The Orlando Pride (7-10-7, 28 points) fell 1-0 to the Chicago Red Stars (11-8-5, 38 points) tonight in the final game of the season. Kealia Watt’s 65th-minute strike was the difference between the two teams as Orlando finished the season with a fifth consecutive loss.
The Pride came into this game shorthanded, as they were missing multiple key contributors. Marta (right knee), Meggie Dougherty Howard (right foot), Taylor Kornieck (right ankle), Ashlyn Harris (right hip), and Ali Krieger (right knee) were left out of the team. Amy Turner (right calf) was listed as questionable and was on the bench.
“Some of it was medically related,” interim head coach Burleigh said about players missing from the lineup. “And that international break, the travel doesn’t really help people like Marta and Emily (van Egmond). That was tough. That’s a long haul to go halfway around the world and then return two days before you play.”
The Red Stars controlled this game from the beginning, with the Pride not getting their first shot until the closing minutes of the first half. If not for some strong defending in the box, the final score could’ve been much more lopsided than it eventually was.
Chicago’s attack started in the eighth minute when the always dangerous Mallory Pugh found some space at the top of the box. She fired a shot but it was weak and wide of the target.
Shortly after, Watt carried the ball to the end line, beating Kylie Strom. She played a dangerous ball to the middle of the box, but didn’t have any teammates inside the 18.
The Pride should’ve had their first opportunity in the 10th minute when Alex Morgan received the ball about 35 yards away from goal. She had plenty of space to collect the ball and dribble in on goal, but her poor touch resulted in a quick loss of possession. It was one of many chances blown by poor touches from the front three.
In the 15th minute, Courtney Petersen sent a great ball into the box toward Jodie Taylor. The English striker went up for it but the taller and stronger Arin Wright was able to head it away, ending the Pride’s last good chance of the game’s early stages.
Following the Petersen cross, the Red Stars took control. In the 23rd minute, Pugh had a second chance from the top of the box. This time she made a strong connection and nearly beat Erin McLeod to the near post. Fortunately, the ball just went wide, allowing the Pride to escape.
Watt had a pair of chances from outside of the box 10 minutes later. The first shot was wide of the target, but an inability to clear by the Pride gave her a second chance. This time, she got her shot on frame, but it was right at McLeod, who made the easy catch.
The Pride were outshot 10-0 before finally getting a chance on goal in the 37th minute. A free kick landed at the feet of Marisa Viggiano who fired on goal, but her shot was blocked.
Despite being thoroughly outplayed, the Pride were able to create multiple chances in the final minutes of the first half. After receiving the ball from Strom in the 43rd minute, Taylor’s first touch was a backheel to Gunny Jonsdottir darting past. The midfielder aimed toward the far post but the ball rolled just wide of the target.
Two minutes later, a Petersen cross was misplayed by Cassie Miller, who had come off her line to punch it out. Morgan had challenged for the ball but couldn’t find it after coming down. She was the first to the ball but it Wright bothered her just enough to force her to tap it wide of goal.
It was a dominating first half by Chicago, which led in shots (10-3), shots on goal (2-0), corners (1-0), crosses (4-2), and passing accuracy (81.1%-80.8%). The Pride did have more possession (57.2%-42.8%), but most of it was in a neutral part of the field.
The Pride were outplayed in the first half and things didn’t change when they came out of the break. The Red Stars’ first second-half chance came in the 49th minute when Pugh sent a corner kick into the box. Wright charged into the box and beat McLeod to the ball, but headed it over the crossbar.
Two minutes later, Pugh kept it herself when she found space at the top of the box. Shielding Viggiano, she was able to get a shot on target. However, she was dribbling away from goal and the shot didn’t cause any trouble for McLeod.
Former Pride forward Rachel Hill entered the game at halftime and started to make her presence known in the 60th minute. After carrying the ball to the end line, Hill sent a low ball back across goal. It looked as though Watt would get on the end of it but just missed and Ali Riley was able to clear.
In the 63rd minute, Hill was on the end of a cross, which she was able to head toward the far post. There was no way that McLeod could get to the well-flicked header, but it went just wide of the post.
After 15 shots, the Red Stars were finally able to convert in the 65th minute. Morgan Gautrat found Watt just outside the box to the left of goal. The forward turned Riley to create space for a shot and fired toward the far post. The hard shot traveled beyond the outstretched arms of McLeod and into the far corner.
The Red Stars nearly doubled their lead in the 73rd minute when Watt was able to get behind the Pride back line. Phoebe McClernon was the last defender and made a great tackle at the top of the box to win the ball. Had McClernon not gotten the tackle right, it likely would’ve been a red card.
The Pride had one more quality chance to equalize in the 77th minute. Dribbling the ball into the box. Morgan found second-half substitute Abi Kim. However, before she could get a shot off, the ball was blocked out of play.
The ensuing corner was headed out but landed at the feet of Emily van Egmond. The Australian international quickly shot on goal from distance, but it was right at Miller, who made the stop. That long-distance strike was the Pride’s only shot on target in the game.
The 1-0 defeat brings a disappointing season to an end. Given that the Pride had already been eliminated from playoff contention and the Red Stars were fighting for a home game, the result could’ve been worse.
“I thought both (center backs McClernon and Toni Pressley) played an outstanding game.” Burleigh said after the game. “The partnership at center back that we hadn’t played before. So for them to do such a great job with that was a real credit to both of them. I thought in the first half, we had a hard time keeping the ball in the final third. Just couldn’t quite connect and, obviously, you have to give Chicago a little bit of credit for that too. It got a little bit better in the second half, but still not quite enough quality chances to be able to break through.”
In the end, the Red Stars had more shots (17-6), shots on target (4-1), corners (3-1), and duels won (43-42). The Pride had better passing accuracy (78.2%-74.6%) and more possession (57.1%-42.9%).
After getting off to a great start and a resurgence under Burleigh, the Pride ended the season in eighth place in the 10-team league.
“The most difficult part to wrap my mind around was the lack of results for us,” Burleigh said about the season. “But if you take that away, I think the experience was one that I really enjoyed.”
“We always kind of knew what our potential was,” McClernon added. “So it’s always disappointing not to meet the potential that you kind of knew you could, and even the level that we set early on in the season and the expectations we set early in the season. That’s always going to be a bummer. But I think we come away from this season with a lot. A lot of learning, a lot of experience for players like me, Taylor (Kornieck), Courtney (Petersen), which obviously is going to be huge in the future of the club. And I think all we can do kind of with this season is just take away learning moments.”
With the 2021 season now complete, the Pride will start its coaching search in earnest as Burleigh has already taken her name out of the running for the permanent job.
“With new ownership, new attitude, new outlook, and I think they need to find someone that has got a little bit longer term perspective,” Bureligh said about not wanting to continue next season. “That was never going to be me. And I think it will really be best for the organization to start building for the future.”
The 2022 season should be brighter as there aren’t any major international tournaments scheduled for next year. That means the team can keep its international stars for the majority of the season.