Facing a must-win match against the winless Sky Blue FC (0-13-4, 4 points) in Orlando City Stadium should have been an easy three points for the Orlando Pride but they struggled in the final third and made too many defensive mistakes in a 2-2 draw. Dani Weatherholt’s hustle was the reason why the Pride (8-6-6, 30 points) were even able to come away with a single point and Marta missed a penalty kick in the 97th minute that would have won it. Luckily for Orlando, the North Carolina Courage beat the Portland Thorns, winning the NWSL and helping the Pride move into third place in the NWSL standings.
“I think today’s game was probably a snapshot of our season,” said Pride Head Coach Tom Sermanni. “We had more than enough possession to win the game, we had, certainly, more than enough chances to win the game, probably hit the woodwork three or four times. We dominated large parts of the game but we just don’t put the game away. And then we seem to be again just defensively frail to give up easy opportunities that really shouldn’t happen.
“We could’ve gotten ourselves out of jail, for lack of a better word. Obviously, with having the penalty in the last minute. But again that’s been our season so far. I wish I had an answer. We need to be able to put games to bed when we dominate them so much. But we also need to stop giving up chances that are so easy for our opponents. I’m at a loss to be able to know how to remedy both of those to be honest.”
After an extended rest because of international break, Sermanni brought his team out with a few surprises in the starting XI. Alanna Kennedy, who played all three games in the Tournament of Nations as a center back for Australia, played the same position for the Pride tonight. Rachel Hill got her sixth start of the year and Chioma Ubogagu played as a wingback.
The first 45 minutes can be described in one word — uneventful. Orlando dominated the half but only got one shot on goal. This shot came from a free kick set up by Marta. The Brazilian was about 25 yards from goal, in front of the entire Sky Blue defense, but had no help from her teammates. Marta used some fancy footwork to win a free kick. She then took the set piece, which was deflected off the wall and hit the crossbar. Dani Weatherholt was able to get a foot on the rebound but her shot was easily caught by Sky Blue goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan.
Ashlyn Harris was forced to make one save in the first half in the 28th minute. Savannah McCaskill threaded the Pride defense and played Imani Dorsey perfectly into the box. Harris was quick to react though and made the one-on-one save.
Ubogagu was one of the better players in that first half. While she still had a couple of turnovers, she continuously took players on and put the ball into good areas.
“One of the reasons why I love football so much is the creativity aspect and that’s one of the things I really try to help the team,” said Ubogagu. “I want to create, I want to help score and assist goals. My teammates are doing a good job at getting the ball in good positions and I had space to try and find people. Rachel [Hill] and Marta were creating space and getting in the box. I think the team, we were using our system really well and in the second half the space was opening up for Kristen [Edmonds] to do the same thing. So I think the more and more we play this formation we’ll know our tendencies and what’s open and where to play the ball.”
Orlando led Sky Blue in possession (58%), shots (4-1), corners (2-0), passes (275-207), and passing accuracy (83%-71%) but the Pride could do nothing in the final third.
“We need to just continue building our chemistry with whoever is up top, and building relationships and knowing what each other likes to do on and off the ball,” said Ubogagu. “We just got to keep going. We all really want to make the playoffs. As frustrating as this result is we still got a point out of it.”
Where the first half was uneventful, the second 45 kept everyone on their toes. It started out with Orlando using a high press to immediately win the ball. The Pride then played fast and got into the box but Ubogagu collided with Christina Gibbons, and both stayed down, ending the attack.
The Pride kept up this intensity and Weatherholt’s hustle created the first goal of the match. She got off her shot, which hit the post, and Marta was there to reap the rewards and put the Pride up 1-0 in the 51st minute.
The visitors then hit straight back two minutes later. Kennedy collided with Ali Krieger trying to defend in the box, and was extremely slow in getting up. This led to Dorsey being left wide open at the six-yard box, where she had no trouble finding the back of the net.
“There are things that are out of everybody’s control,” Sermanni said. “But if I go back to the goal, we shouldn’t have been in that position that we were in. We had enough defenders behind the ball, with enough players back there. We should have been organized better. So the fact that Alanna [Kennedy] fell, for me, is a little bit immaterial because the goal came about purely by bad defending.”
Following the goal, Carli Lloyd entered the game and changed the momentum in favor of Sky Blue. Just three minutes after coming on, Lloyd played a perfect ball across the field to find the head of Savannah McCaskill, who used her head to play it back across goal and Shea Groom put it away to give Sky Blue a 2-1 lead. Groom landed awkwardly on the play and had to leave the game after her goal.
The second that Orlando went down, Sermanni looked to his bench and brought on Alex Morgan and Camila. The Pride then started to get more of an attack going and clearly were searching for two more goals to grab three points.
They got halfway there in the 73rd minute. Camila dribbled the ball towards the Sky Blue box before being fouled. The referee was about to blow his whistle for a foul when he saw that Weatherholt got on the end of the loose ball and he played advantage. Weatherholt then did the rest and kept on fighting to put the ball in the back of the net and level the game at two each.
“I’ve said this before but we need 10 Dani Weatherholts on the field,” said Sermanni. “She’s the person that has really dragged our team along in games quite often. Whether that’s been a decisive tackle, a decisive run, a decisive goal, like it was tonight, or whatever, she has just been magnificent this year. I need 10 players doing that and if we had 10 players doing that I think we would be a little bit further up the table.”
The Pride kept on pressing in search of a needed third goal but the visitors would not break until the dying minutes when the game rested on the foot of Marta from the penalty spot. After a corner, the ball was bouncing around in the box and Lloyd was given a straight red for swatting the ball out of the air with her hand on the goal line. Marta, at the spot, in the 97th minute of a tied game sounds like three points in the bag for Orlando. However, her kick was poor and Sheridan was able to make the game-saving stop.
So. A lot happened in stoppage time. Lloyd sees red for a handball in the box, Marta takes the PK, Sheridan makes the save. It is still 2–2. #ORLvNJ | #NWSL | Stream: https://t.co/6j8Kty2LhT pic.twitter.com/MhGZ2tV246— NWSL (@NWSL) August 6, 2018
Marta played extensively for Brazil in the Tournament of Nations and played the entire match. Perhaps a more rested player should have taken the spot kick, but Marta generally comes through.
The Pride finished with 21 shots, but were only able to get eight on target. they led in possession (54%-46%) and total passes (403-362) but need to improve in the final third and stop making defensive mistakes.
“Ultimately, we played well but we need to be more efficient and better in the final third,” Weatherholt said. “I think we had a lot of chances but we didn’t put them away. I think any time you dominate a game and possession and you have the ball a lot in their final third. We were creating, we just didn’t finish and that’s on the whole unit.”
The Pride are back in action next Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET against the Portland Thorns in Orlando City Stadium.