Have you noticed the birds chirping sounds a little sweeter today? Have you noticed the sun is shining a little bit brighter this morning? Have you noticed your step has a little spring in it and your smile is a little wider today? That, my friends, is because your teams won you six big points last night. It's almost enough to make you want to dance the Six Point Shuffle. If you've never heard of the six-point shuffle don't feel bad: it's a cross between the Pee Wee Herman "Tequila" dance, the Carlton Dance, and the Ickey Woods Shuffle. It's best performed when completely drunk and when nobody else can see you. It's really quite awful to behold, but you can't help grinning like a fool when you are doing it.
Orlando Pride Score Come-from-Behind Win
Out at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, the Orlando Pride defeated the Utah Royals 2-1 in a comeback win after surrendering the opening goal in the first ten minutes of the match. In the eighth minute, Amy Rodriguez received a pass from Rachel Corsie and flipped it up and over Ashlyn Harris, who was caught out of position as the team was struggling to get comfortable with the three-back formation that coach Tom Sermanni had drawn up for the Pride. Monica seemed to struggle the most to find her place, and Harris seemed to be caught between wanting to defend her goal on the line and cheat out into the six-yard box. Unfortunately for the Pride, that indecision was all it took for the wily Rodriguez to kiss a little blooper off her toe and over the keeper's head into the back of the net. Harris did manage to get a couple of fingertips on the ball as it sailed over her, but couldn't deflect it up and over the crossbar.
It felt a little disheartening because the Pride does not have a great record when conceding the first goal. It's only the second time this season and the first time on the road in 2018 that the Pride has won after conceding the first goal. Last week, Marta got the winner in the 86th minute after the Pride had conceded an opening goal to the Washington Spirit.
The match between Orlando and Utah marked the first time in 2018 the Pride has faced Christen Press after her midseason transfer from Europe back to the NWSL. Press was held to a rather pedestrian match, getting only 34 touches and completing 22 passes. She also took two shots, but neither were on target.
Speaking of shooting, the Pride held the edge in attacking on the night. They led Utah in shots (12 to 8), Shots on Goal (6 to 3), Corners (4 to 1), and Crosses (9 to 7). The Pride's first goal came from the penalty spot during injury time at the end of the first half. On one of the Pride's many set pieces, Utah's Gunnhildur Jonsdottir wrapped both arms around Alanna Kennedy and might have been whispering how good her hair product smelled into the Australian's ear. But the referee reminded the Icelander that this wasn't a Mary Kay party and pointed to the spot. After a long delay by Utah as they tried to insist to the referee that perhaps she wanted some cosmetics of her own, Alex Morgan stepped up and buried the penalty past Abby Smith into the top of the net.
The winning goal for Orlando came in the 52nd minute on a great heads-up play by Kristen Edmonds. On a restart from an Ashlyn Harris punt, Ali Krieger sent a long pass forward up the right side of the pitch to find Edmonds just across the halfway line. Edmonds recognized that Abby Smith was way out of her box near the top of the penalty area and sent a pretty rainbow of a shot that bounced inside the six-yard box and up into the empty goal. A few weeks ago, Alanna Kennedy struck from distance with power. Edmond's goal was from a slightly shorter range, and it seemed to be the finesse counterpoint to Kennedy's raw, powerful screamer of a goal. Both goals showed players having an acute awareness of the game situation in the moment and understanding when they could take advantage of a keeper out of position. Kreiger's assist came during a milestone for the USWNT veteran, as she marked her 100th appearance in NWSL play on the night.
The rest of the stat line for the Orlando Pride was mixed. They were on the short end of the stat line in terms of possession (44.9% to 55.1%), passing (310 to 382), and pass accuracy (61.3% to 71.5%). But they won two of the three "deep stat" indicators that show which team is controlling the tempo and dictating the terms of the match. The Pride led in Tackles Won (12 to 10) and Clearances (13 to 6), while trailing in Duels Won (38 to 43). The win keeps the Pride a point behind Seattle in 3rd place on the table, with a chance to leapfrog the Reign next Saturday when Orlando returns to Orlando City Stadium for a mid-afternoon Lifetime Game of the Week matchup.
Orlando City Break Historic Tailspin
Even before the final whistle blew in Utah, Orlando City's MLS team was doing something they haven't done since May 6: they were leading a game! The unlikely hero to put the Lions on the board first for only the third time all season was backup center back Chris Schuler, playing without a cast on his arm for the first time in weeks. In the 34th minute, Dom Dwyer took a shot from long range that Toronto keeper Alex Bono parried. The ball floated up in a little looping arc, and the lanky, alert Schuler ran in on it and poked the ball past Bono into the net off his noggin.
Yesterday I said in my preview that scoring first would be a sign of progress for me under James O'Connor, and the team delivered on that sign. Check one box of three in my book that we have taken a step in the right direction. But Schuler's goal showed something more. It was one of the very few second-chance goals Orlando City have scored all season. When we give up goals, often times we see keeper Joe Bendik punch or parry the initial shot, only to find a trailing player from the other team run in and put the ball into the net while Orlando City defenders stand around watching. On this goal, the team showed they had turned the tables, and instead of giving up on the play after Dwyer's shot, Schuler stayed attentive and in attack mode, and when the parry from Bono presented an opportunity, he was able to strike. Last week in the loss to LAFC I saw more evidence that Orlando City's players were at least trying to sustain attacks after the first ball didn't go in, but the team was still shaking off the cobwebs of the losing streak and looked disjointed.
