An early goal by Jodie Taylor and a late goal by Sydney Leroux lifted the Orlando Pride (5-4-5, 20 points) to a 2-0 win over the Chicago Red Stars (6-6-2, 20 points) at SeatGeek Stadium. The victory ends a six-game winless streak for the Pride and moves them above the red line to fourth in the NWSL. It also gave interim coach Becky Burleigh her first win with the Pride.
This game saw the return of Marta and Ali Riley to the starting lineup. The pair of Olympians returned to training this week and were questionable for the game. However, they were deemed fit enough and returned to the lineup.
“Everybody had told me this, but they’re like, ‘She’s gonna want to play,’” Burleigh said about Marta. “Because I kept saying, ‘Are we really going to expect her to come in and play off of that long haul?’ And they’re like, ‘She’s gonna want to play. She’s gonna want to play.’ She said, ‘Let me see how I train and how I feel on Friday,’ and after Friday she felt good so she played.”
The additions saw Courtney Petersen move back to her natural left back position and Ali Krieger move back to her center back role.
Club captain Ashlyn Harris made her 74th regular season start for the Pride in this game. That resulted in her passing Dani Weatherholt (73) for the most NWSL regular season appearances as a member of the Pride.
The Red Stars dominated early possession and it nearly resulted in the opening goal in the third minute. Kealia Watt was able to break through a double-team and get into the six-yard box. Harris came out to make the stop, but Watt did well to lift it over her outstretched arms. Fortunately for the Pride, Amy Turner had made it back to the goal line, where she was able to block and clear the ball.
Having escaped a dangerous situation early, the Pride were able to get back into the game. In the eighth minute, they nearly scored the opening goal. Petersen did well to beat Sarah Waldmoe, despite being trapped against the touchline. A nice, low cross found the foot of Taylor, who redirected it on goal. However, Cassie Miller was right there to make the stop.
Despite the Red Stars having the majority of possession to that point, it was the Pride that opened the scoring in the 15th minute. The Pride had been trying to play the ball out of the back, but Krieger saw Taylor making a run behind the Red Stars’ back line. Knowing the speed of her teammate, Krieger played a beautiful long ball forward into space.
After catching up to the ball, Taylor did well with her first touch, bringing it back to avoid the three defenders that had caught up to her in the box. Her second touch was a perfectly placed shot into the corner for the opening goal and her first with the Pride.
Much of the Pride’s success this season has been on the play of Harris in goal. She was called upon to save the day again in the 29th minute. The always-dangerous Mallory Pugh did well to create some space at the top of the box. Having beaten her defender, she targeted the far post. It appeared to be heading in but Harris made a diving, one-handed save to maintain the one-goal advantage for the Pride.
In the 37th minute, the Pride had a chance to double their lead. Quick play from Leroux and Meggie Dougherty Howard set up Marisa Viggiano at the top of the box. The midfielder sent a bending ball toward the far post, forcing Miller into a diving save.
Similar to the first half, the Red Stars nearly scored off of an early second-half chance. In the 48th minute, Pugh’s corner kick found Morgan Gautrat at the far post. The midfielder was able to get the header on goal, but from a difficult angle. However, the ball appeared to be on target and forced Harris to block the ball out of play.
The game slowed down considerably after that early chance by Chicago. The Pride were happy to hold onto the 1-0 lead and the Red Stars played frustrated with some hard Pride challenges, resulting in a lack of opportunities.
The first quality second-half chance for the Pride came in the 80th minute. After breaking out, the Pride had an open far-field run, but the initial pass was behind. The Pride were able to build up to a shot, but Leroux’s strike was right at Miller who made the easy save.
It appeared as though the Red Stars might equalize in the 82nd minute. Watt sent a low ball through the box, where multiple Red Stars had gathered. However, all were well marked and the ball went all the way through for a goal kick.
Watt provided the Red Stars with another chance in the 85th minute. A dangerous ball into the box was aimed for Sarah Luebbert, but the Chicago substitute was well-covered by Krieger. She got her foot to the ball but sent it well wide of the goal.
In the 87th minute, the Pride got their second quality chance. An excellent switch by Erika Tymrak gave Marta the ball on the opposite side. Quick play resulted in Taylor Kornieck having the ball with a chance on goal. However, the shot was high, ending the opportunity.
Two minutes later, the Pride doubled their lead. Another great ball by Tymrak sent Leroux through on goal. Miller came off her line, but the forward’s first touch was a strong, low shot past the Chicago goalkeeper, giving the Pride the 2-0 lead. It also pushed Leroux into the lead in the NWSL Golden Boot race with her seventh of the year.
“I think I got in our half and I was just able to turn and go at them,” Tymrak said about the late assist. “Initially, I was going to go to the corner since it was kind of late in the game. Then Syd kind of made a run and I was like ‘Why not?’ I trust Syd every play with the ball to score so I was able to slip her through and it was a sick finish.”
The Red Stars did have a chance to get one back in injury time through Pugh, who had been dangerous all game. Receiving the ball at the top of the box, the midfielder sent a shot towards goal. But it was well high of the target and didn’t cause any trouble for Harris.
Despite the final scoreline, the Red Stars dominated in most statistical categories. They had more shots (14-8), corners (12-3), crosses (37-8), duels won (61-43), and tackles won (21-6). However, the Pride led in the most important stats, recording more possession (53.7% - 46.3%), better passing accuracy (76.6% - 68.4%), and more shots on target (5-4).
“We knew we had our hands full,” Burleigh said after the game. “I mean, Chicago has been playing really, really well. They’ve been on quite a tear lately and they brought it to us. I mean, especially early, we were under the gun, but I think we sort of weathered that initial pressure from them and got a little bit more into our game plan. We’re fortunate to score two really nice goals and have a great defensive team effort.”
In addition to the offensive output, the Pride put in a terrific defensive performance. The Red Stars had multiple stretches where they attacked the Pride’s defense. This resulted in the Pride accumulating more blocked shots (5-1) and clearances (30-3) than the Red Stars.
“I think we had some really, really great blocked shots. Some good ability to clear the ball defensively in the air,” Burleigh said. “I thought Syd Leroux came up huge in that for us. I think it’s just a mentality of everyone doing it for each other. I mean, Ashlyn’s save, she had two really big saves that were game changers. Everybody is kind of doing it in their own way.”
The 2-0 win for the Pride ended a six-game winless streak that dated back to the Pride’s 2-1 loss in Houston on June 26.
The Pride will take the field again Saturday night when they host the Portland Thorns at Exploria Stadium.