The Orlando Pride (0-0-1, 1 point) kicked off the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup with a scoreless draw against the Washington Spirit (0-0-1, 1 point) at Exploria Stadium. The visitors had the better chances, but poor finishing kept the hosts in the game.
Amanda Cromwell’s first lineup as Pride head coach was a mixture of familiar faces and recent additions. Amy Turner, Courtney Petersen, Gunny Jonsdottir, Marta, and Sydney Leroux were regular starters from last season. Megan Montefusco, Angharad James, and Darian Jenkins are veterans who made their debuts for the Pride, and highly touted draft pick Mikayla Cluff made her professional debut in the starting lineup.
The first half hour of the game was all Washington as the Pride struggled to maintain possession and get the ball out of their half of the field. It started just three minutes in when Tara McKeown played a ball into the box. Ashley Sanchez’s backheel was right to Trinity Rodman on the far side, and she put a shot on goal. However, Erin McLeod got her hand to it, knocking it out of play.
In the fifth minute, Andi Sullivan sent a cross into the box, which found the head of center back Sam Staab. Fortunately for the Pride, the header went just right of the target.
In the 14th minute, Dorian Bailey won the ball off Petersen and set up McKeown at the top of the box. The attacker quickly fired on goal but it was right at McLeod, who knocked it down for the easy collection.
The best first-half chance for the Spirit came in the 16th minute, when a Rodman cross ended up at the feet of Staab. The center back was open a mere feet from goal but sent the shot over the top of the crossbar and onto the roof of the net.
“I think we didn’t start well because we were a little bit too spread,” Cromwell said about the opening minutes. “And we needed to force the issue a little bit, a little bit more pressure on their backs. And when we do that, you see we win the ball in some good spots higher up the field.”
The Pride were able to create some sustained possession late in the first half for the first time in the game. In the 28th minute, Cluff set up Jonsdottir in the box but the shot was blocked by Kelley O’Hara. Before the Spirit could clear, Marta set up Petersen for a second shot in two minutes, but once again it was blocked.
The best chance in the game for the Pride came in the 30th minute. Jonsdottir sent a low cross into the box. It looked as though Jenkins would fire, but she heard Leroux behind her and let it go. Leroux lost her defender and took a wide open shot on goal. However, she got too far under the ball and the shot sailed high of the target.
The Pride had another excellent chance in the 40th minute when Marta’s cross found the head of Jenkins in front of goal. The newly acquired forward directed the ball on target, but it was right at former Pride goalkeeper Aubrey Kingsbury. After 40 minutes, it was the Pride’s first shot on goal.
The start of the second half was very reminiscent of the first half. The Pride were immediately on their back foot as the Spirit created multiple chances on goal. Rodman got down the left side and cut back a cross that skipped outside the top of the area. O’Hara ran onto it and struck it well. The ball was heading just inside the right post but McLeod made a diving save moving to her left to keep it out. The Spirit redirected the ensuing corner kick just wide of the far post.
In the 48th minute, Ashley Hatch won the ball on the Pride’s half of the field. After receiving a pass from Hatch, Bailey played it across for O’Hara sprinting to the top of the box. However, the right back sent the ball wide of the target, allowing the Pride to clear.
Bailey was involved in the buildup again in the 51st minute. Quick feet allowed her to send an aerial cross into the box but, despite having teammates in the box, it was too high and hard as the ball went harmlessly out of play.
The Pride’s attack again got more into the game as the half went on. In the 65th minute, Jenkins found second-half substitute Meggie Dougherty Howard in front of goal. Dougherty Howard flicked the ball by Kingsbury with the outside of her right foot, but she couldn’t beat the post as the ball rattled the woodwork and the flag came up anyway.
In the 70th minute, the Pride were granted a free kick outside of the box. Marta took the kick, attempting to beat Kingsbury to her far post. However, the ball went just wide right and out of play for a Spirit goal kick.
Leroux had a difficult night in the attack, but nearly set up the opening goal in the 81st minute. After nearly playing the ball over the endline, the forward sent a low ball into the box for Erika Tymrak, who had just come on. The substitute received the ball just to the left of goal and fired on target. However, Kingsbury was able to block the shot, keeping the game scoreless.
Marta once again shot from distance two minutes into injury time. Washington was unable to clear a free kick sent into the box by the Pride, allowing the Brazilian to fire from distance. She was able to get over the ball on the volley, but sent it just over the crossbar.
The Spirit dominated play during the first 30 minutes of both halves. However, the Pride played their way back into the game, maintaining more possession and creating more chances as time wound down. As a result, the visitors weren’t as statistically dominant as they were during large portions of the game.
“I would say it was a rollercoaster of a match.” Cromwell said. “It didn’t start particularly well, but we found our way into it and I think we ended the first half with some momentum. It kind of switched again to start the second half. Both teams you can see had tired legs early on.
“We’ve been training hard with high loads to build them up to 90 minutes. So we knew because of that there were going to be some tired legs today. But then I think we got the momentum back with our substitutes. Our reserves came in and I think raised our level. We created some chances and I was really proud of the defensive effort.”
In the end, Washington ended up with more shots (15-11), shots on target (4-2), corners (8-4), passes (437-389), and possession (53.2%-46.8%). The draw gets the Pride off to a good start to the Challenge Cup, just two points behind the North Carolina Courage in the East Division.
The Pride’s second game will be against the Courage when they travel up to North Carolina to take on the division leaders next Saturday, March 26.