A variation on an age-old riddle may finally have an answer... and that answer is three points. The variant is, "If a soccer team wins a match and nobody is there to see it, how many points is it worth?"
The Pride recorded the first win of the 2018 season yesterday in front of a passionate but very small crowd of under 3,900 fans. It was the lowest attendance of any Pride match, including last year's rescheduled game played on the eve of Hurricane Irma's arrival in Florida. The win still counts for three points and moves the Pride out of the cellar on the table. But many of the woes that Pride fans have been feeling in the first part of the season, and a sketchy weather forecast combined with the absence of so many key players for International Duty succeeded in keeping about half of the normal fan base away on the day.
- Three Big Points - A result that put three more points in the bag is always welcome for the team, especially at home. The fact that the win came in a clean sheet victory is also good for the offense. Never mind that the team we were facing was the only team in NWSL to score fewer goals through three matches than the Pride, it still is good for a defensive team missing several projected everyday starters to keep the opponent off the board.
- Halftime Speech - Whatever Coach Tom Sermanni said at halftime, I hope it's bottled up and saved for future use. In the first half, both teams looked horrible. If anything, it looked like Houston was the more likely team to score in the first 45 minutes. It also looked like several players didn't know where they were supposed to be playing, because I saw at least one defender routinely as high as the attacking penalty spot, or higher, on every offensive trip down the pitch. With the opposing team looking more threatening, I like our defense to hold its shape--and I'll admit that's my own personal bias and preference.
- Effective Substitutions - Sometimes a coach makes a substitution and you wonder what the hell they were thinking. But Coach Sermanni made the right call on his first two subs, as the team continued to look more and more threatening with each one. In the 64th minute, Tom Sermanni subbed off Carson Pickett and put in Rachel Hill. On the Pride's pre-match lineup card, Pickett was listed as a defender, but on Soccerway.com, she was shown as a midfielder in the formation. In either case, it was a trade of adding offense and taking off defense, and the response was almost immediate. In the 65th minute, the combination of Christine Nairn to Chioma Ubogagu resulted in the match-winning goal. Then Ubogagu came out in the 81st minute for Abby Elinsky, and in the final minutes, it seemed like the Pride mounted even more threats against the Houston goal.
- Budding Partnership - I mentioned it above, but the partnership of Christine Nairn and Chioma Ubogagu is starting to look dangerous. Nairn was not even the most proficient nor the most accurate passer on the day (65 passes at 75.9% completion), but she led the team in key passes with three, including the assist. Ubogagu's header from Nairn's free-kick just inside the midfield stripe caught Houston goalkeeper Jane Campbell leaning the wrong way and found the crease inside the near goalpost for the score.
- Headline Stat Domination - Looking down the stat columns after the match, the headline stats all fell in Orlando's favor. The Pride led in shots (14 to 10), shots on target (3 to 2), total passes (500 to 362), passing accuracy (80.2% to 74.0%), and possession (57.7% to 42.3%). On a day when there was only a single score, those headline stats make a difference, although I remember plenty of matches where the team in purple lost even though they controlled those eye-grabbing stats.
- Officiating - If there's a referee who is the antithesis of Ted Unkel, it's probably Jasmine Peralta. The head official for yesterday's match averages about half the number of fouls called in most NWSL matches. It's not good to call too many fouls and disrupt the play of the match or toss out silly cards, but it's also not good to let too much go uncalled. Houston should have picked up two yellows on reckless collisions by attackers against Ashlyn Harris that sent both players sprawling to the turf each time. Unfortunately, Harris seemed to take the brunt of both collisions and was the slower player to get up both times.
- Lack of Flow - There's a reason they call soccer "The Beautiful Game" and that's because a team playing at high levels can almost create visual poetry with the ball and player movement around the pitch. But too much was off pace and off-target yesterday for my liking. Passes were made with poor timing or left too far away from the targeted player so they were intercepted or went out of bounds too easily. There were few organized buildups of pressure going forward until after the 60th minute--before then way too many times the passes forward seemed more hopeful than tactical. And at times there were not enough passes to open teammates.
- Missed Chances to Create Shots - Though I'm glad we got the victory, Chioma Ubogagu annoyed me a bit in the first half by trying to dribble through defenders when both Alex and Sydney were open on the wings. Normally ball watching is something that we fans are critical of defenders for doing, but in Ubogagu's case she tends to watch the ball on her own feet too much and lose track of where her outlets may be when defenders start to close in. Some people automatically presume it's selfish play, but I'm not sure if that's accurate or if she's just trying to be sure the ball isn't stolen from her. Either way, the effect is that opposing defenders will not have to be concerned that she'll pass out of dangerous situations and it makes her easier to defend. I'd rather see the player pass the ball out and force defenders to worry about everyone in the attacking half of the pitch and not just focus on the girl with the ball.
- The Turnout - I mentioned it at the top but it bears repeating. The turnout was pretty wretched. The weather forecast was sketchy all day, resulting in a dry match without even a passing sprinkle. And the team's performance leading up to yesterday had been sub-par, so I think many people expected another loss or a draw at best and stayed away. On a somewhat related note, there were multiple reports from the Supporter's Section that the drummers were not provided with water cups for hydration, which is (by my understanding) standard practice for the club to do for MLS matches. This is not a good look for the organization, and they should be doing everything they can to encourage supporters and passionate fans that will make a lot of noise to come to Pride matches. I don't know the logistics of how such things are handled, but it could be that without an officially recognized Supporter's Group this season, the front office doesn't have any kind of formal liaison to organize such things for Pride matches like they do for the MLS games. Nonetheless, someone on staff during gameday should be attentive to such things and should have the power to rectify such oversights without requiring a formal point of contact with a recognized supporter group to make that happen.
- Clean Sheet - Ashlyn Harris only faced two shots on goal, but she saved them both and had a 100% save rate. The defense also contributed with four blocked shots (compared to only one block by Houston). And the Pride seemed to get stronger as the match wore on. Both Orlando and Houston train in hot, humid locations, and it was good to see that the Pride seemed to have the edge in stamina and fitness as the match wore on.
- Unsung Hero Weatherholt - I've said it before and I'll say it again--I really like the way Dani Weatherholt plays. She lets her effort speak for itself, and she put up an impressive stat line on the day. As a holding midfielder, she had the highest pass completion rate on the team (63 passes at 93.1%), she had 79 touches, one shot, two key passes, two tackles, and committed only one foul on the day. She also used her tall, willowy frame and long legs to relentlessly chase down balls that the Pride gave away and frustrate the attempts of Dash players to get a clean look at passes or shots. If this girl doesn't start getting more call-ups by Jill Ellis for National Team duty, then US Soccer needs to replace the national team coach with someone who has better powers of observation.
What were your thoughts on yesterday's match? What would you suggest to the front office as ways to try to improve attendance at Pride matches? Who was your standout player of the match? Let me know in the comments below!