The Orlando Pride (2-4-2, 8 points) fell 1-0 to the Chicago Red Stars (4-1-3, 15 points) in Bridgeview, IL, on Mallory Pugh’s 10th-minute goal. The strike, which came off a Pride turnover in their own defensive half, held up for 80 minutes as the Pride suffered their second straight loss and third in the last four games.
Pride interim head coach Seb Hines was forced to make a few changes to the starting lineup in this game due to injury. Mikayla Cluff (left foot), Sydney Leroux (right ankle), and Leah Pruitt (right knee) were all out or questionable. Additionally, Kerry Abello and Jordyn Listro were on the bench after starting in the 5-0 loss last weekend.
The back four in front of Erin McLeod included Kylie Strom, Megan Montefusco, Toni Pressley, and Courtney Petersen. Gunny Jonsdottir moved up to defensive midfield with Viviana Villacorta after playing defense in Houston. Angharad James, Julie Doyle, and Abi Kim made up the attacking midfield behind Darian Jenkins.
The game started evenly, with both teams having trouble maintaining possession. The first chance of the game didn’t come until the ninth minute when Pugh sent a cross into the box from the left, looking for the head of Sarah Luebbert. The ball was a little high and behind the forward, so she wasn’t able to get much on it. As a result, the ball rolled slowly wide of the far post and out of play.
A minute later, Luebbert got behind the Pride back line, chasing a ball sent through by Pugh. However, McLeod did well to come off her line and beat Luebbert to the ball.
The Red Stars opened the scoring in the 10th minute from the best player on the field. It started with a bad giveaway by Strom to Bianca St. Georges on the Pride half of the field. Receiving the ball from the defender, Pugh took a couple of steps toward the Pride box. But neither Montefusco nor Pressley closed down the dangerous attacker, so the U.S. international took a shot on goal. It was perfectly placed into the top right corner, beyond the reach of McLeod, to give the hosts a 1-0 lead.
The Red Stars almost doubled their lead in the 12th minute with a nearly identical play, but from Vanessa DiBernardo. Another giveaway provided an opportunity for a quick give-and-go between DiBernardo and Chelsie Dawber. Like Pugh two minutes earlier, DiBernardo took a shot on goal. But fortunately for the Pride, this one was off the crossbar.
“Obviously, the goal came from a turnover. And then I think the other shot that hit the crossbar came from a turnover,” Hines said after the game. “I mean, we’ve had a couple of sessions and it’s something that we need to work on.”
“Great goal from Mal Pugh,” Strom said. “But the main focus of this game was to stay tight defensively, not let them play through the middle. And for the most part we were successful in that. Yeah, great goal by her and we just need to, you know, step up and make sure we get pressure on the ball and don’t give the ball away.”
The Pride didn’t get their first chance until the 14th minute and it wasn’t a very good one. Montefusco received the ball from outside the box and took a shot towards goal but it was blocked.
The best first-half chance for the Pride came in the 35th minute. Montefusco sent a long ball up the right side for Jonsdottir. The midfielder quickly sent a cross in for Kim, who was darting towards the near post. However, Tatumn Milazzo did well to track the run and blocked the ball out of play. The ensuing corner was caught by Chicago goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, her first real action of the day, ending the attack.
The final chance of the half was for the hosts a minute into injury time. In her first NWSL game, Dawber sent a dangerous ball through the Pride back line for St. Georges. As the defender reached the end line, McLeod came out to block it out of play.
While the Pride had a couple of chances in the first half, it was a dominant 45 minutes for Chicago. They ended the first period of play with more possession (58.7%-41.3%), shots (6-2), shots on goal (2-0), corners (2-1), crosses (3-2), and more accurate passing (83.2%-76.5%).
The Pride got off to a much better start to the second half and created their first chance inside two minutes. Jonsdottir got the first shot of the half, but it was blocked out of play by Amanda Kowalski.
