Buckle up for the Pride…

We’re heading over the ‘pond’ for a look back on the National Women’s Soccer League during May. There can’t have been too many pundits predicting that Orlando Pride would make the early running – or any kind of running – given their underwhelming track record in recent seasons. But Marc Skinner’s squad had a very good month, picking up three wins and and a draw to lead the field. While the Pride certainly looked a more stubborn proposition during the pre-regular-season Challenge Cup, their sixth best record in that competition didn’t readily signal a team about to hit a rich vein of form. However, victory at three-time Shield winners North Carolina Courage, followed by a marquee win against title favourites and Challenge Cup winners the Portland Thorns has some looking at the Pride in a whole new light…

Week One – Portland hand out an early warning…

The Pride didn’t make an explosive start to their campaign by any means. Hosting a pretty ordinary 1-1 draw with the Washington Spirit, both teams gave the impression that they’d likely be scrapping for the newly designated 5th and 6th place play-off spots at best.

Indeed, neither side’s keeper had a serious save to make until 15 minutes from the end of the game. The Spirit broke the deadlock when Ashley Hatch glanced in Tori Huster’s cross from the right. But it took Orlando just eight minutes to get back on terms. USWNT star Alex Morgan (pictured, photo Mark Thor) was alive to Phoebe McClernon’s long ball out of defence sprinting in behind the Spirit backline and lobbing an onrushing Aubrey Bledsoe.

Prior to this match, the NWSL Regular Season campaign had kicked off at the Lynn Family Stadium, home to newly formed franchise Racing Louisville (“Lu-a-ville”). The Kentucky-based club had participated in the Challenge Cup during April drawing two and losing two – which gave them the ninth best record overall.

The worst Challenge Cup record belonged to Louisville’s opponents on opening day, Kansas City NWSL. Ostensibly another expansion team, many of the players actually played in the league from 2018-2020 as the Utah Royals. That didn’t work out for various reasons so the club returned to Kansas City for this season.

More than 6,600 fans showed up to cheer on Louisville but the match provided less of a spectacle inside the white lines.

A 0-0 draw wasn’t the worst start for either club and both head coaches could at least tick off the milestones of ‘first point gained’ and ‘first clean sheet’, but neither of these clubs are expected to make much of a playoff run long-term.

Losing Challenge Cup Finalists NJ/NY Gotham FC – yeah, I know, catchy – started their campaign with a three-point haul. They edged out the Houston Dash 1-0 with US National Team attacker Midge Purce delivering a moment of quality to conjure up the only goal of the game.

Another scoreless draw would play out on the first weekend when OL Reign couldn’t be separated from the North Carolina Courage at Cheney Stadium, in Tacoma.

But the Pacific Northwest would see goals the following day when bookies’ early favourites Portland Thorns walloped the Chicago Red Stars 5-0 at Providence Park.

Crystal Dunn had been brought in during the off-season to bolster an already talented squad. Channelling their inner ‘Barcelona‘, the hosts were 4-0 up inside half an hour. Defender Tierna Davidson put through her own net off a Sophia Smith cross four minutes in, then Christine Sinclair converted a penalty nine minutes later.

Thorns boss Mark Parsons had recruited forwards Smith and Morgan Weaver as the first and second picks in the 2020 draft. Both had featured in the 2021 Challenge Cup – with Weaver scoring against the Red Stars in a 1-0 win. Now it was Smith’s turn to go one better, combining with her partner-in-crime for a brace of confident one-on-one finishes in the 16th and 30th minutes.

Tyler Lussi wrapped up Portland’s five star showing in the second half. Keeper Alyssa Naeher could only block Sinclair’s low shot from inside the penalty box and Lussi was on the spot to knock in the rebound.

“The energy, intensity and tenacity was really strong. Our pressing was good, we were intense but we were also tactically disciplined with our pressing. We attacked like our lives depended on it today. It’s fun to see and I’m proud of the group.”

Mark Parsons, Head Coach, Portland Thorns, via timbers.com

The following week it was announced that Parsons would be moving on at the end of the season to take charge of the Netherlands’ national women’s football team.

Week Two – Louisville get their first NWSL win…

It was a bit of a present from the league schedulers that Racing Louisville were able to play their first two regular-season games at home. They didn’t look that proverbial gift horse in the mouth and set about getting themselves a win on the board against Washington Spirit in front of another 6,000+ crowd.

