The Orlando Pride beat the Washington Spirit 1-0 at Exploria Stadium in NWSL Challenge Cup play for the club’s first win since Aug. 21, 2019. Alex Morgan connected with Sydney Leroux in the 10th minute of the match for the game’s only goal and Ashlyn Harris had a big game in net to lead the Pride (1-1-1, 4 points) to the victory. Washington (1-2-0, 3 points) had chance after chance in the second half, but the Pride somehow kept a shutout.
“A much better situation to sit in for a result but the best thing for me was the resiliency the group shown,” said Pride Head Coach Marc Skinner. “I don’t think at times that we were the best team. There’s a lot of pressure we had to face. What we showed tonight was the resilience that’s going to be needed for this group to win ugly. And that’s a clean sheet for the first time in a long, long time. And that’s because our goalkeeper came up big. Our defenders came up big and midfielders and our forwards. It was a whole team collective. The substitutes that came in made an impact to the group.”
Both Morgan and Gunny Jónsdóttir were included in the starting XI in their first game back from international duty. Skinner only sent out three natural defenders — Ali Riley, Phoebe McClernon, and Ali Krieger — but Jónsdóttir slotted in at right back. She got forward on the attacking end often, and the Pride looked to play more of a back three while in possession. While defending, it looked like a 4-2-3-1.
“What I love so much about Gunny, and you know not many people know this, but she was put into the position to play right back last minute, and she didn’t have any preparation whatsoever in the position,” said Harris. “But she said, ‘hey it’s football!’ And I think she took on this role incredibly and she played amazing and she always puts the team first. So, I’m really just happy with her performance coming in here and doing whatever she can for the team.”
Jade Moore, Marisa Viggiano, and Taylor Kornieck started in midfield, with Marta, Morgan, and Leroux up top.
The Pride started the match fast. In the 10th minute, Morgan stole the ball from Dorian Bailey in the middle of the field. The striker looked straight down the field and played a perfect through ball to Leroux, who took one touch to send the ball behind a diving Aubrey Bledsoe and give the Pride the 1-0 lead.
There was some drama in the 25th minute. The Spirit won a free kick, took it quickly, and scored. Washington celebrated, but the referee appeared to be talking to her assistants. The referee called the goal back after a minute and the Spirit had to take it again. Harris made an easy save on the retake. After the game, the referee stated:
“The free kick should have been a ceremonial free kick as the referee marked the spot of the ball. The whistle (mandatory when a free kick is ceremonial) was never blown to restart play when the goal was scored so the direct free kick was retaken.”
Neither team had any significant chances in the rest of the half. The Spirit struggled in possession. They held the ball well in their own areas but were sloppy in the attacking third. Trinity Rodman looked like the best player for Washington in the first half but often did not have any options.
Orlando got players forward when in possession. Often, the Pride’s front four — Leroux, Marta, Morgan, and Kornieck — were all lined up with the Washington defenders.
The halftime stats were fairly even. Washington led in shots (8-7) but both teams had two shots on target. The Spirit also had a bit more possession (53%-47%) but did not create many chances with it.
Washington came out of the break with a ton of energy in the send half. After a brief spell of Orlando possession, the Spirit continuously pressed the Pride starting about 10 minutes after the restart. They won the ball up high, and Orlando struggled to cope. Washington had six corners in the first 15 minutes of the half. Harris came up with a couple of saves, but her best was another penalty stop.
“Yeah we had a good conversation [at halftime],” said Leroux. “We thought that we needed to come out strong again. And I feel like we did and then we were kind of on our back foot for a little while. We dealt with a lot of corners and a lot of pressure. And of course, Ash made a beautiful PK save and beautiful saves throughout the game. She stood on our head for us.”
After a McClernon foul in the box, Ashley Hatch stepped up for Washington. She shot to her right, and Harris was there to deny Hatch. Harris, however, saved it with her leg and stayed down after the play. She looked to be in pain and stretched often for several minutes but was able to stay in the match. After the game, she said she fell on her knee making the save and had a dead leg for a bit that took a while to work itself out.
The Pride remained on the back foot for much of the rest of the half. The Spirit were dangerous on the attack but struggled to connect on the final ball. Orlando, meanwhile, did almost nothing on the attacking side. The Pride sent balls forward, but no one was there.
However, Orlando did get an excellent chance to double the lead shortly after Harris recovered from her injury. Marta sent an excellent pass in to Morgan in the area and she seemed certain to score with her first touch, but Bledsoe got over to make a vital diving save to keep the score at 1-0.
Harris was the key player for Orlando. She made nine saves on the night, and was the obvious choice for the Player of the Match.
There was some chaos in the dying minutes of the match. Krieger went down in the Pride’s box after a nasty fall. She looked to be in a considerable amount of pain and had to be subbed out. At the same time, the Pride quickly got down the field. Kelley O’Hara, who was issued a yellow card moments prior, got a second yellow after a foul on Morgan to break up a counter. The Spirit played stoppage down a player.
Orlando was able to hold on and get the win. It was the first win in nearly a year and a half, and just the fifth in the Skinner era. It was also just the second shutout since July 20, 2019. Orlando was out-shot by a wide margin (20-8), thanks to the strong second half from Washington. The Spirit also had more shots on goal (9-3) and more possession (52%-48%).
“It feels great,” said Harris. “I think we’re going to celebrate this and we’re going to enjoy this but come tomorrow when we wake up, it’s time to put in the work and continue building for success. And continue doing whatever it takes to put the team first and this winning mentality we want to keep pushing and moving forward.”
The Pride now have a little break. Orlando next plays on Saturday, May 1 at 7:30 p.m. on the road against the North Carolina Courage to close out the NWSL Challenge Cup group stage. They need a lot of help, but the Pride are still mathematically alive to win the East.