When the second half started, Orlando City immediately went on the attack again. In the 48th minute, Dom Dwyer received a short pass near midfield from Chris Mueller. Dwyer dribbled the ball up a few yards and then let fly another screamer of a shot from about 30 yards. The shot flew low and true and beat a diving Bono to find the far back corner of the net and put Orlando City up by two goals. Schuler's goal had excited the crowd because the team was leading. And Dwyer's goal filled the crowd with hope that the long nightmare losing streak might finally be over. Dom's team-leading eighth goal of the season was celebrated by the Englishman with his patented tumbling celebration that would have even had the Russian judges in the World Cup holding up 9.5 or perfect 10 scorecards.
Orlando City shared a lot of the wins and losses in the stat column with the Pride on the night. Like their sister team, the MLS side led the match in Shots (18 to 16), Shots on Target (7 to 4), and Corners (9 to 2). And like the Pride, Orlando City trailed their opponents in Possession (46.5% to 53.5%), Total Passes (457 to 533), and Passing Accuracy (85% to 90%). Even in the deep stats, Orlando City also won the battle of Tackles (13 to 8) and Clearances (16 to 13), while trailing in Duels (45 to 51).
Another one of my points from yesterday that I said I was looking for to indicate progress was well-organized play from Orlando City. We saw plenty of evidence from that last night. The team was making crisp passes that showed each player knew where he was supposed to be and what he was supposed to be doing. Fans have been justifiably frustrated by the defense getting way out of position during the losing streak, but everyone was maintaining their zones a lot more diligently last night. Amro Tarek and Mohamed El-Munir were staying in position to make the dramatic tackles and blocks that earned them gushing praise from fans early in the season.
And my final point of showing signs of progress from yesterday was also evident. I said that I wanted to see James O'Connor start holding players accountable for bad play. When it comes to the godawful number of goals that Orlando City has surrendered, I think there's plenty of blame to share between both the defense (who--in my opinion--bears 65% of the responsibility for allowing such easy shots by opponents during the long losing streak) and the goalkeeper (who bears 35% of the culpability for those goals). And the last two matches against Atlanta United and LAFC have probably been the worst two performances I have seen from Joe Bendik since he's been in Orlando. So it was good to see that coach James O'Connor benched Joe for the night in favor of Earl Edwards, Jr. Edwards played a very good game, and only had to make 3 saves on the night--down from the 9 saves that Bendik had to make at LAFC en route to allowing 4 goals to leak into the net. I think part of Joe's problem this season has been just the sheer exhaustion--both mental and physical--of having to play behind such a horrible defense.
In addition to sitting Bendik, Coach O'Connor benched several other poor performers from last week: gone from the Starting XI were Donny Toia and Josue Colman. Jonathan Spector did not start due to a hamstring injury that forced him to leave the LAFC match last week early, and Uri Rosell was suspended for yellow card accumulation.
One of my big frustrations with Coach Kreis had been not punishing incompetent performance with a benching the next game. Sitting Joe Bendik for a match is the clearest signal that James O'Connor can send to his roster that your name and your position on the pitch are irrelevant: when you screw up, you will not play. Period. It's long past time that someone has punished nonperformers with splinters in their behinds from riding the pine for a game. I have said on principal, and I believe it is true in order to build mental toughness and force resilience from mentally fragile players, that Coach O'Connor should evaluate every player after every match and automatically bench the worst 3 - 5 performers from the game regardless whether the team wins or loses. It sounds arbitrary and some may think it's unfair, but the fact that the players had so little respect for themselves and the crest and the fans that they made all of us endure nine straight losses deserves some punishment. As a fan I want every player on the roster to feel my pain for all the hours I wasted and all the money I spent to watch them lose all those damned games.
And I genuinely hope it's not just a punishment that the coaching staff is giving the players. I often think of how in college football coaches will assign players that have been benched to actively monitor the play on the field by wearing headsets or holding clipboards so they can get a better perspective on the game and see how they can improve. I'm hoping that the players O'Connor benched due to peformance issues are being sat in front of plenty of video tape to educate them on the correct way to discharge their position, and that they are being actively coached on the bench while watching the position being played properly in a live match. Many talented athletes can perform amazing feats but have a hard time explaining how they do it, and a good coach can help to guide a struggling player's focus back to the details that are failing him and causing his game performance to suffer.
Takeaways and Looking Ahead
For the Pride, the win means that the team is still on track to make the playoffs, and still has a strong opportunity to earn the second-place standing on the table, which would mean they will host the semifinal match at Orlando City Stadium.
For the Lions, the win is simply a halt to the skid. With all the respect due to Toronto, they have struggled as much as Orlando City this season in MLS play, and they are just a bad team. I am encouraged by the fact that we looked sharp and played well against a bad team--it wasn't so long ago that we looked utterly pathetic for two league matches in a row against Montreal, who was barely above dead last in the league. But playing well against a bad team does not mean all the problems are fixed.
It appears that Orlando City is going in the right direction, and I'm more confident that James O'Connor will be able to help these players remember that they have talent and string together a strong finish to the season. I'll reserve judgement on whether I think the team will be able to make a playoff run until I see how this trend continues. For now, I'll just enjoy the sunshine a little more today and try not to put myself on crutches from dancing too much.