They were made to work for it, though. Washington applied plenty of early pressure and Michelle Betos had to be in good form between the sticks for the home side, saving from one-to-watch rookie Trinity Rodman and, later, Ashley Hatch.

Talented full back Emily Fox nearly put Louisville in front with a rasping 25-yarder that Bledsoe turned around the post at full stretch.

With both keepers having a strong night it was going to take something inspirational to break the deadlock. First round draft pick Emina Ekic would write her name into the fledgling Louisville history books with a strike that had as much to do with tenacity as quality.

Savannah McCaskill played Ekic (pictured) into the right channel, she shook off one challenge, cut inside onto her left foot, beat a second defender and, from the edge of the penalty box, hammered the ball into Bledsoe’s top right-hand corner.

Five minutes later the fast-becoming-infamous Louisville goal celebration light show was in full effect again. The Spirit were pushing more bodies forward for an equaliser, Racing caught them on the counter. Ekic found herself in a three v one overload and didn’t lose her head, playing in Ce Ce Kizer who stroked the ball past the keeper to give the new franchise a 2-0 victory.

That result would be good enough to keep Louisville on top of the table by the end of the round.

“It was a big moment. It was a big release for the players. We talk about going into games with proactive confidence. Because we are so young, you can feel tentative about feeling good and believing what you can do. You sometimes wait for sometimes good to happen in order to appreciate what they can do.”

Christy Holly, Head Coach, Racing Louisville, via SpectrumNews1.com

The second ‘surprise’ of the week came at WakeMed Soccer Park, where Orlando stunned a strong North Carolina line-up.

Facilitating a more direct playing style Alex Morgan was able to engineer a couple of early sighters for the Pride. At the other end Brazilian international Debinha uncharacteristically missed an open goal for the Courage.

Sydney Leroux put the Pride ahead in the 36th minute, seizing on a poor pass across the backline, rounding a defender and flashing a low drive past Casey Murphy.

The Courage huffed and puffed in front of goal for the next hour or so. Keeper Erin McLeod had to make a couple of key saves from Jess McDonald and Lynn Williams.

Morgan had drifted in and out of the match, unsurprisingly in a game against the possession-greedy Courage. But the Pride forward made the game safe in the 79th minute, picking up the ball on the left, beating Abby Erceg for pace and sliding the ball past Murphy from a tight angle.

The Courage kept ploughing forward. Williams headed against the post from a corner and McDonald finally got them on the board in the 89th minute, but it was to prove no more than a consolation.

At the SeatGeek Stadium in Illinois the Chicago Red Stars continued to struggle in front of goal, failing to register against Gotham FC. Mercifully for Head Coach Rory Dames the defence was in entirely better shape than it had been against Portland and held out for a 0-0 tie.

The result would leave Chicago propping up the table, though.

The Cascadia rivalry was up next in front of a socially distanced crowd at Providence Park. The Portland Thorns and OL Reign had already crossed swords in the Challenge Cup with the Thorns running out 2-0 winners. But it was to be a different Reign that showed up in this one.

All the goals were scored in the opening fifteen minutes. Christine Sinclair put the hosts ahead with an audacious volley, lobbing Karen Bardsley from 25-yards after the keeper had initially punched a cross away.

Five minutes later Megan Rapinoe got Reign back on terms with a low, driven free-kick from well outside the penalty box, and then enjoyed a little celebratory moment in front of the home fans. Inside the quarter hour mark Shirley Cruz (pictured) swept in Dani Weatherholt’s cross from close range to give Farid Benstiti’s team the lead.

It stayed 2-1 but the goalkeepers traded one great save each over the remaining 75 minutes. Bardsley brilliantly pawed Sophia Smith’s drive around the left-hand post. At the other end Adriana Franch reacted quickly to claw away Tziarra King’s header from a corner.

Houston Dash were keen to get their season off and running following an opening day defeat. They took on Kansas City at the BBVA Stadium, but got off to a poor start when Amy Rodriguez put the visitors ahead inside 13 minutes.

The Dash appeared to be getting everything back on track in the second period after headed goals from Rachel Daly and Shea Groom. And their situation improved further when Kansas defender Elizabeth Ball was sent off.

But Huw Williams’ side dug out an equaliser in stoppage time. Mariana Larroquette’s delicious, driven cross from the left was begging to be attacked and Taylor Leach did it justice, arriving at the perfect moment to out-spring her marker and power in off the post for 2-2.

