The Orlando Pride were completely outplayed, but still only conceded from the penalty spot in a 1-0 loss to the North Carolina Courage at WakeMed Soccer Park. The Pride (0-1-1, 1 point) suffered their first loss of the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup on a Merritt Mathias penalty kick goal in the second half. North Carolina (2-0-0, 6 points) took complete control of the East Division one third of the way through the group stage with the win.
The far better team on the night won, but the winning goal was not without controversy. Mathias’ goal from the penalty spot came off a questionable handball call on Gunny Jonsdottir, with the ball coming through traffic and hitting her unintentionally while she was not making herself bigger or holding her arm in an unnatural position. The referee thought about it for a couple of seconds before giving it and Mathias took advantage.
The loss broke a string of road results in North Carolina for the Pride, who had three draws and a win in their last four trips to Cary, NC. Orlando is still looking for its first goal in 2022 and under Head Coach Amanda Cromwell.
“Not a great match for us, obviously in possession,” Cromwell said after the match. “I still think we worked really hard and defended pretty well.”
Cromwell made three changes from last weekend’s match, inserting Toni Pressley, Meggie Dougherty Howard, and Parker Roberts in place of Amy Turner, Mikayla Cluff, and Angharad James. Erin McLeod started in goal behind a back line of Courtney Petersen, Pressley, Megan Montefusco, and Carrie Lawrence. Dougherty Howard and Roberts joined Jonsdottir and Marta in midfield, with Darian Jenkins and Sydney Leroux leading the attack.
Once again, the Pride started the match rather sloppily. A botched clearance by Montefusco handed the Courage the ball in the penalty area in the opening minutes of the match but the shot was blocked and Marta did well to come back and help clean things up. In the fifth minute it was Roberts with a wayward pass in the middle of the pitch on her own half to ignite the North Carolina counter. Kiki Pickett luckily fired wide of the right post, although McLeod was well positioned to deal with it if it had been on frame.
Kaleigh Kurtz fired over the bar after a punch from McLeod didn’t go very far off a Courage corner in the 18th minute. The ensuing restart was a costly one for Orlando. Marta jumped to try to get onto a long ball and went down after landing without any contact with a defender. She looked to be in a lot of pain and went off. She did return but it wasn’t for long. Mikayla Cluff subbed on for the captain in the 31st minute.
“Marta going down in the first half didn’t bode well, as far as our possession went,” said Cromwell. “She helps so much with our composure on the ball and to build with her ability to keep it in tight spaces.”
Cromwell didn’t have an update on Marta’s injury after the match.
Kiki Pickett got a head to a Mathias cross in the 33rd minute but Montefusco did just enough to bother her so she couldn’t direct it on goal. Shortly after that, Taylor Smith nutmegged Cluff on the Courage attacking right and set herself up for a shot from the corner of the box but she hit it over the bar in the 38th minute.
.@taylornsmith11_ said see yah @TheNCCourage | #CourageUnitesUs pic.twitter.com/VnZ3nu3hfC— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) March 26, 2022
Over the final seven minutes of the half, the Pride were unable to string more than two passes together. Some of that was the Courage press, but a lot of it was simply wayward passing or not reacting quickly enough to the situation. The Pride somehow got out of the first half without conceding, but the opening 45 minutes were mostly played in Orlando’s end. There was little for Katelyn Rowland to do in the Courage goal aside from catching a couple of errant corner kick crosses.
The Courage out-shot the Pride 11-2 but got only one on target. The Pride got neither effort on frame. North Carolina held much more possession (65.5%-35.5%) and was far more accurate when passing the ball (86.5%-66.9%). Orlando earned more corner kicks (3-2) despite a severe lack of possession.
“Anytime we come here, it’s not an easy place to play,” Pressley said. “They like to high press. They’re a high-energy team.”
“I think where we struggled, especially in the first half, was in transition,” Dougherty Howard said. “We weren’t connecting on that first pass, so we weren’t really able to get on the ball and really build any momentum.”
Cromwell subbed on Kylie Strom and Angharad James at halftime for Lawrence and Roberts, getting more experience on the pitch for the second half.
