The Orlando Pride (2-1-1, 7 points) used an early goal by Sydney Leroux and a late first-half goal by Mikayla Cluff to beat the North Carolina Courage (0-2-0, 0 points) 2-1 in Cary, NC. Brianna Pinto scored a consolation goal late to give the hosts a chance, but the Pride held on for their second win of the season, extending their unbeaten streak to three games (2-0-1).
With the North Carolina Courage losing several key players to injury and COVID protocol, Pride Head Coach Amanda Cromwell made some significant changes to the lineup. Kylie Strom, Viviana Villacorta, Jordyn Listro, Abi Kim, and Julie Doyle all entered the lineup, replacing regular starters Darian Jenkins, Gunny Jonsdottir, Courtney Petersen, Toni Pressley, and Leah Pruitt. Additionally, Angharad James returned from an ankle injury and started the game on the bench.
While the lineup changes can be somewhat attributed to Courage absences, Cromwell spoke last week after the game about the team’s tired legs. This game was an opportunity to give some of the most used players some much-needed rest.
This game got off to a similar start as the Pride’s 1-0 win against Angel City FC. In the fourth minute, Cluff got on the end of a cross but it was saved by Casey Murphy. The Courage goalkeeper wasn’t able to block it far away, sending it right to Leroux, who put it into an empty net.
“The ball just happened to kind of pop out to me,” Cluff said about her involvement in the opening goal. “I was waiting for the second ball and I was able to get good contact on it. She made a great save and then Syd was there to bail me out and put it away for us.”
The Pride have now scored inside the first five minutes of both regular season road games. In Los Angeles, Leroux scored a similar goal in the third minute, giving the Pride a very early lead against the NWSL newcomers. Tonight, they did the same thing, just a minute later.
“It’s huge,” Cluff said about scoring early on the road. “We talked about the big moments in the game and the times that we let them get shifted. The first five minutes of the game is some of the biggest parts. So it’s nice when we’re able to come out and get a strong start.”
“Scoring that early allows us to just play and be calm,” Listro added. “Sometimes at the start of the game it’s super frantic. But when we get that first goal, we can take a breath and then just play our style of soccer.”
The Courage got their first chance in the ninth minute when Diana Ordonez found Rylee Baisden at the top of the box. The midfielder took the host team’s first shot at goal, but it was blocked and the Pride began to head the other way.
The Pride had a great chance to double their lead in the 20th minute. Kim’s cross made it through the box for Ryan Williams, whose poor clearance went right to Cluff. The rookie quickly shot on goal but it was going wide the whole way and didn’t cause any trouble for Murphy.
They had another chance in the 22nd minute when Strom sent a long ball into the box for Doyle. The forward got her head to the ball but it was too soft and Murphy made an easy save.
North Carolina got one of its best first-half chances in the 24th minute from a smart play by Debinha. Meredith Speck played the ball to her right and Debinha, knowing that Ordonez was making a run behind her, let it go. Ordonez took the ball towards the end line and sent in a cross. However, Megan Montefusco did well defensively and blocked the cross. It went out for a corner but McLeod punched the ball away on the ensuing set piece and the Pride were able to clear.
Kim created another chance in the 27th minute when a run to the end line saw the midfielder lift a short cross to the front of the six-yard box. The ball appeared to be a little behind Cluff as she attempted to put it on goal. As a result, she didn’t get much on it resulting in an easy save for Murphy.
In the 30th minute, a misplayed goal kick was won by Listro. She immediately was able to get the ball to Leroux, who took a couple of dribbles and fired on goal from the top of the box. However, the shot was a little wide.
Three minutes later, the Courage had a great chance when Williams sent a cross into the box. Ordonez received the low pass and laid it back for Baisden, who was a couple of yards behind her. Baiden’s first touch was a hard shot, but Carrie Lawrence did well to get in front and block it away.
The Courage got another good chance two minutes later when Taylor Smith got sent in behind the Pride defense. Fortunately, the ball was a little too far for her and McLeod came well off her line to clear it.
Debinha continued her dangerous play from the left with a pair of crosses in the 37th and 41st minutes. The first one was cleared away by Lawrence but the second found a teammate at the back post. Ordonez and Jorian Baucom were charging at the post and Ordonez was first to reach the ball. It was a little high so she wasn’t able to get much on the header that went wide. It was fortunate for the Pride, as Baucom was right behind her and seemed in a good position to get a better shot on target.
While North Carolina looked more dangerous as the game neared halftime, it was the Pride that scored. In the 44th minute, Celia sent a long ball for Doyle. It looked as though the ball would go out of play but Doyle didn’t give up and slid to save it. The ball went back to Leroux who looked to redirect it towards goal but Williams came across to block it. The ball went right to Cluff near the penalty spot who put the ball past Murphy, doubling the Pride lead. It was her first career NWSL goal.
