An early first-half goal and two early second-half strikes doomed the Orlando Pride (7-7-7, 28 points) as they fell 3-2 to NJ/NY Gotham FC (7-6-8, 29 points) at Exploria Stadium. After falling behind 3-0, the Pride climbed back into the game on goals by Erika Tymrak and Marta, but it wasn’t enough as they fell by a goal.
The Pride had placed themselves in a difficult position after a strong start to the season. Sitting in the final playoff spot, they were just one point ahead of the Washington Spirit and two points ahead of Gotham FC heading into this key match-up. The loss was a crucial one in the race for a playoff spot.
Pride interim head coach Becky Burleigh made two changes from the team that lost 3-0 to OL Reign two weeks ago. Marisa Viggiano, who replaced Meggie Dougherty Howard at halftime of that game, entered the starting lineup. Additionally, Marta re-entered the lineup after starting on the bench in Tacoma.
It was yet another poor start by the Pride, something that has become a trend with this team. Despite kicking off, the Pride soon gave the ball away in their own third when Ashlyn Harris sent a clearance straight out of play.
It didn’t take long for the visitors to take advantage of the slow start. In the third minute, Ifeoma Onumonu was able to turn Ali Riley, sending the ball across the top of the box. Caprice Dydasco’s first touch was a layoff to Gaetane Thiney, who quickly fired on goal. The long-distance shot appeared to deflect slightly off the head of Amy Turner — just enough to avoid the outstretched hand of Harris.
The game paused in the sixth minute as all players met in a circle at midfield in a show of solidarity after the recent events plaguing the league. In addition to the sixth-minute display, Pride players refused to answer any questions not directly related to the recent events or changes within the NWSL.
“That’s really a great show of solidarity,” Burleigh said about the midfield moment. “And you’ve seen it, not just in this league, but now even some of the European teams have also followed suit. And I think that’s so impressive to see such unanimous support for something that’s happening in this league, it’s amazing.”
When the game restarted, Onumonu immediately created a chance on goal, but missed the target.
The Pride had their first and best first-half chance in the 12th minute. Receiving the ball in the box, Alex Morgan created enough space to get a shot off. It was on target, but Gotham goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan was able to palm it away.
Two minutes later, Riley sent a long cross toward the back post, aimed for Sydney Leroux, who was charging in. However, Sheridan did well again, getting her hand to the ball and knocking it away from the oncoming Leroux.
Gotham nearly doubled its lead in the 18th minute. Carli Lloyd sent Midge Purce in behind the Pride defense and into the box. As Purce set up to shoot, Harris did well to cut down her angle. The shot was at the body of the Pride goalkeeper, who made herself big, and the ball was eventually deflected out of play for a corner kick.
The Pride nearly had a similar chance in the 20th minute. An excellent ball into the box looked like it would get through for Jodie Taylor, giving the striker a chance at her first goal since Aug. 14. But Gina Lewandwoski made a last-ditch diving header to clear it out of play and avoid a one-on-one between Taylor and Sheridan.
As the game drew closer toward halftime, both teams had a few chances. In the 30th minute, a long ball was searching for Morgan, but it was headed away. Three minutes later, Gotham played a dangerous ball into the box. It reached Onumonu, who had gotten behind Turner, but her shot was nowhere near the target.
In the 42nd minute, Purce created another opportunity, sending a dangerous ball across the six-yard box. No Pride players were able to clear it, but there weren’t any Gotham players in the box to get on the end of it. It ended up with Dydasco at the top of the box and the defender sent it well over the target.
The Pride had their chances, but the visitors led in most important categories. Gotham led in shots (9-3), corners (3-2), passing accuracy (84.5%-83.2%), and possession (50.6%-49.4%). The game was only close because Gotham only put two of their nine shots on target.
While the Pride had a tough start to the first half, it was even worse in the second. Just two minutes into the second period, a foul set up a Gotham free kick just outside the box. Thiney stepped up to take the kick, which went directly on target. Harris got a hand to it, but a bit too late and she didn’t get enough on it, as the ball bounced off her hand and into the corner of the goal.
