baker’s cyst) — all were not in the 18.
The match started quickly as both teams had opportunities in the attacking half within the first few minutes. Washington started in the first minute with a through ball that created a collision between goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris and Spirit winger Francisca Ordega. That collision would lead to an early substitution in the ninth minute for Ordega, as Meggie Dougherty Howard replaced her.
The Pride were all over the attack having seven shots in the first 11 minutes but they couldn't find the back of the net. Marta, Ubogagu, and Leroux all had their chances but most sailed wide or right to Spirit — former Orlando Pride — goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe. The best chance found Marta rifling a shot to Bledsoe’s left, who made a great diving save from only 16 yards out.
The first half was largely played in the middle third of the field as both teams played very high lines and heavy pressure. This caused a bit of congestion in the middle of the field and neither team seemed to recognize the run or ball over the top to break either down. Rather both teams played a possession-oriented style which led to some nice combination play but a very contested first half.
In the 25th minute the Sprit finally broke through as a corner found Ashley Hatch on the six at the back post. Hatch rose over all the defenders and sent a slow header back across goal. With no defender marking that post, Harris looked like a deer in headlights as she helplessly watched it roll into the goal to give the Spirit a 1-0 lead.
The Pride took 20 more minutes to find their equalizer but did so in the first minute of first-half stoppage time. Kennedy stepped up on a pass in midfield and then found Leroux at the top of the six 1-v-1. Leroux dribbled down to the end line, cut back, and hit a near-post shot that Bledsoe probably should have had but it trickled in for a 1-1 tie at halftime.
The second half was a story of Pride domination with no payoff as they continued to pour it on the Spirit. The Pride had six shots alone in the first 15 minutes, with one of the best opportunities coming via a Pickett shot/cross that forced an awkward save at the Spirit goal line.
From there the play seemed to be nowhere else but in the Pride’s attacking half as they were all over the Spirit defense. With 18 more shots by the Pride, the Spirit were on their heels after that Pickett cross/shot. But to frustration at times, many of the shots found Bledsoe pretty easily or were sent wide.
That frustration hit its climax in the 76th minute when a phantom challenge by Camila led to what at first looked like a Dani Weatherholt goal. However, the ref called the play back after what looked like simulation by the Spirit player. Pride Assistant Coach Khano Smith wasn't pleased at all, apparently kicked a chair, and was sent off for dissent.
A corner in the the 80th minute was the Pride’s next chance at goal as Marta found midfielder Alanna Kennedy, who towered over everyone only to shake the crossbar on a great header.
Finally, the Pride found their goal and it was none other than Marta — arguably the best player on the night — who carried the ball 75 yards after Leroux found her wide open in the middle of the field. She then beat her defender twice inside the box, cutting back to her left and rifling a ball off the top of the crossbar into the back of the net for the Pride to take a 2-1 lead in the 86th minute.
The Spirit pressed for the final few minutes, getting a bit of chances in the last minute on a corner sequence that had a multitude of blocked shots and half clearances but looked more dangerous than it actually was.
Energy and determination was a common theme in the post-match press conference. The Pride played with a fire all night and it was the game plan from the start.
“It was a team mindset, we all were on the same page. We didn’t want to give them breathing room,” Leroux said. “We normally give teams space, and today we shut that down with pressure, and high press.”
“We played with aggression and determination,” Sermanni added. “We set about the game in a determined fashion. We really put the effort in and a real willingness to win. And combined it with good football.”
Sermanni, who has been looking for a more cohesive match said, “it was a complete game in a sense that we were in charge for a large part of the game, we were much more consistent. When we didn’t have the ball we were much more on the front foot. Our Achilles heel has been soft on transition and that aggressiveness paid off.”
Despite being in control for much of the match, the Pride did start off down 1-0 after multiple chances didn’t come through. But it was Marta’s leadership that often calmed the team down as she reminded her teammates that it was going to come.
“We need to learn how to play in these situations where we are down. We can’t be crazy and just put the ball on the ground and just play our game,” she said. “We will get there. We have 25 minutes, it doesn’t matter the time or the score, we have to know we can do it.”
In what was the maybe the best moment of the night, Camila saw her first action after knee surgery in October of last season when she checked into the game in the 60th minute.
“We had always intended to bring in her tonight regardless,” Sermanni said. “It’s really good that she’s come through this well and is ready for selection.”
Camila, who has had her teammates’ support for so long was excited for her first match in 2018.
“I was very happy to get the chance today,” she said. “I was anxious to play. and I came in in a tough game and I got more tired than I was used to. I was happy I could help my team to achieve this win.”
Orlando dominated statistically, out-shooting the Spirit, 31-16 (12-5 on goal) and holding 56% of the possession. The Pride out-passed the Spirit, 77%-67%.
The Pride return to action on short rest Wednesday at the Houston Dash at 8:30 p.m. ET to start a two-game road trip that also see them in Utah against the Royals next Saturday.