“I can’t remember who crossed it, but I saw the ball getting crossed in and I’m just trying to get into the box,” Cluff said about her goal. “And luckily Syd kind of put her body on the line for us, got the deflection, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
After being a part of the buildup for the second goal, Celia took her own shot three minutes into first half injury time. The shot looked to be going just inside the far post, but Murphy did well to get down and tip it wide of the goal.
The Pride were the better team in the first 45 minutes, with more shots (7-4) and shots on target (4-0). The Courage did have plenty of chances, with more possession (55.6%-44.4%), corners (4-2), and crosses (12-7), but the Pride took advantage of their chances, ending the half with a 2-0 lead.
The Pride made a few changes at the end of the first half and early in the second half. A surprising substitution was Kerry Abello coming on for Doyle a minute into first-half injury time. Jenkins and James both came on at halftime for Kim and Viviana Villacorta, and Pruitt replaced Cluff in the 61st minute.
After the team’s 2-2 draw with the Kansas Current over the weekend, Cromwell spoke about the team not being aggressive enough after taking the lead in the 51st minute. That wasn’t a problem as the second half began with the Pride pushing forward. They weren’t able to create any shots in the opening minutes of the half, but did win a corner kick in the 54th minute.
Both teams had several chances in the first half, but the first good second-half chance didn’t come until the 73rd minute. After winning the ball back inside her own box, Lawrence sent a long ball for Leroux, looking for a fast break. Leroux tried to play it through the legs of Kaleigh Kurtz but the ball bounced off her legs and right back to the forward. Leroux continued on, beating Kurtz and Malia Berkely to find space for a shot. Unfortunately, the shot was just wide of the post, stopping what would’ve been one of the goals of the season.
Playing from two goals behind, the Courage didn’t get their first shot of the second half until the 75th minute. After coming on at halftime, Havana Solaun had to come off due to an injury and was replaced by Pinto. The new addition to the game took a shot seconds after coming on but it was well high of the goal.
The Courage had another chance in the 82nd minute when Jaelene Daniels made a long run into the Pride box after a short pass by Carson Pickett. She did well to find some space but ran out of energy, sending the ball well wide of the target.
As time wound down, the Pride fell into more of a defensive shape, looking to see out the win. But the hosts got one back in the 85th minute. Pinto got a chance from the top of the box but her shot was blocked. The ball went back to Williams on the right who quickly played it back to Pinto. A slick spin opened up some space for the attacker to get a shot on goal. The ball was heading right to McLeod, but took a slight deflection off Montefusco, going inside the near post.
Up a goal and with time winding down, the Pride just wanted to hold onto the lead. Cromwell made one defensive change in the 89th minute, bringing Courtney Petersen on for Abello. The head coach said she would’ve liked to have made one more defensive change near the end. However, the Pride did well to hold onto the one-goal lead.
“North Carolina has a great attack, especially in transition. So we just tried to communicate as much as possible and keep our shape for the last 30 minutes,” Listro said about the final defensive effort. “And I think we worked really hard as a team and tried to win all our one-v-one battles and that showed and we came out with a win.”
The Courage continued to push hard for an equalizer as the game entered injury time and came very close. Three minutes into injury time, Berkely sent Ordonez through behind the Pride defense. She put the ball past McLeod and into the net but was judged to be offside.
While Ordonez was clearly offside, the second one was close. Five minutes into added time, Pickett sent a long ball into the box for Brittany Ratcliffe. Her first touch was over McLeod and in for what North Carolina thought was the equalizer. However, the linesman’s flag was up and, again, the Courage player was judged to be in an offside position.
Shortly after the offside call on Ratcliffe, Pinto tried to send Daniels through but she was the third offside call in injury time for the Courage. The final whistle final blew and the Pride were able to hold on for a 2-1 win.
After being held to four shots in the first 75 minutes, the Courage had six shots and three offside calls in the final 15 minutes plus injury time. They ended the game with more shots than the Pride (10-8) but, while the Pride put four shots on target, North Carolina only put one on frame. The final 15 minutes also allowed the Courage to end the game with more possession (54.4%-45.6%), corners (4-3), crosses (22-10), and passes (454-390).
“Very exciting. My adrenaline was going from those last six minutes of injury time,” Cromwell said after the game. “Obviously North Carolina is a very good team. They won the Challenge Cup. They have a lot of great attacking pieces. So holding on to a lead was really, really hard but important to do and I was just really proud of our efforts.”
“What we’ve been working on is a little bit of mentality, a little bit of having courage,” Cromwell continued. “And one of the quotes I said to them at the end tonight is, ‘Fortune favors the brave.’ And I thought we were brave tonight. I think some players have stepped up to be brave in communication, to be brave on the ball.”
The win pushes the Pride all the way up to second place, just two points behind San Diego Wave FC atop the NWSL standings. However, the Pride have played more games than anyone else and two more than some teams.
After securing seven points in their last three games, the Pride will return home Sunday night to face the Chicago Red Stars in the final match of the three-game week.