“[The late goal] showed the character, showed the personality, showed the guts, showed the effort, showed the heart of this group. Sometimes it’s about determination and finding a way, and Leach’s goal today, how she rose up, great header, couldn’t wish for a better header than that. That’s the type of moment that can elevate and certainly boost the morale of a team and elevate the team to another level. That’s what we’ll use for right now, we’ll use this as a stepping stone for us to get better as a team.”

Huw Williams, Head Coach, Kansas City, via wyandottedaily.com

Week Three – Unexpected front runners…

Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux (pictured) were both on target again for the Orlando Pride running out 2-1 winners against the Portland Thorns.

In the 22nd minute Morgan got on to Taylor Kornieck’s clever chip over the Thorns backline and lashed past Adi Franch, first time on the half volley.

The Thorns always looked dangerous and, just before the break, Simone Charley headed the visitors level from Natalia Kuikka’s curling cross from the right.

Portland’s equaliser should have been a momentum shift. Instead they fell apart at the back less than 20 seconds into the second period. Kelli Hubly seemed to be in two minds what to do with the ball heading towards her own goal and Leroux nipped in to prod past Franch.

Crystal Dunn’s turn and shot was the closest the Thorns came to levelling but Ashlyn Harris made a good stop and a 2-1 victory was good enough to propel the Pride into first place in the NWSL table.

Despite Rachel Daly giving the Houston Dash a 9th minute lead at the BBVA, they weren’t able to press home that advantage and the Washington Spirit cut straight through the middle of their defence to register a 21st minute equaliser, courtesy of promising young attacker Ashley Sanchez.

The match was originally scheduled as a Washington home game, but last minute alterations meant unexpected travelling down to Texas. Following their road game defeat at Louisville, Spirit fans may have felt that the deck was stacked against them pulling off a big result here. Midfielder Andi Sullivan’s dismissal for a second bookable offence in the 50th minute would have increased that anxiety.

But the Spirit found a winner in the 70th minute. Natalie Jacobs hit a long ball over the Dash back line and keeper Jane Campbell was caught between a ‘stick or twist’ decision just long enough for Ashley Hatch to get to the ball first, round the Dash stopper and slot into an empty net.

Washington keeper Bledsoe had to make one very good save before the end pushing Katie Naughton’s header on to the post from a corner routine but the Spirit held on to register a 2-1 win, their first three-point haul of the campaign.

Earlier in the the day another NWSL team had enjoyed its maiden victory in the regular season at Legends Field in Kansas. Sadly for the 5,272 fans that showed up it wouldn’t be the hosts. Instead, the Chicago Red Stars finally found their groove in front of goal converting twice without reply.

Although the Red Stars had to weather some early pressure, striker Makenzy Doniak made the best chance crashing her angled drive off the cross bar and later the Kansas defence were ‘all hands to the pump’ denying Chicago three times in an epic 6-yard-box scramble. At the other end Women’s National Team keeper Alyssa Naeher pulled off a ‘worldie’ to deny Mariana Larroquette from close range.

The match ended up hinging on two 61st minute substitutions by Red Stars Head Coach Rory Dames. Off went Arin Wright and Katie Johnson; on came Mallory Pugh and Kealia Watt.

Just six minutes later they combined for a fantastic breakaway goal. Pugh sprinted through midfield, fed Watt on the right of the penalty box. Pugh kept going, dragging one defender with her, while Watt cut inside her marker and rifled left footed into the far corner.

Three minutes later the Chicago winger was credited with her second assist after Kansas gifted possession to Doniak on the edge of their penalty area. Doniak found Pugh on the left, she hared past Desiree Scott to the byline and cut the ball back for Doniak to finish. Final score 2-0.

Guess who's back...? Alright, it's Sam Mewis, returning to the Courage

Two days later Racing Louisville travelled to WakeMed Soccer Park to take on North Carolina Courage.

On top of the pile at the start of week three the new franchise was in for a bit of a nasty wake up call as the three-times Shield winners – buoyed by the return of talismanic midfielder Sam Mewis (pictured) – were about to unleash one of those performances that no team in the league seems well equipped to deal with.

Centre back Abby Erceg got the party started in the 7th minute, heading in Carson Pickett’s cross from a short corner routine.

