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The Lowdown: Taking in Orlando’s soccer culture

(Photo: Orlando Pride)

Orlando Pride coach Tom Sermanni called goal scorer Lianne Sanderson the team’s “most gifted player and skillful player.” (Photo: Orlando Pride)

Saturday afternoon, I set sail from my hotel for the mile and a half walk to the Citrus Bowl. As I made the walk with my pal Jen Cooper from keepernotes.com on a pleasant Orlando afternoon we passed the time doing what soccer writers normally do—thoroughly analyzing the highs and lows of our time spent in the sport and reassuring each other that our ideas were the ones that would indeed carry the women’s game into the next realm.

And then we crossed the final main road before reaching the parking lots. A few cars stood idle, backed up onto the street, but being from New York and Houston, this was not a sight that really phased us. And that’s when Jen noticed that every car had an Orlando City magnet on the back. And many of them had Orlando Pride magnets to go with them. Yup, it was still almost three hours until kickoff, and these cars were lined up outside still closed lots to tailgate ahead of the Pride’s first ever home game.

Peering ahead it was obvious that some of the lots—the ones accessible by parking pass—were already open. Open and rapidly filling up with tailgaters.

“To get here and to get here and to see the amount of people out in the parking lot was overwhelming,” said Pride defender Laura Alleway, who arrived around 6 p.m. for the 7:30 p.m. kickoff.

What jumped out to me was how many of the groups were mostly adults, and how many people wore purple. A good bit of it was Orlando City based, but there were also a fair number of Pride shirts—no doubt many more were purchased throughout the evening—as well as a few cases where people just decided to wear purple to fit in.

“Orlando is a city that was striving and looking for an identity and we came along at the right time to be a part of that and to help give the city an identity,” Pride founder and president Phil Rawlins said, referencing both the Pride and their MLS foil, Orlando City SC. “We’re a big piece if it, but the community is really the story. We have a group of fans that is really special.”

The Pride sold out the lower bowl and opened up the middle level for their home opener.

The Pride sold out the lower bowl and opened up the middle level for their home opener. (Photo: Dan Lauletta)

About an hour after arriving at the game as I wandered through the tailgating scenes and chatted up a few new Pride fans, my phone alerted me to the email from the club announcing they had sold the record-breaking ticket and would set a new single-game standard for NWSL attendance. The final number of 23,403 set the record out of reach for any other club’s current venue.

“I think this for me is more fun and more exciting for me,” Rawlins said when asked to compare 23,000 Pride fans to 62,510 that attended the Orlando City opener in 2015. “I just feel so good for the women in that locker room. You can tell from the looks on their faces how important this is to them and how much they’re going to enjoy it. I’m going to enjoy their enjoyment.”

Alex Morgan played the last three seasons for the Portland Thorns, attendance queens of NWSL and holders of the single-game record from the night they debuted until last weekend. She was traded to Orlando, her request in order to be close to her husband, Orlando City midfielder Servando Carrasco.

“Initially it was a bit disappointing not to have our first game be a home game,” Morgan said after netting her first Pride goal in the home opener. “Obviously seeing the numbers of the crowd continuing to grow and grow, we became more anxious to get on the field and show what we have to offer to this city.”
***
Morgan’s goal was part of a three-goal flurry that began in the opening minute of the second half and included both an own goal and a free kick that Lianne Sanderson took before anyone else—from either team—was prepared. The 3-1 win was the Pride’s first and they showed that along with filling the stands they can play a little bit of soccer too.

Tom Sermanni’s side appears to be strong at the back, which might sound a bit counterintuitive after Ashlyn Harris was forced into several top-shelf saves on the night. But the group as a whole is performing well especially considering center back Monica barely speaks English and the Australian duo of Alleway and Steph Catley only arrived about halfway into training camp—just as Josee Belanger was heading out for a friendly with Canada.

“I’ve been delighted with our back line in the last two games,” Sermanni said. “We’ve kept the line tight where anytime the opposition forwards have made runs too early we’ve stepped them up and played them offside. They’ve kept in good contact with each other. We’ve gotten great attacking from our fullbacks.”

