The Orlando Pride rounded out their run in the Challenge Cup with a scoreless draw on the road against North Carolina Saturday. Here are three things we learned from the match:
© Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel The Orlando Pride have one of the strongest front lines in the NWSL, highlighted by Alex Morgan (13), Marta and Sydney Leroux. But that front line is still fighting for goal-scoring chances as the Pride work to earn sufficient possession, as they attempted to do so against Washington and Emily Ann Sonnett (6) last month.
Backline continues improvement
Any match against the North Carolina Courage is going to be a defensive challenge. The Courage are a team that openly sacrifices on the defensive end to lay on pressure in the attack. The team scored nine goals in its first three matches of the Challenge Cup from four different attackers, with Debinha leading the charge to tear up backlines.
With captain Ali Krieger sidelined while she undergoes concussion protocol, the match served as a challenge for a Pride team that previously struggled to close out against top competitors.
Instead of engaging in a shootout, the Pride grinded down the Courage offense for a shutout. Keeper Ashlyn Harris wasn’t called upon for one of her trademark highlight days, making only two saves to preserve the clean sheet.
Rather than relying on their star keeper, the Pride backline and midfield was able to bend and accommodate the Courage attack, doubling up on Debinha and cutting off key passes to limit opportunities.
This year’s Pride defense has showed marked improvement, both from previous seasons and from game to game as new defenders grow into their roles. The team tied Gotham for the least goals allowed in Group A, ceding only three times in the tournament.
After ceding 2.2 goals per game in 2019, the Pride’s main improvement so far this year has been increased defensive reliability.
“We can open teams up; we can also now shut teams out,” coach Marc Skinner said. “That is massive growth for us because now you can win ugly as well as winning beautiful. This is a beautiful start for where we are heading as a group.”
Jónsdóttir stays constant on defense
The Pride acquired Gunny Jónsdóttir in a trade to bulk up the team’s midfield, but she’s been called to the backline to fill in as right back for her first two matches as an Orlando player.
Jónsdóttir didn’t have much time to adjust to the position — Skinner asked her to fill in at the position one day before the Pride’s match against the Spirit, giving her a total of 10 days to prepare for two matches as a defender.
Against Washington, the move was a last-minute decision to allow Krieger to slide into the centerback position. This weekend Jónsdóttir remained at right back while Krieger was under concussion protocol.
Despite having little time to adapt to the backline, Jónsdóttir made a natural transition into the position. Her physical presence on the right flank breaks down attempts at transition and slows counter attacks.
Skinner hasn’t decided when she will move back into the midfield, but Jónsdóttir said she’s willing to play any position for the Pride.
“It’s not my natural position, so I’m just working with it and figuring it out,” Jónsdóttir said. “But I have great teammates around me who helped me get into it and I loved playing there. You get to go up and down the field and then you get to go up in the attack so I love it, I don’t mind playing there. I would actually play wherever the coach wanted me to; I just want the team to do well and help my teammates a much as I can.”
Front line still looking for midfield connection
The flip side of Jónsdóttir’s success at right back is her absence in the midfield. Connecting the backline to the front line has been a notable challenge for the Pride for several seasons, and the team is still struggling to make this connection consistent this season.
The team has one of the strongest front lines in the league highlighted by Alex Morgan, Marta and Sydney Leroux. But that front line is still fighting for goal-scoring chances as the Pride work to earn sufficient possession.
Playing on the road against North Carolina will always challenge this part of a team’s connection because players such as Debinha and Kristen Hamilton hunt for soft passes and awry passes to immediately spring back onto the attack.
Both Morgan and Leroux managed three shots apiece, with Morgan nearly netting a would-be game-winner off a left-footed strike in the second half. As the Pride embark into the regular season, the team will be eager to link together its improved backline with its dangerous attackers, allowing the team to counter effectively.