Orlando Pride 2 (Ubogagu 28’, Hill 81’)
It almost feels cliche to say that all soccer matches, particularly losses, have different personalities to them, but those at the beginning of the season frequently feel distinct and significant as one tries to suss out the developing narrative of a club’s year. The Chicago Red Stars were handed their second defeat of 2018 this evening, their first ever at the hands of the Orlando Pride, and found themselves staring at the ghosts of their old habits as they try to keep their heads above water in another harrowing run of scheduling.
As compared to the Red Stars’ only other loss of the year, the 3-2 result against Portland in week 2, the team walked away with both new and recurring issues. If dropped points against the Thorns carried a weight of inevitability, this match against Orlando had its own power in its air of utter preventability, along with a frustrating sense of powerlessness as Chicago continued to struggle to adapt to roster issues outside their control, like the late scratch of the recovering Julie Ertz to lingering back pain.
The match overall felt choppy and incoherent, a characteristic not much helped by the weather delay in the 50th minute that held the game up for an extra half hour. Taylor Comeau and Sarah Gorden, doing admirable jobs in the outside back roles thrust upon them, had trouble working effectively in the attack, giving Orlando’s Ali Krieger and Carson Pickett much to simple of a job to keep the Orlando defense compact and inhabitable to Sam Kerr’s offensive tendencies.
Yuki Nagasato didn’t play much of the match for the Red Stars, only coming in in the 82nd minute, and her absence was deeply felt as Kerr spent more and more time as an island in the attack, drawing four or five defenders to her every time she touched the ball, without much help to spring Chicago’s offense forward.
It also didn’t help Chicago’s cause much that Orlando found some of their best attacking motion of the year as the first half went on. It was some clever one-touch possession that opened Chioma Ubogagu up to Orlando’s first goal, when a Sydney Leroux touch got a bit of a lucky bounce in her direction after a midfield interception (and another iteration of Ubogagu’s exemplary work-rate) got the counterattack moving in the 28th minute.
Chicago wasn’t exactly the second best team after the opening goal, but they found ways to look unnecessarily stretched (and tired. This team looks tired), and struggled to utilize their newer 4-3-3 possession-based style into a buildup of play that made much sense. Sofia Huerta worked her way all over the field, but her role as a connector between the midfield and the attack was unclear, and less effective than it could have been, and after a while it looked like the Red Stars were reverting back to some of the simpler tactics that had gutted out results for them in the past.
The final dagger came in the 81st minute, when another midfield turnover and a slick pass through the Chicago defense left Alyssa Naeher hung out to dry, trying to take Rachel Hill on 1v1 in a sequence that would end in Orlando’s second goal, and suddenly hanging tough was no longer cutting it.
It’s much too early after two losses to get too worked up about Chicago’s ability to hang with the post-season contenders in the NWSL this year, but Orlando is the type of team they’re going to have to unlock if they want to better themselves in 2018. It’s possible that the squad just simply doesn’t have the pieces right now, and that has to be ok, but the talent here has to look towards North Carolina on Sunday wanting more.