[MORE: Three things learned from Pride’s historic opener]

Those attacking fullbacks, Catley and Belanger, get forward as a tandem as well as any pair of outside backs in NWSL. Yet with that skill comes some responsibility, as they often have to keep in touch to avoid both getting trapped on a counter coming the other way.

“It is a little bit of a balance,” Catley said. “It is about communication coming from people that are next to us. I can’t always see what’s happening on her side and she can’t always see what’s happening on my side. It’s more if the play is down my side she’s tucking in and if the play is down her side I’m tucking in. Just a constant balance and being aware of what is happening in the game. But we are both attacking players so sometimes we just need an extra midfielder to be covering for us.”

Catley said the backline—with all four players plus Harris potentially heading to the Olympics—is the most experienced line on the Pride and that the language barrier has not been too much of an issue.

“I couldn’t really ask for more from the girls,” Alleway concurred. “We finally glued. Kind of last minute, but we glued.”

On the other end, Morgan is a proven goal scorer and Jasmyne Spencer has been everywhere over two games. But the attack seems to come together once Lianne Sanderson checks in. Heady free kick goal aside, Sanderson, who is still working back to being 90 minutes fit, has had a positive impression on the Pride midfield off the bench in both of their matches.

“She’s a special player,” Becky Edwards said. “She brings something different to the game that not many players do. Just her creativity and her cleverness. She’s a footballer.”

Sanderson is not just a footballer, according to Sermanni, who called Sanderson the team’s best “pure” footballer. “Our most gifted player and skillful player. She can make an impact in a game. The key for us at the moment is bringing her on at a time where we have those opportunities to do the stuff that she does very well. Tonight was a great example of her coming on and making a huge difference to us for that first 30 minutes of the second half. That’s what she can do. When she’s on the field we become a much more creative forward line.”
***
At the end of the night the Pride were 1-1-0 for 3 points, good for a six-way tie for 3rd place in NWSL after Week 2. The first match is out of the way as is the first home match. Now comes the real work of building the team into one that can compete each week. They’ll try to work Sanderson into playing more minutes and look to see who will play at the back when Australia, Brazil, and Canada respectively call away each of their current starters.

[CURREN: NWSL Week in Review]

As far as attendance goes, the 23,403 record might stay for a while, but the expectation is attendance will be well into five figures every time the Pride line up at the Citrus Bowl.

“We’re pretty accurate with our gut feelings and projections around the office and knowing where we’re going to be,” Rawlins said. “The general vibe around the office is we don’t think this is going to drop off very much. There will be a dropoff obviously because it’s an inaugural game. But I don’t think we’re going to drop off to eight or nine thousand. I think we’re going to be in the teens every game.”

Having a season ticket base in excess of 5,000 strong is a good start to drawing about three times that on an average match night. And certainly some of the 18,000 or so non-season ticket holders on hand Saturday night have decided to take the plunge.

“We’re not season ticket holders,” local resident Gordon Human told me during his pregame tailgate. “We’re thinking about it though.”

When my night was over I slipped out of the stadium through the same gate the players leave. No one paid much attention to me as I left, a fact only notable because there were probably about a thousand people behind railings waiting for players to come out.

“That’s the overriding pleasure for me,” Rawlins said about his soccer teams serving to unite the Orlando community. “When you bring people together and bring them meaning and purpose and they feel good about their community and where they live, that’s better than any goal really.”

Tough weekend for knees

(photo copyright Linehan Photography for The Equalizer)

Jessica Fishlock sustained an injury in Seattle’s 3-0 win over Boston on Sunday. (Photo copyright Linehan Photography for The Equalizer)

Carli Lloyd’s sprained MCL made national headlines but it was just one of a bunch of injuries that dotted the landscape on Week 2. Kat Williamson went down with a non-contact knee injury and Jess Fishlock had to come off after having her lower leg rolled on by McCall Zerboni. In Portland a collision between Michelle Betos and Meghan Klingenberg, with a little help from Kansas City’s Caroline Kastor, left both on the ground for several minutes. The Thorns were out of sub cards at the time and both players were able to see out the final few minutes.

