The Orlando Pride kicked off the NWSL regular season with a 1-1 draw against the Washington Spirit at Exploria Stadium on Sunday. Here are three things we learned from the match:
Alex Morgan scores first since 2018
Morgan broke her nearly 1,000-day drought for the Orlando Pride with a goal on Sunday, scoring for her club for the first time since August 2018.
This is big step for both Morgan and the Pride after the striker’s time on the pitch with the team was limited for the past two seasons. In 2019, the FIFA World Cup dominated Morgan’s schedule, and a knee injury upon her return from France kept her from playing more than a handful of minutes. Last year, Morgan went on loan to Tottenham to return to the pitch from pregnancy.
The Pride won’t have Morgan for the entire 2021 season because the U.S. women’s national team will call her away for a week in June, and the Olympics will follow fast behind in July. But while she’s available for Orlando, Morgan’s offensive efficiency will be essential for the Pride to create success.
“I feel like because it’s been a extremely long time since scoring a goal with the Pride and scoring a goal for the first time as a mom in the Pride jersey, it was just was definitely a relief,” Morgan said.
Defense continues improvement
The Pride now have recorded two positive results — one draw and one win — against the Washington Spirit, an aggressive attacking team led by talents such as Ashley Hatch and Trinity Rodman.
The previous time the teams matched up, Ashlyn Harris had to make nine saves to maintain a clean sheet. That type of performance wasn’t necessary on Sunday from the keeper, who made only three saves to preserve the 1-1 draw.
Although the Pride ceded in the second half, the team limited Washington’s scoring opportunities dramatically from their last game.
The Pride’s increased physicality is a notable improvement from the 2019 season when the team struggled
“I think a huge part is giving them back the physicality that they bring,” defender Phoebe McClernon said. “Just bump the runs; don’t let them get any free runs in the box. They’re so athletic, they’re so fast, they’re so strong and I think it’s just matching that for 90 minutes.”
Goal production continues to challenge
Although Morgan’s goal kept the Pride from giving up three points at home, the team still struggled with goal production in their fifth game of the year.
Both Morgan and Sydney Leroux missed close-range opportunities in the second half, and Morgan said she was frustrated by a handful of goals she missed. The Pride only managed two shots on goal besides Morgan’s goal.
For the Pride, defensive progress was the most important step to make to start the 2021 season. The team allowed a league-worst 53 goals in 24 games in 2019, their last full season of competition. After that year, decreasing goals allowed was the highest priority for the team to improve their results.
The team’s bolstered midfield — which includes additions like Gunny Jónsdóttir and Meggie Dougherty Howard — has helped the team to diminish weaknesses in transition. The growth of young defenders such as McClernon and Courtney Petersen also will help the team endure national-team absences throughout the season.
“For us at the moment, we’re building this tactical philosophy of understanding how to destroy opponents’ build-ups,” coach Marc Skinner said. “But also if they do break us, how do we defend that? And that’s what we didn’t do as well in the first year.”
This improvement in defense across the field will help the Pride from getting caged into defending for the majority of games. But goal production will be the next step for this team to elevate itself from settling for draws to earning wins.