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Orlando Pride Show Importance of Aerial Duels

The Orlando Pride will need to win the aerial battles that matter most moving forward.

SOCCER: OCT 17 NWSL - North Carolina Courage at Orlando Pride Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Aerial duels are one of the most important aspects of soccer. Every game sees its fair share of 50/50 balls and the winner of those balls usually ends up on top. During the Orlando Pride’s 2-2 draw Saturday night against Racing Louisville FC, they showed that they can win aerial duels but need to do it when it counts.

The Pride came into the first game of the season with questions to be answered. Previous starters Shelina Zadorsky and Alanna Kennedy departed the club after last season, both joining Tottenham Hotspur of England’s Women’s Super League. While some might have expected experienced center backs to start such as Ally Haran and Toni Pressley, Pride Head Coach Marc Skinner went with the young pairing of Konya Plummer and Phoebe McClernon.

As you would expect with young center backs, the two struggled at times. However, these struggles were primarily limited to balls on the ground. Too much space in the back allowed Louisville to play through balls, one of which resulted in the game’s opening goal.

Balls sent in the air were a different story. Both Plummer and McClernon did well in the air, clearing away most aerial balls sent into the Pride box. It was this strong aerial play that resulted in the Pride winning 74% of the game’s aerial balls, despite only winning 59% of the total duels.

While the Pride are young at the back due to players leaving, they were also short in the attack due to an international call up. Alex Morgan would usually lead the Pride attack but was away on international duty as the United States Women’s National Team faced Sweden earlier in the day.

Replacing the USWNT and Pride veteran as the leader in the attack was 22-year-old Taylor Kornieck. Despite her lack of professional experience, the 2020 NWSL Draft selection played very well, especially in the air.

Kornieck showed her ability to use her size to win balls on several occasions but the most obvious display came just before the half. In the 44th minute, Meggie Dougherty Howard sent a ball into the box. Kornieck beat Louisville defender Erin Simon to the ball, heading it off the right post and into the goal for the equalizer.

Even late in the game and with a slight knock, Kornieck did well to win possession. Her last touch of the game was a header down to Marta just outside the box. While the Pride were unable to do anything with the play, Kornieck’s ability to continue winning aerial balls deep into the game was impressive.

While the Pride showed that they can dominate in the air, it needs to be done when it matters the most. Abi Kim’s goal in the 88th minute gave the Pride a late 2-1 lead. The visitors just needed to see out the final two minutes of the game, plus six minutes of stoppage time, to secure their first victory of the year.

Right after the goal, Skinner made a final substitution to strengthen the defense. Center back Toni Pressley came on in place of Marta, knowing that the Pride would need to withstand an onslaught in the dying minutes.

With about three minutes left to play, Louisville won a free kick and sent it into the box. Pressley went up for the ball alongside Louisville midfielder Freja Olofsson. The midfielder beat Pressley to the ball, heading it down for Brooke Hendrix to hit it past Ashlyn Harris for the equalizing goal.

A team can dominate many aspects of a game and still come up short. The Pride led Louisville Saturday night in shots, duels, aerial duels, and tackles won. With the exception of passing accuracy in the attacking half, the remaining stats were nearly identical. But one late mistake was enough to undo their good work and lose two points.

As the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup and NWSL regular season commences, winning headers will continue to be an important factor in games. Saturday night’s game proved how important winning headers can be and that the Pride have the ability to dominate that aspect of the game. But to hold leads and avoid late collapses, they’ll need to win the balls that matter the most.