Analysis: Washington Spirit (h). Maiden victory of NWSL Challenge Cup for Orlando.
Updated: May 2
It's been a long, long time. So long, in fact, that I almost forgot this was a thing that could happen. The Orlando Pride won a game! They actually won a game of soccer. And you know what? They looked good doing it. There are still significant question marks over the defensive side of their game, but their use of the ball in an attacking sense was vastly improved. As was their game management.
The Pride's last victory came on the 22nd August 2019, via a 2-1 win in Chicago. You have to go back a further month, to find their last win at Exploria Stadium. The Coronavirus pandemic has meant that this team hasn't featured very much in that time. So their record sounds a lot worse than it is. In reality it was 13 games without a win. Still not great, but you take my point.
It will come as absolutely no shock, that this win came when they had their strongest squad together at last. Take the front 3 as a perfect example; this was the first time since 2018 that the Pride were able to field Marta, Sydney LeRoux and Alex Morgan at the same time. And they clicked as if had they played together yesterday. It was brilliant to see, and left the Exploria Stadium crowd with a tangible sense of optimism heading into next week's game against the Courage.
The return of Alex Morgan
The return of USWNT legend Morgan, undoubtedly provided the whole squad with a lift. And it was clear to see exactly what the Pride had been missing, from the very first minute. Her superb chasing and hustling allowed the experienced striker to win the ball high up the field, and provide a perfect slide-rule pass to Sydney LeRoux. LeRoux advanced on the on-rushing Aubrey Bledsoe and slid the ball into the next with consummate ease. It was a superb goal, and one that really encapsulated just how much the Pride has missed having 'the Boss' in their starting XI.
You'll notice from her ball recovery map, in figure 1, just how much work Alex Morgan did defending from the front. It visibly gave the whole team a lift. In total the striker made 5 ball recoveries, with 1 leading to the goal. If that's not leading by example, then I don't know what is. Morgan also busied herself on the ball, particularly in the final third (figure 2, lower half). This movement, and her ability to find the space put Washington on the back foot and allowed the Pride to press higher up the field. Morgan's play was instrumental in the Pride's offence. I cannot state that clearly enough.
Figure 1 shows Alex Morgan's ball recovery map.
Figure 2 shows Alex Morgan's touch map.
Effective game management
One thing that I have been critical of, particularly in the game against Louisville, was the Pride's game management. Or lack thereof, I should say. Obviously, what happened was, they read my analysis and took the advice on board. Right? OK, probably not. They probably have much better things to do with their time. Alas, the point still stands. Orlando managed this game a helluva lot better than they did the one in Louisville.
Their possession statistics made for much less laborious reading, this time around. Now, we all know this isn't a possession based team, they play on the front foot and are more likely to attempt risky passes. As such, their pass completion rates are never going to be stellar. You try more adventurous passes; you're going to have a lower pass completion rate, than a team that is happy to play the ball around in their defensive and middle thirds. Such as, Washington.
That being said, Orlando posted a very respectable 71% pass completion rate, from 335 passes. Not too shabby. As you'll see, from the passing matrix in figure 3, a higher percentage of Orlando's unsuccessful passes were forward balls in the opposing third of the field; versus the number they played in their own defensive third. They still recycled possession, but they did so a lot less frequently than in Kentucky, and they were better in defending against the transition by pressing the ball at the right times (see figure 4). They adjusted their shape well, when transitioning from offence to defence. They were also able to utilise a low-block fairly well (example in figure 5), which is why many of Washington's attempts came from outside the box (9 of 20).
Figure 3 shows that a high number of Orlando's unsuccessful passes, were riskier forward balls.
Figure 4 shows Orlando's ball recovery matrix. They were winning the ball back, all over the field.
Figure 5 shows how Orlando were able to transition into a low-block at times, thud limiting Washington to shots from outside the box.
The effectiveness of the terrific triumvirate
You have to cast your mind way back (I'm asking you to do that a lot today, huh?) to 2018 to find the last time Alex Morgan, Marta and Sydney LeRoux started a game together, for the Orlando Pride (see below). Their link up play was a joy to behold, at times. They were menacing whenever the Pride went forward, which certainly reflected in their stats. Both Morgan and LeRoux attempted 3 shots apiece, with Morgan assisting LeRoux for the goal. You'll see from the heatmap in figure 5, just how much ground the 3 of them covered. Having the trio feature on a regular basis should excite Pride fans, particularly as they become reacquainted with one another.
Figure 6 shows Marta's, LeRoux's and Morgan's heatmap. They covered a lot of ground.
With 9 saves overall, as Washington peppered the Orlando goal late-on, it's difficult to argue the case for anyone else winning 'top player' in this one. The veteran 'keeper made several smart stops throughout the game, not least the save to prevent Ashley Hatch from converting the penalty. Her acrobatics and reactions were on point. Harris' distribution is also very underrated. Often think she doesn't get the praise she deserves. True leader in every sense of the term.
Harris -9- Unquestionably player of the game. Her saves were as good as goals in the end.
Riley -6- Rodman seemed to have her on toast. Early booking meant she walked a tightrope for the rest of the game.
McClernon -6- Defended well overall, but her tackle for the penalty was reckless. Almost very costly.
Krieger -7- Seemed more at home in the centre of defence.
Jónsdóttir -7- Barely put a foot wrong all evening.
Viggiano -6- Playing in a deeper role, and seems to be taking time to adjust.
Kornieck -6- Linked up well with the front 3 at times.
Moore -7- Quickly establishing herself as a key component in midfield.
Morgan -8- Hustled well. Sublime through ball for the goal. Unlucky not to score, when she forced a smart stop from Bledsoe.
LeRoux -8- Excellent movement and sublime finish for the goal.
Marta -8- Seemed to thrive having Morgan and LeRoux up top.
Pressley -6- Helped to shore things up at the end.
Dougherty-Howard -6- Showed a few neat touches, not in for long.
Washington -6- Fresh legs to liven things up. As with Dougherty-Howard, she wasn't in for long.
Petersen -6- Seemed to cope with the threat of Rodman well.
*Statistics courtesy of nwslsoccer.com