The Orlando Pride (5-9-6, 21 points) fell 3-0 to the North Carolina Courage (8-8-4, 28 points) in their penultimate home game of the season, continuing their free fall with a fourth consecutive loss and the third straight without scoring. The visitors were led by their Brazilian star, Debinha, who scored a brace and assisted Tess Boade’s late first-half goal.
Pride Interim Head Coach Seb Hines made seven changes from the team that lost 2-0 to Racing Louisville over the weekend. Erin McLeod returned to the lineup for the first time in three games after sitting out due to concussion protocol. Mikayla Cluff had been starting in place of the injured Viviana Villacorta but was out for this game with an ankle injury. Ally Watt received her first start as a member of the Pride and Carrie Lawrence returned to the starting lineup in place of Toni Pressley.
The back line in front of McLeod consisted of Kylie Strom, Lawrence, Megan Montefusco, and Celia. Haley Hanson played as the six with Leah Pruitt, Gunny Jonsdottir, and Jordyn Listro in front of her. The team went with two up top in this game in Kerry Abello and Watt.
While there were noticeable changes in the lineup, the biggest move was Hanson playing in the midfield. She’s played that position before, but has spent her NWSL career as an outside back.
“We knew that she (Hanson) was capable of playing that position and she was more than willing to do it,” Hines said about playing Hanson further up field. “We were short on midfield options. Viviana’s been out and then Mikayla picked up an injury, so we had to get someone to fill that hole.”
While the Pride were already eliminated from playoff contention coming into this game, the Courage are still fighting for a playoff spot. The two teams played to their situations as the Pride looked defeated for most of the game and the Courage played with hunger.
The Pride got the first chance of the game inside the first minute off a North Carolina mistake. Merritt Mathias tried to make a simple pass to Kaleigh Kurtz but it was off target, allowing Pruitt to take control. Instead of going for goal, the forward played it across for Watt, who sent a low cross through the box. However, nobody could get on the end of it.
“It’s a moment where Haley Hanson gets the ball, she gets a cross, it deflects, and Ally’s there,” Hines said about the early chance. “It was a tap-in moment.”
Just a minute later, the Courage opened the scoring. Kurtz played a long ball forward looking for Debinha. Montefusco had a bead on the ball and it looked like she would clear. But the header went to where Debinha was running through instead of outside. McLeod was caught on the right side of the six-yard box, expecting the header to come her way. Instead, it continued on for Debinha who tapped it in, giving the visitors a 1-0 lead.
“Obviously, unlucky to start,” Hanson said about conceding so early. “And that’s kind of been the theme of, I would say the last couple games. Just unlucky.”
The Courage had another chance in the fifth minute when Debinha attempted to send Boade through. It looked like the midfielder would get a shot on goal, but Lawrence did well to get in the way and block it out of play.
In the 12th minute, Debinha played a nice ball down the right for Rikke Madsen. It appeared that the forward’s ball into the box was behind everyone, but Boade came back for it and got a shot off from near the penalty spot. It didn’t look as though Lawrence was aware of the situation, but she was in the right place at the right time as the ball bounced off her, allowing the Pride to clear.
As the half continued, the rains came in, soaking the field. It rained hard for a good period of the first half before lightening up as the game approached halftime. Once the rain arrived, the chances became fewer for both teams.
In the 28th minute, Watt had a chance to the left of goal but her shot hit the side netting and the assistant raised the flag for offside anyway. Eight minutes later, a turnover by Meredith Speck created a chance for the hosts. Jonsdottir played the ball forward for Pruitt, providing a chance in the box, but the shot was wide of the near post.
There was only one minute of first-half stoppage time but that was enough for the Courage to double their lead. Abello carried the ball across the field and looked to pass to Jonsdottir, but the ball was behind her and was taken away by Boade. The midfielder immediately played it forward to Debinha, who flicked it on for Boade, who continued her run into the box. The midfielder slipped the ball past McLeod, giving the Courage a 2-0 lead with almost the last touch of the first half.
