The strength of the Orlando Pride in the early season has been the defense, giving up just one goal (and that via penalty) through the first two games. However, the team has had trouble maintaining possession, a potential problem moving forward.
The Pride’s defense has gotten off to a great start this year. After holding the defending NWSL champions scoreless in the team’s NWSL Challenge Cup opener, the Pride kept the North Carolina Courage from scoring in open play. The only goal in that game was the conversion of a controversial penalty.
The fact that the Pride have been so good defensively isn’t a surprise to Head Coach Amanda Cromwell. Following the team’s scoreless draw with Washington, Cromwell said that team defense has been a focus during the preseason.
“We’ve been working a lot on team defending from the front, how we’re going to set up.” Cromwell said. “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.”
While the defense has been strong, the team has struggled offensively. Through two games, the Pride have yet to score. They were out-shot 15-11 against the Spirit and 17-7 against the Courage. Additionally, they’ve put fewer shots on target. The Spirit put more shots on target (4-2) in the first game and the Courage put more on target (3-1) Saturday night.
A bigger problem than the number of shots and shots on target is the Pride’s inability to maintain possession. While the Spirit held a smaller advantage in possession (53.2%-46.8%), the Courage controlled the ball for the majority of the game Saturday night (60.4%-39.6%).
Rather than the Pride’s opponent holding the ball for the majority of the game and making high percentage passes, the difference in possession is largely due to the Pride’s poor passing percentage. They only completed 76.3% of their passes in the draw against Washington, a number that dropped significantly to 60.4% in the loss to the Courage.
The sloppy passing that has become a problem for the Pride was on display early and often against the Courage. In the fifth minute, Parker Roberts played a lackadaisical ball toward Gunny Jonsdottir that was easily intercepted by Kiki Pickett.
In the seventh minute, the Pride won a Courage goal kick and appeared to be heading the other way. But Darian Jenkins’ pass attempt to Meggie Dougherty Howard was easily won back by the Courage. Fortunately, neither change in possession resulted in a goal, but both easily could have.
The team defense has been strong so far but that could change if the Pride aren’t able to keep the ball. The team has made a habit of giving the ball away in dangerous positions. It nearly resulted in an early goal for Pickett, but her shot traveled wide of the target.
In addition to losing the ball, turning the ball over in their own half of the field will put more pressure on the defense, which, as Cromwell said, can get stretched out. This has especially been a problem early in games. Regardless of how well they play, the back line can only withstand a relentless attack for so long before it breaks.
Giveaways can also result in an advantage in numbers for the opposition. Sydney Leroux, Marta, and Jenkins have all done well at getting back to defend when the opposition is attacking. However, those attacking players sprint forward when the Pride gain control of the ball. Losing possession so quickly doesn’t provide enough time for them to turn and get back on the defensive side.
So far, the lack of possession and successful passes hasn’t damaged the Pride. They were able to record a clean sheet against the Spirit and the Courage’s goal came from the penalty spot. But they can only survive the constant pressure and uneven numbers for so long before it hurts them and eventually an opponent will be more clinical. Of the 32 opposition shots in the first two matches, only seven were on frame, including only three of Washington’s 17 attempts.
The Pride’s defense has proven to be the strongest part of the team in the early part of the 2022 season. That could continue as the season goes on because Cromwell is making it a priority. But if the attackers can’t maintain possession and successfully string several passes together, that unit might begin to falter as the offense has.