Keeper Michelle Betos got down well to deal with Debinha’s low drive from the edge of the penalty box as North Carolina looked to extend their advantage. Pickett, Mewis and Jess McDonald all had decent sights of goal but couldn’t hit the target.

After the break Havana Solaun thumped a 25-yarder off the underside of the Louisville cross bar. But the Courage doubled their lead in the 63rd minute when Lynn Williams got on to Debinha’s through ball, cut inside a defender and slid the ball past Betos into the far corner.

More goals followed quickly. In the 68th minute left back Pickett – having an outstanding match – drilled a pinpoint cross to the back post, McDonald nodded it back across the goal and Debinha finished it off.

Seven minutes later Debinha located substitute Hailie Mace on the edge of the ‘D’ and she took a touch before hammering a low drive into Betos’ bottom right hand corner.

Mace would add the exclamation mark to an emphatic victory, arriving to meet Ryan Williams’ cross from the right wing by-line and convert on the full for 5-0. This was a vintage performance from Paul Riley’s side and would propel them up from ninth to fourth in the standings.

“I think [Debinha and Sam Mewis] were exceptional tonight. Sam being on the field allowed both O’Sullivan and Solaun to get on the ball more. Sam gives us a different lift and a different look: she made great exchanges vertically with Havana and horizontally with Debinha, and really our attacking play up. It’s great to have her back, she’s phenomenal.”

Paul Riley, Head Coach, North Carolina Courage, via nccourage.com

Week Three – Just keeps on keeping on…

Those not overly familiar with the machinations of the US top flight (like those of us here at D2B Towers) could be forgiven for thinking that Houston Dash playing the Chicago Red Stars three days later would herald the start of Week Four of the NWSL. But not so. Week 3 just kept on trucking…

And this match was entirely in keeping with the unpredictable nature of a highly competitive league. Dash arrived at kick-off bottom of the table. The Red Stars were coming in off the back of their best performance in 2021.

Mallory Pugh returned to Chicago’s starting eleven and wasted no time stamping her mark on the game. Inside four minutes she robbed Megan Oyster on the edge of the Dash penalty area, outmanoeuvred a second defender and drilled past Jane Campbell on the angle to put the visitors in front.

But any thoughts that Houston were about to cave were diminished by the 18th minute when Nichelle Prince (pictured left) attempted a shot (or was it a cross?) from the corner of the 18-yard box that sailed over Alyssa Naeher and into the net.

Prince had been particularly profligate since the start of the regular season – indeed she missed a golden 1 v 1 opportunity in the 7th minute of this match – so the goal was a welcome tonic. To be fair, her body shape suggested shot more than cross, and they all count, whatever…

Now all eyes were on Chicago to see if they could raise their levels. And they did. Morgan Gautrat and Kealia both had good chances in the second half but couldn’t test Campbell.

Houston made them pay for that wastefulness seven minutes from the end when midfielder Sophie Schmidt got to the by-line and clipped a perfect cross to the far post for Kristie Mewis (pictured right) to convert with a beautifully cushioned volley. A 2-1 win would lift the Dash above the Red Stars with both clubs level on points.

Later in the same day Gotham FC hosted Portland Thorns at the Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey. A repeat of the 2021 Challenge Cup Final the match unfolded in a similar way with Portland making virtually all the running early on and Gotham waking up midway through the second period.

Chances came and went for the Pacific North Westerners in the first half. Sophia Smith’s close range header was acrobatically parried by Gotham keeper Kailen Sheridan. The NJ stopper dealt slightly more comfortably with Lindsey Horan’s effort off a Meghan Klingenberg cross.

Smith then Cruyff-turned away from two defenders in the penalty area before teeing up Crystal Dunn whose snapshot cannoned off the left-hand upright.

But the Thorns got the lead that their endeavour merited in the 56th minute. Klingenberg having a storming game at left back cut inside and found Dunn in a yard of space on the edge of the penalty box. The World Cup winner needed just a split second and minimal back lift to fire the ball into the top right-hand corner.

The goal finally seemed to inject some urgency into Freya Coombe’s side, who committed to more of an attacking focus in the last half hour. Midge Purce, inexplicably stationed at right back for most of the game, emphasised her offensive importance when she broke through midfield to create the home side’s best chance of the match. Sadly, Carli Lloyd went for goal rather than crossing for Ifeoma Onumonu, and her effort sailed over.