There was another scary moment for Orlando early in the second half when Jenkins stayed down for a bit and had to receive attention from the training staff. However, she was able to continue.
Jonsdottir conceded a dangerous free kick in the 53rd minute with a poor challenge from behind and was booked for it. Carson Pickett fizzed a shot over the bar on the set piece. Five minutes later, the ex-Pride defender nearly took advantage of Montefusco failing to clear a set piece delivery and hit a shot just wide off a deflection.
A minute later, the decisive play of the game happened. A ball through traffic hit Jonsdottir’s arm. Referee Joshua Encarnacion took a couple of beats and awarded a penalty. Jonsdottir’s arm was within a few inches of her body and she couldn’t have known the ball was coming, as Strom was in between her and the ball when the cross was made. So, it was unintentional, with her arm not in an unnatural position, and ball to hand. But only Encarnacion’s opinion mattered, and the penalty was given.
“We couldn’t really see it that well but it seemed pretty soft. Her arms were by her side,” Cromwell said.
“The call on the PK? I’m not really sure on that one,” Dougherty Howard said.
Mathias smashed it just under the bar in the 61st minute, giving McLeod no chance.
.@MerrittMathias on the mark @TheNCCourage | #CourageUnitesUs pic.twitter.com/9qvhW67ym1— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) March 27, 2022
It was the first goal the Pride conceded under Cromwell, although that may just be down to poor finishing by the opponents thus far. Opponents have only put seven of 32 shot attempts on frame against Orlando through two matches.
Two minutes after the penalty, Brianna Pinto shook free and sent a shot on target that McLeod saved, as the Courage just kept coming. Three minutes later, the Courage shouted for a second penalty when Smith got behind Pressley and the two players raced toward goal. Pressley put a hand on Smith’s outstretched arm and the Courage forward went down easily, and this time Encarnacion wasn’t interested.
“I know she’s really quick, so I was just trying to make it as difficult as possible for her to get a clean touch or clean shot off,” Pressley said. “And I think I had a bit of luck on my side. So thank goodness for that.”
The Pride finally worked the ball up into the final third in the 73rd minute and Leroux had a go from the top of the box but her shot was blocked.
Kiki Pickett fired over the bar after James both gave away the ball cheaply and then conceded a free kick from just outside the area, as the Pride mistakes continued.
Cromwell sent Erika Tymrak onto the field for Jonsdottir and it opened up the game a little for the Pride. But on the first chance to turn North Carolina over and attack with numbers, Tymrak played the ball in to an offside Leroux, with two teammates on her left in the 80th minute. A little more patience in the buildup may have allowed Leroux to reset. Leah Pruitt won a corner just after that and the Courage could only clear the service to the top of the box. Cluff stepped up and hit a hard shot on the half volley but it sliced just wide.
Seconds later, Dougherty Howard stepped into a shot from outside the area and hit it straight at the goalkeeper. It was the Pride’s first shot on target and it came in the 81st minute.
The Courage had little trouble seeing out the final nine minutes, plus five minutes of stoppage time.
North Carolina dominated, with the advantage in shots (17-7), shots on target (3-1), possession (60%-40%), and passing accuracy (80.9%-69.4%). Each team finished with four corner kick opportunities.
“In the first half we tried something a little different in how we defended and it didn’t work really well. They broke our pressure way too easily,” Cromwell said. “So, we changed it in the second half and got a little bit better. But in the end we just didn’t hold the ball well enough. Going forward, we’re going to have to build better and break lines — not just look for (the ball) over the top because we just got too stretched. We couldn’t maintain possession that way.”
“Just figuring out not to play into the trap and what they want and sometimes, you know, just looking beyond that initial pressure is a way to be successful,” Dougherty Howard said. “And then being able to pick up the second ball.”
“The video will be really interesting, because we’ll be able to solve some of the breakdowns and show them where they can be more successful, whether they’re taking an extra touch or an internal dribble, where they can be better support for each other,” Cromwell said. “It seemed like we isolated players too much tonight, a lot of A to B in the passing and we need to be more sophisticated than that.”
The Pride are right back at it during the upcoming midweek, with a home match against NJ/NY Gotham FC Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Exploria Stadium.