There are those whose faith tells them that Jesus of Nazareth walked on water, cured the sick, gave sight to the blind, resurrected the dead, and bore the sins of all humanity on the cross. Those would all be miracles, of course. And it may take such a miracle for the Pride to win their first game of 2019 tonight against Reign FC.
May You Live in Interesting Times
It’s said the Chinese have a curse that goes something like that, and Orlando Pride fans certainly do live in interesting times. We have up to nine or more regular starters that will be absent from the club after tonight’s match for the next round of international camps and friendlies leading up to the Women’s World Cup. In addition we have a coach who insists that his players need to learn a whole new set of skills to be able to play in the style he wants them to, and you can see that they are overthinking a lot of things as they try to decide where to go with the ball in dangerous areas and give up easy goals to the opponent. Through two games the Pride have yet to find the back of the net and have given up seven goals to their opponents. After tonight they will also have played 1/8 of their season and have fewer games than any other team in the league to try to recover the points they have lost in this first week.
A measure of the depth of change this team is undergoing can be best seen by looking at three players: global superstar Alex Morgan, reliable and steady Dani Weatherholt, and the previously unpredictable Chioma Ubogagu. Let’s look at all three of these players more closely.
Midweek against North Carolina there were two goals that were given up by the Pride off the feet of Alex Morgan. She was back with the rest of her ten field players trying to help defend the face of goal, and both times she mis-hit balls that she either intended to settle or pass to a nearby teammate. In both cases, the ball was pounced on by a Carolina player and either directly converted or passed to a teammate for a goal. Alex Morgan is a world-class finisher. She has been counted on by and she has rewarded her club and country with steady goal production for years. She’s not been asked to be a defender. Maybe a world-class player at any position should be able to defend adequately. I don’t know—I’m not a world-class player. But it seems odd to find her back there scrambling to help dig balls out of our own penalty area.
Dani Weatherholt is one of the most reliable players that you could ever want on a team. If I were making a women’s team I’d clone 18 of her to get the heart, the hustle, the determination, the grit, and the presence of the game that she has. In previous seasons she has been a reliable creator for this team, winning possession away from the opponent and passing it off to a midfielder who can start a buildup going the other way. But this year, the look on her face is less determination and more concentration to my eyes. It looks to me like she’s trying to think through every step of what she’s doing instead of just playing the flow of the match and seeing the game unfold around her like some Sherlock Holmes savant of football. Because she’s having to think it feels like she’s always chasing the game and not commanding it the way she did in previous years. I don’t like seeing a favorite player struggle, and I wish there were something I could do that would be helpful, but every player on the pitch has forgotten more about the game than I will ever know.
And Chioma Ubogagu is perhaps, and curiously, one of the bright spots this season. I have noticed in both matches she has been starting as an attacking midfielder, and she is taking to this role like a duck to water. When she is put in the role of striker, she gets the ball, puts her head down on the ball, and tries to dribble it all the way to the mouth of the goal, losing complete awareness of both teammates and opponents around her. But in the role of attacking mid, she settles and immediately looks up to see where the ball should go. She’s been one of the best single-touch or two-touch passers the Pride have had in their early games. Many fans of the team (moreso fans of specific players not named Chioma Ubogagu, IMO) have been quick to be very critical of Chi in past seasons for being “selfish” on the ball. I just always wondered why she wasn’t being coached to do anything different and lay less blame on the player than the tactics that were being told to the player. I was not a fan of the way Chi was playing in the past, either, but it was undeniable that she had some natural skills that could be coached up to better help her team succeed. Maybe this is something she is getting from coach Marc Skinner. Maybe this is something she is getting from the England camp where she’s had a chance to play in some International Friendlies. Wherever it’s coming from, I would like to see more of this, and I hope it starts being rewarded with goals and assists in the matches she’s able to play with the Pride this season.
I’m sorry—I still have no idea what a lineup for this team is going to look like. The first match had a 4-5-1 formation and the midweek match was a 4-2-3-1 formation. And with the third match in 8 days it would not be unreasonable to see some of the players rested today that played in both the earlier matches. As far as the score, I think it’s not going to be pretty. I think the Reign will win by three goals, but whether it’s a 3-0 score line or a 4-1 scoreline is beyond my ability to predict. The roster on this team all but imploded under the weight of their own expectations last year, and this year most of them are distracted by commitments to their national teams for the World Cup, so I’m starting to think there’s not going to be any dramatic turnaround or remarkable change of form anytime soon. I wish I could say otherwise but I just don’t see it.
But it is Easter Sunday, and they have always said it’s a day for miracles. So perhaps the Pride can pull off a miracle win on the road.