As we count down to the new year of 2022 — which will be Orlando City’s eighth in MLS and the Orlando Pride’s seventh in the NWSL — and say goodbye to 2021, it’s time to look back at the club’s 10 best moments of the year.
The Orlando Pride took a look at Orlando City’s club-record, six-game unbeaten streak to start the season and said, “we can do better.” The Pride, who had only managed to avoid an NWSL regular-season, opening-day loss on one occasion — a home draw against the Utah Royals in 2018 — and who had never managed to go unbeaten in even two matches to start a season before — gave fans a reason to hope for a playoff return in 2021 with an unprecedented run to open the team’s schedule this season.
Orlando still hasn’t won an opener, but the Pride managed to make it seven consecutive games without tasting defeat under Marc Skinner at the start of the 2021 NWSL season. The season-opening surge included a three-match winning streak and four wins in total as the Pride began the season with a 4-0-3 run that had the team at the top of the NWSL season after the first third of the team’s sixth year of existence. It topped the MLS side’s best-ever run to start the year, which also took place in 2021.
The Pride had just completed a promising 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup, in which they finished group play with a 1-1-2 mark and could have gone 2-0-2 if they could have avoided conceding a pair of late goals against Racing Louisville and NJ/NY Gotham FC in the first two matches of the competition. Skinner’s team looked much more organized than in 2019 or when the makeshift roster took part in the 2020 NWSL Fall Series.
The team opened the regular season on May 16 at home against the Washington Spirit. The teams fought an evenly matched contest, with both goalkeepers preventing the other side from gaining the advantage. Sydney Leroux had two excellent chances to give Orlando the lead, but it seemed like a late goal conceded would again bite the team when Ashley Hatch opened the scoring in the 76th minute on a header. However, this time the Pride flipped the script and it was Orlando getting the late heroics when Alex Morgan split the defense on a run to catch up to a perfect Phoebe McClernon long ball and equalized in the 84th minute with a chipped goal over former teammate Aubrey Bledsoe.
It was a draw that felt like a win thanks to the late Morgan goal and it propelled the Pride forward, as Orlando went on to win its next three matches. Orlando visited North Carolina next, carrying a nine-match winless streak against the Courage in all competitions on their shoulders and with backup goalkeeper Erin McLeod stepping in for Ashlyn Harris. No matter. The Pride brought all three points back from North Carolina after a 2-1 road win that came within moments of being a clean sheet.
Leroux snapped the scoreless deadlock in the 36th minute by pouncing on a poorly weighted back pass and beating Casey Murphy with a near-post shot to make it 1-0.
McLeod preserved the lead with multiple big saves and she was rewarded for it when Morgan finally doubled Orlando’s advantage in the 79th minute. The forward got in down the left side and tucked a shot just inside the right post to make it 2-0.
A late Jessica McDonald goal in the 89th minute made for some nervy final moments in stoppage time but the Pride managed the game and had back-to-back games without a loss to start an NWSL season for the first time in club history.
I’ve already told you about the next game, because Morgan and Leroux scored again in the 2-1 home win over Portland on May 26 — our No. 9 moment of 2021. It was just the Pride’s second win ever against the Thorns and the team’s first at home. You can read about that match in full at the link above in this paragraph.
Now playing confidently, with a 2-0-1 record to start the year, the Pride welcomed Kansas City to Exploria Stadium on May 30. The match was tougher than anticipated against the expansion side, but Morgan scored for the fourth consecutive match to lead Orlando to a 1-0 home win.
The win wasn’t without some controversy. A corner kick from Courtney Petersen found Morgan’s head in the box and the striker nodded toward goal. The ball took a deflection on its way and goalkeeper Abby Smith parried it away but it was judged by the referee to have crossed the line. The goal was originally credited to Marta, who was in the scrum in front, but it was later changed to Morgan as it had come off a defender. The assist was Petersen’s first in the NWSL.
The win was Orlando’s third in a row, giving the Pride their longest win streak since 2017.
The Pride and the Spirit played another tight match on June 6 in Washington. It was Hatch again providing Washington with a 1-0 lead before the Pride came back to earn a 1-1 draw. The heroics weren’t left quite so late this time. Hatch scored in the 64th minute but Taylor Kornieck notched her first NWSL regular-season goal just three minutes later to level things up.
Harris made some big saves to keep Orlando in this one and shortly after the Pride fell behind, Marta made a great hustle play, stepping in front of a long throw by Bledsoe and feeding Kornieck. The first-year Pride player took the ball into the box and fired inside the left post to equalize.
It was Orlando’s second road result to open the season and ran the unbeaten streak to five matches (3-0-2).
That streak got longer despite a week off before Orlando hosted Gotham FC on June 20. The Pride left it very late after allowing a Caprice Dydasco “shross” goal in the last minute before halftime. Whether it was an intentional shot or a cross that happened to go in, it gave the visitors a lead and momentum heading into the break. But the reverse happened in the final minute of normal time when Petersen provided a mirror image from the left side for Orlando. Her shross also ended up inside the far post and it lifted the Pride to a 1-1 home draw and a sixth consecutive game without a loss.
But Orlando wasn’t finished at six games without a loss (3-0-3). The Pride visited Kansas City on June 23 and got their most complete win of the streak. But it didn’t start easily.
Kansas City opened the scoring in the eight minute of first-half stoppage time (yes, you read that correctly) on a goal by Mariana Larroquette. But Leroux pulled that back two minutes later — in the 10th minute of stoppage time (!). Cutting in from the left, Leroux’s lunging shot deflected and somehow beat Smith to tie the game just before the break.
Leroux completed her brace shortly after the restart. Taking a long pass up the left sideline, Leroux cut toward the middle near the top of the area and smashed an unstoppable shot inside the back post to give the Pride the lead in the 49th minute.
Not to be outdone, Marta put the game away late with a ridiculous strike from just inside the center circle.
The 3-1 road win was Orlando’s biggest road offensive output of the year and capped a magical 4-0-3 unbeaten streak to start the season.
The run came to a halt in Houston with a 2-1 loss in the next game. The international starters leaving for the Olympics and rumblings of Skinner’s interest in accepting a job with Manchester United — which he eventually took — combined to undo much of the Pride’s hot start. Orlando went its next six games without a win and lost four of those, to fall back to the pack fighting for the last couple of playoff spots.
Becky Burleigh’s arrival as interim coach seemed to right the ship a bit as the Pride lost only one of its next six matches, going 3-1-3 between July 31 and Sept. 11. However, a five-game losing streak to end the season dashed any playoff hopes and left the Pride in free fall all the way to eighth place in the 10-team NWSL.
Regardless, that seven-game run to start the season gave Pride fans a lot of thrills and ignited not only playoff dreams but hopes of a potential Supporters Shield run. Those good feelings and all those points to start the season make the streak worthy of one of our top 10 moments of 2021.
Come back through New Year’s Eve as we count down the remainder of Orlando City’s top 10 moments of 2021.
Previous Top 10 Moments of 2021
10. Orlando City takes part in club’s first international competition against Liga MX side Santos Laguna in the Leagues Cup.
9. Orlando Pride get only their second win ever against Portland as Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux lead the way.
8. Orlando City opens the 2021 MLS season with a club-record six-match unbeaten streak.