Analysis: North Carolina Courage (a). Pride earn hard fought draw, eliminated from Challenge Cup.
And, just like that, the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup is over for the Orlando Pride. The Pride were eliminated despite an embattled performance, one that earned them a highly credible draw against the Courage, in North Carolina. There were a lot of positives to take from this game; not least their ability to shut out mmes Debinha, McDonald and Williams. Orlando were solid in defence, and threatening in attack. They could have done a little better, in terms of protecting the ball, in transition. But, overall Marc Skinner's team were perhaps a touch unfortunate not to nab all three points, given the quality of their chances.
Whilst many would, bafflingly, have you believe this is just a pre-season tournament, the Orlando Pride were disappointed to be eliminated at this stage. That being said, as disappointing as their exit was, a lot of pleasure will have been derived from a second consecutive shut-out. A sentiment that was reflected in Skinner's post-game press conference: “Yes, look, we needed to win to progress, but I think the progression that we’re showing as a group over these four games is exactly what we want. To take a team that openly admits that they want a shootout against. To keep a second clean sheet is just a wonderful kind of moment for us.” A hint of regret regarding their elimination, coupled with pride (pun intended) at another well deserved clean sheet.
This was an excellent result for the Pride, who are beginning to show determination and grit. Something that will give them a solid base, from which to build, heading into the regular season. There certainly were a number of aspects, pertaining to Orlando's performance in this game, which should have those of a purple persuasion feeling optimistic about the 2021 NWSL regular season. So, without further ado let's break this one down.
The quality of Orlando's chances
What would have pleased Marc Skinner most of all, would be his side's ability to creat quality chances. Especially against a team of the Courage's standing. The first such chance came in the opening minutes of the game, via a Taylor Kornieck set-piece, which ended up cannoning back off the crossbar. There was then, a half-chance for Marisa Viggiano. A Gunny Jónsdóttir cross wasn't dealt with by the Courage defence, who allowed Viggiano to get the shot off. Casey Murphy, in the North Carolina goal, was equal to it, however. Bouyed by their win over the Spirit, the Pride made an encouraging start to this game.
The first-half was just a taster, though. It was during a much more open second period, that Orlando created their best chances. The Pride may have only had 9 shots on goal during the game; versus 18 for the hosts. But it was the quality of their chances, that ultimately set them apart. Kinda. The only thing that was missing, of course, was the taking of said chances. You have to feel that will come with time, particularly as the likes of Alex Morgan get up to speed.
The first clear cut opening of the second 45, came via another defence splitting pass from Alex Morgan. As was the case against Washington, Sydney LeRoux was the recipient. The USWNT veteran couldn't quite wrap her foot around the ball, and it was a comfortable save for Murphy. The Pride were just starting to find some rhythm, and gain a little confidence at this stage.
On 71 minutes, LeRoux was involved again. This time returning the favour to Morgan, whose first-time hit was blocked on the line by a combination of Murphy and her defenders. I actually think Morgan would have been better served taking a touch here (see figure 1). She could take a touch to set herself. Let me explain my thinking here. Murphy is already heading down to her left, when the ball arrives with the Boss. Murphy is clearly anticipating a near post finish. If Morgan takes a touch, the opposite corner opens itself up somewhat. It would, arguably, make the chance easier. But then again, I haven't won 2 World Cup titles, and scored over 100 goals for my country; so what the f*ck do I know?
Figure 1 is a game still, showing the scene before Alex Morgan's big chance in the 71st minute.
The Pride weren't finished there either. There was to be one more big chance, with Morgan turning provider again, on 79 minutes. The Pride's number 13 cut inside, from the right flank, and fired in an inch perfect cross. Sadly, for the Pride, Jónsdóttir was only able to head the ball wide. This was a great chance, that she really ought to do better with.
I know all of this might seem overly critical; she isn't a striker afterall. The cross was perfect, though. And the Icelandic international is taking the header from a standing position (figure 2). She only has to catch the ball with the left side of her temple, and the ball is nestling in the back of the net. It's a simple matter of timing, and the erstwhile Utah Royals player gets it all wrong. Great chance, squandered.
Figure 2 shows how Gunny Jónsdóttir is in a standing position, when the ball comes to her. Has to do better.
Alex Morgan's ability to link the play
When you think of Alex Morgan, you think goals. Right? Well, yeah. That being said, I've always thought her creative abilities are underrated. And it's something we saw over here in the FAWSL, during her brief spell at Tottenham Hotspur. If we're being honest, it's not something we've seen in purple for a little while. But she has an exceptionally high soccer IQ. And what I mean by that is; she reads the game exceptionally well. She's always hyper alert to what's happening around her. And she now has the confidence to attempt these outrageous passes. She isn't playing it safe, anymore. Which, in 2019, I would argue she was. At least to a certain extent.
The chance she created for LeRoux, perfectly encapsulates what I'm referring to. If you look at the graphic in figure 3, you'll see that Morgan has at least 3 'easier' options, to play that ball too. Instead, she backs herself, and catches the run of LeRoux, before the opposing back 4 even register what is happening. The statistics in figure 4, lend further credence to this notion that the Boss is taking more risks. She is attempting forward passes, and trying to make things happen. Which, at least in an attacking sense, is what wins games. We're starting to see the Alex Morgan of old again.
Figure 3 shows the Boss channeling her inner Marta with another sublime through ball.
Figure 4 shows Alex Morgan's passing matrix (whole game).
Ali Riley seems to be looking more and more comfortable with each game she plays in this team. It was a great defensive performance overall, and Riley led the way in that regard. The former Chelsea defender made 3 tackles, completed b8 clearances and 3 interceptions. She's a vocal leader, who organises her teammates well. She's also proficient with the ball, as her 84% pass completion rate shows. Riley got up and down the line well, and put in a resolute performance in terms of her one-on-one defending against the pace of North Carolina's attack.
Harris -6- Much quieter evening than what she had against the Spirit. Which is what you want.
Jónsdóttir -7- Solid defensive display, though should have done better with a late headed chance.
McClernon -7- Never really put a foot wrong.
Pressley -7- Was good to see her back in, her physical presence has been missed.
Riley -8- Seems to be growing into this team more and more.
Moore -7- One of the first names on the team sheet, for me. Disrupted play well.
Viggiano -7- Intelligent passing throughout, seems to be adapting well to a more withdrawn position.
Marta -7- You can see she's enjoying play with LeRoux and Morgan again.
Kornieck -6- Got about well, needs to be more careful with the ball.
LeRoux -7- Her off the ball runs were giving the Courage plenty to consider.
Morgan -7- Seems to be hitting her stride, which should concern the rest of the league.
Petersen -6- Wasn't in for long, helped to see the game out.
Dougherty-Howard -6- So much ability on the ball, helped to retain possession and see out the draw in the dying minutes.
Thomas -6- Chased well, but didn't get much of a kick.
*All statistics courtesy of nwslsoccer.com
Game stills courtesy of CBS Sports Network.