Portland’s standout forward Smith had Caprice Dydasco on toast all afternoon, and would beat her opponent one more time before the end, flashing in a fierce drive that Sheridan brilliantly tipped over at full stretch.

A 1-0 win gets Portland rolling again heading into June, but they need to figure out why they were not able to score more than once in 22 efforts on goal. They’ll also need to have one eye on how they can cope without players like Dunn, Horan and Christine Sinclair when the Olympics come round in July and those players disappear for a month.

Gotham FC might have changed their name over the off-season from previous iteration Sky Blue FC, but the early signs are that they amount to about the same – low scoring, fairly conservative. Coombes seems to have improved the defence but there isn’t an obvious fifteen goal striker in the group.

After wins over Portland and North Carolina, Orlando Pride fans may have been hoping that they would have an easier time of it against bottom three dwellers Kansas City at Exploria Stadium. But they made rather hard work of their 1-0 win – perhaps starting to feel the effects of three matches in a week on their bodies.

The only goal of the game arrived in the 16th minute when Alex Morgan arrived to meet Courtney Petersen’s out-swinging corner from the left, Marta appeared to flick it on and keeper Abby Smith couldn’t stop the ball from spinning over the goal line. Kansas protested that it hadn’t gone in but the refereeing team was convinced it had. Later the NWSL announced that Marta didn’t get a touch and Morgan was credited with her fourth goal of the campaign leading to the Pride striker winning May’s Player of the Month Award.

“That’s probably the best win – not technically – but the attitude and commitment to play for the Orlando Pride. To change the culture and ethos of the club. A wonderful group collective effort. You’ve got to win ugly, especially in a three game week. I’m so proud of every single member of staff and every player.”

Marc Skinner, Head Coach, Orlando Pride, via orlandocitysc.com

The final game of the month saw Washington Spirit ‘enjoying’ their third road game in ten days, this time travelling all the way to Tacoma, Washington to take on well-heeled OL Reign.

Talented midfield playmaker Rose Lavelle had recently arrived back in the US from her spell at Manchester City knowing that she was heading to the Northwest. But squaring up to her former NWSL club would add some extra spice to her OL Reign debut.

In a first half that saw Reign with the lion’s share of possession chances were few. Spirit forward Ashley Sanchez and Reign’s Megan Rapinoe traded chances with both keepers making decent saves.

The arrival of Trinity Rodman off the bench heralded a better attacking drive from the Spirit and they forged ahead seven minutes after the break from a corner. Keeper Bardsley missed her punch and Sam Staab got something on the ball at the far post, it deflected off Rapinoe and squeezed past a defender on the goal line.

Rodman then attacked the right side of the penalty area which led to Dorian Bailey rattling the cross bar with a well-struck effort from 18-yards.

Keeper Bardsley had to be substituted with around seven minutes left to play. She had just prevented Ashley Hatch’s header going in, cleared the ball long and then went down with an evident hamstring pull. It would prove to be an injury that leaves the recently selected Team GB stopper doubtful for the Tokyo Olympics.

OL Reign were unable to find a way past Aubrey Bledsoe and finished the month in seventh – although quite why that is when they have a better goal difference than Houston is not clear to us here at D2B.

This was a difficult defeat on the back of a fairly pedestrian performance and Farid Benstiti’s job at OL Reign is not about to get any easier. An already stacked roster is reportedly about to welcome three Olympique Lyon players in Eugénie Le Sommer (forward), Dzsenifer Marozsán (midfielder), and Sarah Bouhaddi (goalkeeper) as the club owners look to flex their organisation’s playing resources. This will come with increased pressure to win, but does at least combat the loss of key players during the Olympic tournament.

Washington, meanwhile, find themselves in second spot after two wins on the bounce. Pundits and bookmakers don’t expect them to stay there in the long term but talented young players such as Rodman and Sanchez should make them fun to watch throughout the season.

Next NWSL Fixtures

The current top two square up in the next round of NWSL fixtures which begin tonight:

June 5th: Chicago Red Stars v North Carolina Courage

June 5th: NJ/NY Gotham FC v OL Reign

June 5th: Portland Thorns v Racing Louisville

June 6th: Kansas City v Houston Dash

June 6th: Washington Spirit v Orlando Pride

All matches are available to UK viewers free on Twitch. Enjoy 🙂

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