The Pride finished the season on a strong note with a 3 - 2 victory over the North Carolina Courage. The winner came from Alanna Kennedy, who blasted a free kick from more than 20 yards out into the upper corner of the net. With Chicago's loss and the Pride win, it lifted Orlando to 3rd place in the playoffs, meaning that their semifinal match will take place next Saturday in Portland.
The Thorns are a tough side to beat, and now that Tobin Heath is back in the lineup after being injured most of the season, they will be only more formidable. Portland has fantastic home supporters and routinely draw the largest crowds in NWSL. So the atmosphere for a playoff match should be even more dramatic.
Orlando jumped out to an early lead in the 22nd minute. Alex Morgan started the play down the left side, pushing the ball ahead to Chioma Ubogagu deep in the attacking end. Ubogagu sent a crossing pass over to Kristen Edmonds near the top of the box, who simply put a foot out to redirect the ball and send it into the far bottom corner of the net, under the outstretched arm of a diving Katelyn Rowland. The goal was the second of the season for Edmonds, and it marked the third assist for Ubogagu on the year.
Then in the 51st minute Orlando struck again. Marta disrupted an attack by Carolina just outside of the Orlando defensive area and Ubogagu again jumped on the ball and started pushing it forward. She found Rachel Hill on the right side, who ball back to Marta, who started running toward the right side of the formation. The Brazilian then passed the ball ahead to Alex Morgan, who was at the top of the formation on the right side. As Marta raced ahead, Morgan passed the ball back to her, and the five-time Player of the Year rifled a shot that was too powerful for Rowland to completely stop, and the ball dribbled into the net for a second goal after the keeper had slowed it down.
It looked like Orlando might cruise to an easy victory, but there's a reason North Carolina won the Shield this year for earning the most points. In the 62nd minute Taylor Smith crossed the ball from the right side at the top of the box and found Lynn Williams with her back to the goal. Williams quickly pivoted and struck the ball in a single, powerful strike that beat Ashlyn Harris to the top corner of the net to pull a goal back.
Just minutes later in the 65th minute, Carolina's Debora Cristiane De Oliveira went down in the penalty area as she ran past Ali Krieger and the referee awarded the Courage a PK. There was not much contact and De Oliveira sold the fall well; otherwise, it may not have been worthy of any call. Williams stepped up to take the PK and there was more discussion, during which Ashlyn Harris stepped off her line and went up to Williams in an attempt to get in her head. The referee noticed and gave Harris a yellow card, either for time wasting or for interfering with the penalty taker. Williams once again put the goal in the back of the net and the match was tied.
It wasn't until the 91st minute that Kennedy put the game winner in the net to secure the victory for the visitors. Reaction to the victory was mixed among fans. On the one hand, many fans expressed some concern about having to travel all the way to Portland. However, it's more important to enter the playoffs with a win building important momentum the team will need to reach the championship match.
The Challenge Ahead
But the victory was not without a moment of concern. In the 30th minute, there was a hard collision between North Carolina's Nora Holstad Berge and Orlando's Camila. Halstad Berge clipped Camila from behind in what looked like a hard tackle, and Camila fell hard to the turf and didn't get up. Play eventually was stopped after a missed shot by Carolina, and Camila had to be taken off the pitch and subbed out in the 35th minute, when Rachel Hill came on. As of this writing there is no definite news on the type or severity of injury to Camila, but it appears to be something with her knee or lower leg. Hopefully it's not serious enough to keep her out of training or to be unavailable for the playoff match in Portland. But this team has generated goals from eleven different players, so they should be able to score no matter who is in the lineup for the playoff match.
I am glad the team won, but I don't underestimate the challenge of playing in Portland for many of the reasons listed above. I will be at a watch party next Saturday cheering on the ladies and I hope that they will have a chance to play in the Championship match at home on October 14. If they can lift the trophy with the Orlando City MLS team sitting in the stands looking on, that should be a good motivation to the MLS side going into the off season on a goal they need to set for themselves next season.