It got worse for the Pride in the 49th minute, when Onumonu found Purce wide open in front of goal. It was an easy finish for the attacker, with no Pride defenders anywhere near her. The defenders lifted their arms to claim offside, but the referee determined that she was at least even with the last defender.
The third Gotham goal seemed to wake the Pride up, but by that point it was too late. Finally, the Pride played with a sense of urgency, realizing that the game had gotten out of reach. In the 53rd minute, Leroux brought a long ball down in the box and created enough space to get a shot on target. However, it was right at Sheridan who made the stop.
Two minutes later, Marta took a low, hard shot on goal. It was a better chance than Leroux’s, but Sheridan did well to get low and make the save.
The best chance for the Pride came in the 61st minute. Marta lost the ball near the end line, but won it right back with no other defenders near her. Carrying the ball into the six, she attempted to beat Sheridan high, but the ball bounced off the crossbar. The ball landed at the feet of Morgan, who was all alone at the back post. She quickly fired on goal, but was slightly off balance and the shot sailed high of the target.
Three of the four primary Pride scorers had good opportunities early in the second half and Taylor got hers in the 64th minute. Diagonal runs by teammates distracted defenders, creating a lane to the top of the box. Taylor sent a low, curling shot toward the far post that was beyond the reach of Sheridan. Unfortunately, the ball wrapped around the outside of the far post, and the Pride just missed getting one back.
The Pride finally got their first goal of the game in the 85th minute, with some help from Gotham’s usually dependable goalkeeper. It started with a poor goal kick taken by Sheridan that went directly to Erika Tymrak. The Pride’s second-half substitute quickly found enough space to take a shot, which was right at the Canadian international. Fortunately for Tymrak and the Pride, the ball bounced awkwardly off Sheridan’s hands and rolled into the corner.
A game that appeared to be over got much more interesting two minutes later when Estelle Johnson took down Morgan in the box and referee Brad Jensen pointed to the spot. Marta stepped up and sent Sheridan the wrong way, cutting the deficit to one.
As the game entered injury time, both teams had chances. Four minutes into the added time, great individual skill by Lloyd set up Brianna Pinto, who took a shot that appeared to be headed to the corner. But Harris got down and blocked it wide.
The Pride desperately went to the other end, trying to find the equalizer. They nearly did with the last kick of the game. A long ball into the box by Harris landed at the foot of Toni Pressley, who fired on goal. The deflected shot hit the post and bounced right to Harris, who had continued forward after the set piece, but her shot was blocked. Petersen had a third chance, but was heading away from goal and wasn’t able to get much on it.
The late flurry was the final chance for the Pride to equalize as the referee blew the final whistle once the ball was cleared.
“As far as the match tonight, I felt like it was tough giving up the deflection early,” Burleigh said after the game. “It sort of is difficult to give up a goal that early, but I thought our team bounced back well. I think the things to take from this game were that we really had a lot of fight in the end of the game. I thought the people who came into the match really did a good job of sustaining pressure and creating pressure and were game changers. And I think the big thing is we’ve got to figure out, is our defensive identity to mid block and then counter out of it? Is our defensive identity to press? And, obviously, you give up something different with each of those. And that’s I think where we are right now is figuring out what is the best solution for this particular group.”
After the third Gotham goal, the Pride had a much better second half. In the end, the Pride led in shots (18-16) and shots on target (9-5). However, in addition to goals, Gotham led in most statistical categories, including corners (5-4), duels won (59-52), total passes (461-425), passing accuracy (79.8%-79.3%), and possession (52.3%-47.7%).
The result, combined with a Spirit win over Racing Louisville at the same time, moved the Pride from sixth to eighth, two spots below the red line. In addition to taking maximum points from the final three games, the Pride will need some help if they have any hope of qualifying for the NWSL playoffs for the second time in team history.
The Pride will take the field again on Wednesday night in Bridgeview, IL as they take on the Chicago Red Stars at 8 p.m.. The game was recently rescheduled after last weekend’s league games were postponed.