Lloyd’s MCL sprain was the only solid injury news to emerge on Monday. The Dash announced the Grade I strain and estimated rehab will take three to six weeks. It begins Tuesday.

“The timing is not great but I’m confident that I will come back in peak condition,” Lloyd said as part of a statement released by the club. “Rehab starts (Tuesday) and you’ll see me on the field soon.”

A six-week recovery would get Lloyd back to match action in early June. That is not great news for the Dash, who lost Saurday’s game in Orlando, 3-1. It is good news though, relatively speaking, for the United States who begin their quest for a fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal on August 3.

Lloyd joins Megan Rapinoe and Christie Rampone as players from the World Cup winning side who have been injured since. Rapinoe tore her ACL late last year and is up against the clock to make it to Rio. Rampone looks good for Sky Blue following minor knee surgery. U.S. coach Jill Ellis said she intends to bring Rampone into next month’s camp but said she told the erstwhile captain that as of now she is pleased with the center back rotation of Becky Sauerbrunn, Julie Johnston, and Emily Sonnett.

Another injured NWSL/national team player is Jaelene Hinkle who missed the Flash’s match in Chicago with a fractured toe. A week earlier she had to come out early after being taken out from behind by Heather O’Reilly. The Flash say the injury occurred at home and was not the result of that poor challenge by O’Reilly. The toe is broken nonetheless.

The waiting game continues on Williamson and Fishlock.

Attendance

Here are the attendance figures for Week 1. Once all 10 teams have played at home we will begin comparisons to previous seasons.

SATURDAY
Chicago Red Stars – 2,529
Orlando Pride – 23,403 (NWSL single match record)
FC Kansas City – 3,022

SUNDAY
Sky Blue FC – 2,571
Boston Breakers – 3,743

WEEK 2 TOTAL: 35,268
WEEK 2 AVERAGE: 7,054

SEASON AVERAGE: 7,437

Free Kicks

Direct

-The top three iron-woman streaks in NWSL continued on the weekend. Jen Buczkowski has still never missed a start for FC Kansas City. Her streak is at 68 straight. Jess McDonald is next at 46 followed by Christine Nairn on 41. All figures are regular season only.

-Steph Catley assisted on Alex Morgan’s goal Saturday night making her the first player to have the first goal and the first assist for the same franchise. She scored unassisted on a free kick a week earlier in Portland for the first goal ever scored by the Pride.

-Ella Masar, now playing in Sweden, holds an entirely different distinction. She has the first goal ever for the Houston Dash and the first assist ever—to Lori Chalupny—for the (NWSL) Chicago Red Stars.

-Ashlyn Harris on Laura Alleway: “They call me the brickhouse but she’s a freaking brickhouse.”

Indirect

-Traveling to two games in two days with a 1,000 mile commute was a blast. Unfortunately it did not leave me enough time to watch any of the other three games with enough interest to feel right about casting a Player of the Week ballot. I have taken this approach in the past though not very often and as of now do not anticipate missing any other weeks this season.

Of the players I saw, Ashlyn Harris and Steph Catley stood out for the Pride. Catley had a strong, two-way match and Harris made several tremendous saves for the Pride. None was more important than the one against Janine Beckie after she stole the ball from Laura Alleway and got in on a breakaway with the score still 0-0. “It was awful,” Alleway said of her feeling attempted to recover and chase Beckie back to goal.

-One rookie I am bullish on is Raquel Rodriguez. She is proving an ability to handle herself in tight spaces and is also doing some fine defending for a rookie player.

-One first-year player I am already worried about is Katie Stengel. Composed on the ball, she has yet to find a sweet touch or much chemistry with her fellow Washington Spirit strikers.

– I really wish someone had made it public by now that United States national team players are slated to miss the Memorial Day weekend matches to go to camp ahead of the two friendlies with Japan the following weekend.

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