The Orlando Pride have struck first in their last two NWSL games. However, rather than continuing to play an attacking style, the team has had a defensive mindset. As a result, the Pride nearly gave up the lead against Angel City FC and were forced to come back from a 2-1 deficit against the Kansas City Current.
In Los Angeles on May 8, the Pride scored in the third minute through Sydney Leroux. That left 87 minutes to maintain their lead. While the team was able to hold on throughout the remainder of the game, the Pride spent much of it defending that one-goal lead. Better finishing by Angel City likely would’ve resulted in the team’s second consecutive loss.
The Pride took another lead Saturday night at home against the Kansas City Current. This time they scored the opener in the 51st minute through Gunny Jonsdottir. The Pride created more chances than the opposition until that point, but were immediately put on the back foot. Eventually, the Current scored two goals, taking a 2-1 lead. It took a last minute penalty for the team to pull out the draw.
“I think around the 65th, 70th minute we just got a little casual, thinking we could just kill the game and just try to be like, oh, let’s just see this out,” Pride Head Coach Amanda Cromwell said Saturday night. “There was a lot of game left and they’re making some subs that have some impact on the game. So we needed a little energy and commitment to keep the ball and you can see we just lacked that.”
“I think for us there was a period around the 60th-minute mark where we kind of were playing to protect the win,” goalkeeper Erin McLeod added. “And I think we have to work on our mindset to play to win until the last minute of the game.”
The possession numbers were pretty even heading into halftime. Kansas City had the first chance coming out of the break, but the Pride responded well and scored right after. Unfortunately, the team dropped into a shell to protect the lead. But there were still 40 minutes left in the game.
The problem with this mindset is that it takes a lot of energy to defend. Rather than controlling how much you run, constant defending results in chasing opposing players as they look for space. It’s something that resulted in some early changes for the Pride.
Forward Leah Pruitt caused trouble for the Current defense in the first half. She put tremendous pressure on the Kansas City back line, resulting in multiple mistakes. In the 23rd minute, that pressure caused Hailie Mace to slip and Pruitt to get in on goal. Unfortunately, she was pushed outside by Current goalkeeper Adrianna Franch and her shot hit the post.
Pruitt was substituted in the 60th minute, replaced by Kerry Abello. The other attacking player used up top that spends time pressuring the defense is Leroux. The veteran was replaced in the 73rd minute by Erika Tymrak.
“I think the energy was there but there was some tired legs,” Cromwell said after the game. “And we as a coaching staff, we talked about some of our decisions too of how can we have preserved the lead, give ourselves a better chance to keep the clean sheet, and I think you’ll see some different decisions in the future.
“In hindsight, there were some decisions we could have made differently to get what we wanted, to keep possession better, and we got overrun the last 20 minutes and we need to be better with seeing it out and being more condensed because we got way too stretched.”
Constantly defending also makes it more difficult to maintain possession. Tired legs often result in a tired mind and the players that spend much of the game chasing are less successful in completing passes.
“I think we came out in the second half and scored and put them under pressure a bit,” center back Toni Pressley said after the game. “But I think we lost a bit of our way in terms of keeping the ball, building possession up the field, and neutralizing their counter attacks. And they were going a bit more direct with balls in behind our back line and making runs and getting crosses in. I think we just have to be better in those moments and calmer on the ball so we can control those moments a bit better and they don’t get two goals on us.”
The Pride have done well in the first 15 minutes of halves this year. As a result, the team has taken leads in each of the past two games. However, the Pride have focused so much on defending the leads that they’ve become vulnerable defensively.
As Cromwell and McLeod said after the 2-2 draw with Kansas City, the team needs to continue the same ferocity on the attacking end that it did prior to taking the lead, especially with so much time remaining in a match. If so, the Pride have a better chance of doubling their lead than conceding.
“We’re such a new team and I think we’re kind of figuring out our identity as we go,” McLeod said. “And we’re definitely a team that works hard and has to work together. And I think the shift from the beginning of the season to now, our tracking, our taking so much more responsibility and accountability. So that’s one huge thing that we’ve really improved on but I think (we need to work on) finishing out games.”