The Pride continued to pressure the Red Stars back line, creating three corner kicks inside the first five minutes. The third corner by Strom found the head of Pressley at the near post. The Orlando captain redirected the ball towards goal but sent it just wide.
“You can see that we started the second half more aggressive,” Hine said. “Won some corners and set pieces and created more turnovers from Chicago. It’s just the final piece of making them turnovers into goal-scoring opportunities.”
The first second-half chance for Chicago came via a free kick after Pressley fouled Ava Cook just outside the box. Pugh sent a dangerous ball in for Yuki Nagasato. The former Japan international was unmarked at the top of the six, but couldn’t get her head on the cross as it went through the box.
In the 64th minute, the Pride escaped a dangerous situation when Zoe Morse found Pugh on the right side. The midfielder sent a cross to the back post where Milazzo was left completely unmarked. With McLeod covering the other side of the goal, Milazzo had a wide open net but couldn’t get her foot on the ball.
After the early second half flurry of chances, the Pride had trouble finding a rhythm offensively. They did get a chance in the 73rd minute through substitute Abello. Receiving the ball on the right side, the attacker did well to turn Rachel Hill and create some space for a shot. It was an ambitious attempt, but just missed a little high.
Chicago had another great chance in the 76th minute when St. Georges beat Petersen to a long ball by Hill at the end line. The defender’s first touch was back for Pugh, who was charging into the box. But Pressley did really well to get in front of the shot and block it.
Each team had chances to add to the scoring near the end. Pugh had an opportunity in the 89th minute, but the Pride defense did well to stay in front of her, forcing her into an off-balance shot that was easily collected by McLeod.
The Pride sprinted the other way, looking for an equalizer. The attack ended with Erika Tymrak taking a long-distance shot, but she didn’t get anything on it and it caused no trouble for Naeher, who easily caught it. It was Orlando’s first, and only, shot on target in the match.
It was a much better second half for the Pride, but they didn’t scare the hosts after the header by Pressley. The visitors had more shots in the second half (7-4) but only managed to get one of those shots on target.
“During halftime, we made a few adjustments. Talked about how to exploit them, what was working, what was not,” Strom said. “So yeah, we had a clear idea going into the second half of how we could expose them and get the equalizer. Especially in the last minutes, we created a few opportunities.”
Despite a better second 45 minutes by the Pride, the Red Stars ended the game with more possession (56.6%-43.4%), shots (10-9), shots on goal (4-1), and passing accuracy (79.3%-75.8%).
“I feel like it’s come down to one moment of brilliance from a brilliant player,” Hines said. “That goal is whatever you’re putting in any game and it’s very apparent that she’s on form right now and she’s playing well. And it’s come down to the fine margins. You know, we stuck to the game plan, we didn’t want to give anything up early in the game. The way that Chicago play, they like to play through the lines so we kind of clogged the middle up and were really disciplined with our pressing to win the ball in transition with the speed of Abi Kim and Julie Doyle. So the game plan was there, but like I said, it came to a moment of brilliance to find the result.”
Defensively, it was the first time that the Pride haven’t conceded multiple goals in five games. Only giving up an excellent goal after conceding five last weekend against the Houston Dash was something the team focused on coming into this one.
“Obviously, after what happened in Houston, we knew we had to come in and make a point and let everybody know that that will never ever happen again,” Strom said. “We put up a good fight. We came in really prepared. It’s unfortunate always to lose but I think we definitely made some steps forward.”
While there were obvious defensive improvements in this game, the lack of finishing or even generating clear-cut chances remained a problem. It was the second straight game that the Pride were held scoreless and the third straight game they were held scoreless before injury time.
“It’s the hardest part of the game, right? Putting the ball in the goal,” Hines said. “We’ve struggled of late to score goals, but I think the main focus was not to concede. We’ve conceded way too many goals this season. And that was the main focus going into the game.”
With the defense seemingly on the right path, the Pride will now work on the other end. That starts next Sunday when the team ends its three-game road trip in Portland.