The Orlando Pride played to a 1-1 draw against the Washington Spirit to open the 2021 NWSL regular season. It was an evenly matched game, and a draw was a fair result for both teams. Ashley Hatch broke the deadlock in the 76th minute. She converted a difficult header over Ali Krieger. Just minutes later, the Pride struck back. Phoebe McClernon played a wonderful ball over everyone, and Alex Morgan chipped it over the Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe.
Here is what we learned from the match:
A Game of Firsts
There were many firsts in this match. While the Challenge Cup allowed players to get competitive game action, it was still a preseason tournament. Sunday night saw a handful of Pride players make their league debuts. McClernon, Taylor Kornieck, and Courtney Petersen all made their first NWSL regular season starts. Petersen made four appearances in 2020, but that was in the Fall Series, not the regular season. Chelsee Washington also was introduced to the team last year in the 2020 Fall Series. She came off the bench on Sunday to make her regular season debut.
McClernon recorded her first assist in a vital moment in the game that brought the Pride back into it — more on her below. Her assist was to Morgan, who scored her first NWSL goal since Aug. 25, 2018.
McClernon Continues to Improve
The 2021 season has just begun. It is premature to hand out awards. But I’ll do it anyway. Since the start of the Challenge Cup, McClernon has been the most improved player on the team and possibly in the league. In her first game against Louisville, she was poor. She committed turnovers, her defense was not at the level it needed to be, and she looked like a rookie. She improved in the second half, and every game since has looked better and more confident.
Her five tackles were the most in the game. She had 57 touches (third most on Orlando), 39 passes (tied for second most on Orlando), and 80% passing accuracy (fourth best on Orlando).
“It’s just fine-tuning of the details and just fine-tuning that relationship between Ali and myself or whoever it is playing next to me,” said McClernon after the game. “I think one thing that really, really helps me get confidence on the field is the more I talk, the more I’m communicating with everybody across the back line, the more confidence I have, because the more I feel we’re on the same page. And that gives us a little more freedom when we know that we’re all covering for each other and we’re all in the right positions and organized.”
Opening Day Woes
Orlando has yet to win a game on opening day. The Pride are now 0-3-2 on opening day. This is not an ideal trend to have, but the good news is that this team has more positives than in previous matches. Orlando easily could have won on Sunday. Morgan alone could have had at least two or three goals, Sydney Leroux had a chance that was unlucky not to find the back of the net, and this Pride team has dramatically improved on the defensive end.
The Spirit did not have many chances in the match. It’s a very high-powered, attacking team that Orlando handled well.
“[Washington’s] attacking is super in terms of its agility, its mobility to turn something into nothing, and I think our backline tonight have just stood up to every challenge,” Pride Head Coach Marc Skinner said. “Barring the goal, they’ve been exceptional. I think it takes a real team effort now, and I think that’s what we’ve been trying to get since we’ve been here — that team ethic. For us, if we build our foundations on solid defensive play, we know we have the forwards that can build into the game and give us the opportunity to win a game of football. But what’s important is now that we build from this.”
Consistency in the Starting XI
A constant with the Pride this year, including that Challenge Cup, has been a constant lineup from game to game. Skinner brought out another lineup that was as close as possible to the previous game against North Carolina. Ali Riley and Jade Moore were injured, so Courtney Petersen started at left back, and Meggie Dougherty Howard played in the midfield. Otherwise, the lineups remained unchanged. This is something Orlando has not had much of in the past few years. After the game, Skinner talked about how the players are improving their relationships with each other. This will lead to better results as the team continues to improve.
The Pride started the game with a similar tactical lineup throughout the Challenge Cup — a 4-2-3-1 formation. But the players did not stay in this shape throughout the match. The Pride changed the shape based on what was needed for different moments of the game.
Krieger and McClernon alternated between left and right center back on occasion. It was not something that happened all game, but if the play took one center back onto the other side of the field, their partner filled in the gaps.
Morgan played striker but at times drifted out wide. Leroux, Marta, and Kornieck all were in the forward position at different points and in various positions in the midfield. Dougherty Howard and Marisa Viggiano played the holding midfield roles, but neither of them was there the whole game. In the first few minutes of the match, Viggiano was in the attacking line.
This rotation was effective in igniting attacks. It forced Washington to keep a close eye on where the Pride players were.
That’s what I saw in the Pride’s opening day draw against the Spirit. What stood out to you?