Preview: NY/NJ Gotham FC (h).
When? April 14th 2021, 4 p.m. (PT), 7 p.m. (ET), 12 midnight (BST). Where? Exploria Stadium, Orlando, FL. How can I catch the action? The game is live on the CBS Sports Network for residents of the United States. However, the game will not be broadcast on Twitch for international viewers due to terms of the league's agreement with CBS.
Don't worry people. The Joker and Harley Quinn aren't after us. It's just Sky Blue. The New Jersey based outfit announced a re-branding this week. The second game of this Challenge Cup series sees the Orlando Pride take on Gotham FC.
The newly rebranded Sky Blue will provide a stern test for the Pride, who dropped points in their opening game following a disappointing draw in Kentucky. This is Gotham's inaugural fixture, and they'll be looking to start on a high. This will be a tough game for Orlando.
Gotham is a team that I have a lot of respect for, particularly in terms of the way they go about their business. They are an offensive minded squad, who like to overload the opposition in key areas. That being said, they don't throw caution to the wind. They're intelligent about the way they attack, whilst simultaneously using their athleticism to not allow the opposition to settle on the ball.
During the 2020 NWSL Fall Series they racked up some impressive stats, in terms of the defensive side of the game. I realise that might sound a slightly erroneous thing to say about a team that shipped 7 goals in 4 games, but you have to dig a little deeper than that. Their harrying and hustling off the ball was impressive, which allowed the to win the ball back in key areas of the field. Under the guise of Sky Blue FC, Gotham won 64% of their tackles, 46.5% of their duels and 29.8% of their aerial duels. These aren't numbers to be sniffed at. They probably just need to improve in their own 18-yard-box, but with another year under the belt for the likes of Erica Skroski and Caprice Dydasco... You'd back them to improve. That being said, their strengths in ball recovery allow them to obtain the ball in dangerous areas. And they don't generally waste possession when they do win it back.
During the Fall Series, we saw just how strong this team is, when in possession of the football. Their impressive 82.9% pass completion rate from 1,923 (480 per game) total passes tells its own story. These figures were due, in no small part, to the midfield performances of Domi Richardson (129 total passes, 105 successful for a pass completion rate of 82.4%). Richardson possesses an excellent range of passing, combined with effective decision making. Richardson has returned to New Jersey for the 2021 season. And with the likes of Carli Lloyd, McCall Zerboni and Sodam Lee (Lloyd and Lee are unavailable for this one) to call on in 2021, this club's midfield is stacked with talent. It will be vitally important for Orlando to get to grips with their midfield, if the Pride are to have any success in this fixture.
All of that being said, my favourite thing about this squad. And my biggest worry for this game, is their offensive capability. They get the ball into dangerous areas, and use it effectively. Of the 1,923 passes this team played during the Fall Series, 36.1% were forward passes, whilst 74.6% of their total passes in the opposition half were accurate. They're no slouches, and they certainly don't give you too many chances to break up their attacks and counter on them. And when they do, they have the athleticism and defensive structure to wrestle the ball back and hurt you with it. Their offensive players scored 6 goals from 39 shots, making for a 15.1% conversion rate. That mightn't sound all that impressive a conversion rate, but when you consider Portland Thorns put up a 19.6% conversion rate (at the top of the standings), it holds up.
This club also has the benefit of having 23 players from last season returning to it's 24 player roster. South Korean midfielder Sodam Lee, being the outlier. This facet could be of huge benefit to a team that will benefit from knowing each other's game inside out. Their relatively low number of federation and national team players; as well as their depth, should mean they aren't too adversely affected during this Challenge Cup with the USWNT in action over here in Europe.
At the time of recording, neither squad had any particular injury concerns. Carli Lloyd and Midge Purce will be unavailable, due to international call-ups for the visitors as is Korean midfielder Lee.
Orlando, meanwhile, will be without Alex Morgan, Erin McLeod and Gunny Jónsdóttir, who are also away on international duty.
Possible starting XI
We know from the Fall Series and the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup, that Freya Coombe likes to set her team up in a fluid 4-2-3-1 formation. The formation can easily morph into a 4-3-3 formation during defensive transition moments, particularly when you consider the athleticism they have at their disposal. Considering their high energy approach, I wouldn't be surprised to see them line up a little something like this:
One of my favourite players in this league. The combative, former North Carolina Courage midfielder will be the engine room for an extremely talented midfield. Her aptitude for long passes, and ability to switch the playhelps her to make this team tick. During the NWSL Challenge Cup last year, she only highlighted her importance. Her 215 successful passes included 5 key passes and 1 assist. She also had an astoundingly high 91.8% pass completion rate in her own half. Which is no mean feat in a league littered with teams who utilise a high press. Absolute baller, who passes the ball around with the laser accuracy of Fennec Shand in a shoot-out. Nerd reference. Sorry, not sorry.
Orlando's pre-season was a real mixed bag, in terms of their results. Saturday's frustrating draw in Louisville will have left a bitter taste in the mouth. Orlando will be looking for 3 points here to really jump start their NWSL Challenge Cup assualt.
Gotham, meanwhile, closed out their pre-season schedule with an impressive 2-1 win over the Washington Spirit. Gotham will be looking to carry this sort of form into the Challenge Cup.
*Statistics courtesy of nwslsoccer.com