There’s something to be said for scoring late goals. The Manchester United of old is famous for the “Fergie Time” magic. Orlando City tends to bring back memories of the Cardiac Cats. Teams that have that ability to keep fighting until the last kick of the match bring something special.
It is an entirely different story when a team allows goals in the last minutes of a game. And if that becomes a trend, that team might seem destined to fail. Through the first two matches of the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup, the Orlando Pride are cruising on that trajectory.
Orlando is 0-1-1 through two games of the tournament. The Pride first tied Racing Louisville FC 2-2 on opening weekend. Then, Orlando lost 1-0 to NJ/NY Gotham FC at home.
Louisville was the better team for stretches in the first match, especially the opening 15 minutes, and Orlando easily could have been down a few goals by the end of the first half. It was a different story a few days later. The Pride came out on the front foot on Wednesday. While Orlando struggled to keep possession, the Pride quickly hit on the counter and created a few opportunities.
While the style of play was slightly different, both matches ended the same way — with the Pride allowing a late goal.
“It’s just part of this league and we have to learn from it, move on, and kind of get better at those moments,” Marc Skinner said after the loss to Gotham. “Finish the game. If we are up in the game it looks different for us, so we need to get up in games and make sure we convert our chances.”
Orlando put itself in a position to win both matches. Abi Kim scored in the 88th minute against Louisville. All the Pride had to do was hold off for the last few minutes of stoppage. Then, a reckless foul and poor defending on the resulting set piece led to an equalizer.
The Pride took 17 shots against Gotham. They continued to get balls into dangerous areas but could not finish. Courtney Petersen summed it up perfectly after the match. The Pride had many chances and were dictating the tempo early on. All that effort did not mean much, though, as Orlando could not score.
“At the end of the day, we have to put the ball in the back of the net if you want to win,” Petersen said.
Aside from the first-half penalty kick for the visitors, which Ashlyn Harris stopped, the Pride did not give up any real chances in the match until the 79th minute, when Orlando got hit on the counter attack.
This inability to close out games has cost Orlando tremendously. The Pride could have had four points through two matches, which would have placed them in first place with a chance to win the group. Now, while mathematically still possible, the Pride have little hope of winning the group.
Orlando’s schedule for the Challenge Cup gets progressively more difficult. Louisville and Gotham were the teams that Orlando was most likely to get points from. Now, the Pride must face Washington and North Carolina. The Pride cannot continue to allow late goals. There are a few ways to prevent this.
First, as the game winds down, players naturally become more tired. As they get tired, they need to play smarter. The Pride gave up a free kick and were beat on the counter in the two games. After the Louisville game, Skinner said that his team “has to manage the situation” better. This means not giving up a foul in that situation. But even before it got to that point, when the Pride had the ball, the team must maintain possession, take it to the corner, and kill off the game. Instead, they sent in a cross, lost possession, and Gotham got down the field and won the free kick.
Another aspect is to prevent tired legs in the first place. Teams have five substitutions a game in the Challenge Cup. Skinner used a total of five substitutions through the first two matches. Of those five, two of them were likely a direct result of players who picked up a knock.
Skinner gave an interesting take on his choice of going to the bench after Wednesday’s game. He said he was waiting for the right moment to put in his “game-changers.”
“If you look at the balance of the game, if we score when we’re on top, the game changes,” Skinner said. “So, yes, we might look a little bit heavier as we go forward because we’re chasing the game. So, you know, your players are chasing and they’re running harder to get to near where you need them to be to score an opportunity. So, the game balances. Once we score those chances, we can sit and counter and pick the times we choose to punish the opposition for what they give us. We just haven’t put ourselves in that position the last two games. Even against Louisville, where you go one down, and then late we go one down here [against Gotham], your game changes.
“So, we felt comfortable at that point, and we had game changers ready to come in, but we were just waiting for the moment for that to happen. And then, when they score, you know, we have to adapt and we have to evolve, so then that’s when we introduced fresh legs. But I don’t think it was that tonight. I really don’t. I actually feel that we were good control considering they haven’t played, so they should be super fresh. So, to rotate those five players in, you know — we were the fresher team than them and then we just need to take the chances when we’re on top and that’s what we didn’t do, and that’s what we’ve got to do.”
He took out Petersen in the 73rd minute for Erika Tymrak. The midfielder had an immediate impact on the match and was able to contribute in the Pride’s attack. After Gotham scored, Skinner made his second substitute — Marisa Viggiano went out for Abi Kim. Meanwhile, Gotham used all five substitutes.
Orlando was the better team for most of the match, until somewhere between the 60th and 70th minute. A significant point during that period is that Gotham made two changes. Just 10 minutes later, in the 77th minute, Gotham made another two substitutions, and its attack strengthened even more. This led to the goal in the 79th minute.
The opposite occurred against Louisville. Skinner brought on Kim in the 78th minute. Kim did well and scored a go-ahead goal 10 minutes into her debut.
Another part in preventing late goals will only come in time. It is how well the players play together and how comfortable they are with each other. This is a team that just started to play together. It will take time to get that familiarity with each other. It also doesn’t help that it has young and inexperienced players in key areas as well. There will be growing pains, and this is part of the growth of the players and team.
“I think the thing for us was that against Louisville we weren’t happy with the control moments. We conceded late in the game — and should have won the game, but then conceded,” Skinner said. “So, I’m reminded of the amount of new players playing together. It’s only (the) second competitive match. So, for us, we felt like we had control, but what it’s important to do is learn from what we’ve done in the last game, and build on it, not just learn one and then forget everything else. And I know when I reflect on this game the control elements, if we score those chances then it’s a different game. Goals change games, you know, the old cliche. We will learn a lot from the last few games.”
The positive for Orlando is that at least they are in the games until the end. In the last full season — 2019 — the Pride were often out of the game by the hour mark. This year’s team has a new fight to them and is much stronger all around. None of that matters if the late goals don’t stop. There will be growing pains, but the late goals must stop.
In the past week, there has been a common theme with Skinner and the players. It has not been so much as how to prevent late goals. Instead, the talk has been on the other side of the ball. If the Pride convert their chances in front of goal, these goals are less impactful. Teams never want to allow a late goal, but if that team is up 2-0, it can still come out with a win.
“Tough result, especially because I think we did create chances,” said Viggiano after the loss to Gotham. “Going forward, we just have to focus on that final third and maybe connecting one more pass. And just finishing, and, you know, it’s there. I think we saw bits and pieces tonight, which is something positive to take out of it.”