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Orlando Pride Focused on Team Defending in NWSL Challenge Cup Opener

The Orlando Pride held one of the NWSL’s best attacking teams scoreless Saturday night.

Washington Spirit v Orlando Pride Photo by Jeremy Reper/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The Orlando Pride kicked off their 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup campaign Saturday night with a scoreless draw against the defending NWSL champion Washington Spirit at Exploria Stadium. The visitors had the majority of possession and the better chances for most of the game. However, strong defending throughout the team saw the Pride claim an unlikely point.

Despite having had one of the best goalkeepers in the NWSL in Ashlyn Harris, the Pride have had a problem conceding goals throughout the team’s history. In fact, the only year in which they didn’t finish among the three teams with the most goals conceded was in 2017. Unsurprisingly, that was also the only year that the team qualified for the postseason.

Knowing the importance of defense in the NWSL, first year Pride Head Coach Amanda Cromwell has placed an emphasis on this aspect of the game. According to the Pride boss, it’s something that has been a focus during her first NWSL preseason.

“We’ve been working a lot on team defending from the front, how we’re going to set up, and there’s some things that we needed to tweak tonight,” Cromwell said after the team’s clean sheet against Washington. “And I think we didn’t start well because we were a little too spread 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.”

Cromwell and her team knew that the Pride needed to play well defensively to get a result in the team’s first competitive game of the year. The Spirit are the defending league champions and return most of the team that won that title.

The Spirit have become known for their attacking threats in Ashley Hatch, Ashley Sanchez, and Trinity Rodman. Even their back line includes some attacking players who can cause trouble in Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnett. Despite the ferocity of the opponent’s offense, the Pride did well to withstand a barrage of chances.

“I think just defensive minded, we kept tight and more compact as a team because a lot of times as you get tired, you kind of get stretched,” starting goalkeeper Erin McLeod said after the game. “And I was really proud of especially the last 10 minutes. We just kept getting better and better.”

“I think we were just checking in with each other and it was just a really good group effort back there covering each other,” center back Megan Montefusco added. “We all felt like we had each other’s back the whole game and that was our goal today. And I think we accomplished that.”

It was a confidence-building game for the Pride as the team has several new faces. Montefusco and Darian Jenkins are league veterans but are still getting used to their teammates. Additionally, Angharad James has only been in the league a short while and Mikayla Cluff is in her rookie year.

Even some of the players known for their attacking play spent considerable time defending. Marta and Sydney Leroux played deeper in this game than they have in previous years. Rather than dropping back to get the ball with space, they worked to be a part of a defensive effort that resulted in the team’s fourth all-time clean sheet against Washington.

“You saw the work that Syd and Marta put in,” Cromwell said to describe the team’s work ethic. “Two of the veterans that I was thinking if anyone might need a sub today because of legs, it would’ve been those two potentially.”

The fact that the Pride were able to hold off the attacking force of the Spirit bodes well as they continue through the tournament and the regular season. The rebuilding process saw the Pride offload some of the biggest offensive threats from a year ago, including Alex Morgan, Jodie Taylor, and Taylor Kornieck.

The next test is the North Carolina Courage, previously one of the most feared attacking teams. However, the Courage are now without Lynn Williams and Jessica McDonald, who have moved on to Kansas City and Racing Louisville, respectively.

Despite facing some teams with fewer attacking options than Washington, Pride players know that they must continue the same defensive effort if they want to give themselves a chance at success this year.

“I think this is a fast league. There’s a lot of transition. And they (Washington) did come up at us in waves” McLeod said after the game. “On a defensive side, we were able to manage wave after wave.”

Despite the players who departed this past off-season, there are still attacking options with the likes of Marta, Leroux, and Jenkins. If the Pride are able to withstand the waves of attack they saw Saturday night, they’ll be a tough team to break down this season.