“It’s a punch in the face, really,” Hines said about conceding so late in the first half. “Because I felt like we were growing into that, let’s say, second half of the first half of the game. And we had good momentum. We started to have more courage and bravery on the ball and it just came at such a bad time for us. You go into halftime 1-0 down you go, ‘We can go. We can get after them,’ and that was our message as well. It’s only 2-0. Stranger things have happened. We’ve been here where we were 2-0 down in the 90th minute and managed to get a tie. So yeah, it was disappointing to concede so late on, but like I said, it’s a game, it happens, and you get to recognize who we are in that moment as well.”
After 45 minutes, the Courage had more possession (61%-39%), shots (5-4), shots on target (3-0), and corners (1-0). Both teams had five crosses in the first half of play.
The start of the second half was similar to the start of the first half with a flurry of chances taking place. In the 50th minute, Darian Jenkins, who came on at halftime for Abello, found Watt in the box. The forward turned and shot but it was right at Courage goalkeeper Casey Murphy.
Three minutes later, Montefusco knocked a Courage cross out of play for a corner kick. The ensuing corner was cleared to the far side by Celia, but fell to Debinha. The first-half goal scorer had Speck and Boade at the far post and sent the ball in that direction. Whether it was a cross or a shot, the ball sailed over the defensive players and landed inside the far post for her second goal of the game, giving North Carolina a commanding 3-0 lead.
Hines made an attacking pair of changes in the 60th minute, looking for a spark to get the team back into the game. Erika Tymrak came on for Watt and Meggie Dougherty Howard entered the game for Celia.
Just after the substitutions, North Carolina nearly made it four. Jaelene Daniels sent a long ball down the left for Boade but Montefusco beat her to it. However, Montefusco sent a weak pass for either McLeod or Lawrence, allowing Boade to win it back. She shot for the far post from close distance, but McLeod stuck her foot out and knocked it away.
On the other end, Jenkins found enough space to take shots for herself. After the Pride only took two shots in the first 45 minutes, Jenkins took three in her first 20 minutes on the field. However, only one of those three shots was on target and it was right at Murphy.
In the 71st minute, the Pride brought on 18-year-old striker Haley Bugeja. The teenager was signed by the club on July 1 but this was her first appearance for the team. Her debut made her the fourth-youngest player to enter a game in NWSL history.
“I’m just happy to get my first game out of the way obviously,” Bugeja said about her debut. “It’s quite a surreal moment for me and I’m sure my family back home are watching, even though it’s like two in the morning for them. I’m just super happy and hopefully now we can kick on and obviously I’m very grateful for the faith that Seb has showed in me.”
The Pride nearly got one back in the 72nd minute when Tymrak found space from the right side of the box and shot on goal. The shot forced Murphy to tip it over the bar, giving the Pride their first corner kick of the night. The ensuing corner resulted in a chance for Dougherty Howard, but her attempt was off target, allowing the Courage to clear.
The Courage nearly got a fourth goal in the 84th minute when a good buildup set up substitute Brittany Ratcliffe for a chance. Brianna Pinto’s pass to Boade was quickly flicked forward for Ratcliffe. The substitute timed her run perfectly, getting behind the Pride defense for a shot. She aimed for the far post but missed just wide.
The Pride had some chances in the final minutes but were unable to get anything on target. Meanwhile, the Courage played to see out the game, holding onto possession in the dominating win.
In the end, the Courage had more possession (60%-40%), shots on target (5-4), and corners (5-2). The Pride had more shots (16-8), but only four of those shots were on target. The number of off-target shots was a big factor in this game as the Pride had nine shots off target and the Courage only had one off frame.
“Defined by three moments really,” Hines said after the game. “It’s always difficult when you go down a goal so early on, but I felt like we didn’t really get out of control. I didn’t think the game really got away from us. I mean, it was defined by a couple of moments that North Carolina took. And we had chances. We had chances to attack and get something on frame and could be a completely different result if we take them moments.”
After their seven-game unbeaten run, the Pride have now lost four consecutive games and three of those games were at Exploria Stadium. They’ve been outscored in those four games 8-1, failing to get on the scoreboard in the last three.
The Pride will look to end their losing streak on Sunday night when they welcome San Diego Wave FC to Exploria Stadium for their final home game of the 2022 NWSL season.