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The Lowdown: It’s May Day in Orlando

It’s May Day, which you can define in a number of ways: from a day of celebration to a distress signal for boats and airplanes. Both might apply to the Orlando Pride.

Marta and several other quality international players returning are cause for celebration, but for the second year in a row the club has dug itself an early hole worthy of a distress signal. To top it off, the turn of the calendar into May shows Tom Sermanni’s side about to embark on a challenging stretch of matches. When the month is over, we should have a very good sense as to whether the Pride will be contenders or pretenders.

Here is how May looks for the Pride: Wednesday is a midweek trip to Chicago. Orlando then get the weekend off before going to Utah next Wednesday, then straight to Providence Park — where they have never won or drawn — for a Lifetime match kicking off at 12:50 p.m. local time in Portland. Ten days off follow and May ends with a Wednesday, May 23 home match against the Courage and then another visit to Chicago three days later.

“That’s what this league is about,” Ali Krieger said. “You have to beat the best to be the best.”

That comment casts what could be a troubling tone for the Pride. After a 1-3-3 start to 2017, Marta and Alex Morgan went on a tear and the Pride went 10-3-4 the rest of the way to finish third and reach the playoffs for the first time. But a deeper dive shows they went 2-4-2 for the season against the other playoff teams, with two wins over North Carolina. One was the Pride’s early victory when the Courage were banged up and the other was the final day of the season when the Courage were locked into their top seed.

PODCAST: Breaking down Sam Kerr’s Red Stars debut and the rest of NWSL Week 5

They all count, but the Pride are going to need to be better against the best if they are to emulate last summer’s climb up the table. It was Memorial Day last year when Orlando woke up 1-3-3. They were six points outside the top four and had to pass four teams. Today, at 1-2-2, they are two points off the pace with two teams to pass. On the flipside, fewer teams means deeper teams that will be more difficult to beat, and it also means a slightly greater likelihood that teams you’re chasing will play each other on a given week.

“We have to start getting up on the table, otherwise those first teams are going to be a little too far,” Krieger said. “And we can’t let that happen. I really think we need to start getting these points and especially with our home games we need to be getting points.”

Ali Krieger (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

It is indisputable that the recently returned Marta, Alanna Kennedy, Monica, and Emily van Egmond make the Pride better. It is fair to ask, as Claire Watkins did last week, if that level of better will be good enough. One glaring deficiency looks to be left back. The Pride acquired Carson Pickett in the offseason, but she has struggled early this season. Two games ago against the Dash, Sermanni ran a 3-4-3 with Pickett playing a more advanced role. Against the Reign last weekend, the Pride went back to a four-back but with Toni Pressley wide to the left, Monica in central defense, and Pickett on the bench.

Last year, the Pride had Steph Catley at left back but they sent her to Seattle for Pickett, Christine Nairn, and Haley Kopmeyer. Shipping away Catley was always going to lead to a downgrade, one which could wind up being too dramatic to overcome. Chioma Ubogagu played some time at left back in 2017 and has been excellent this season. She may also be squeezed out of minutes in the numbers game up top, so perhaps she’ll get another run on the left side of the defense. (Another part of that trade, Nairn, could also find herself as a bench player sooner than later.)

One thing is for sure: The Pride need to be better against the league’s top teams and it needs to happen soon. If it doesn’t, then having four out of five games in May against the Courage-Red Stars-Thorns trio — all currently in the top four — could leave too much of a hole to dig out of.

“We always play to win. We don’t play to tie or lose. That’s our mentality right now,” Krieger said.

The Court and the big collision

By most accounts, it was a rather dull weekend of NWSL, but two extracurricular activities served to spice up the conversation around the league.

The first one emanated from Utah where the Royals hosted the Thorns for the first time. Prior to the match, the Twitter account for The Court — the official supporters group of the Royals — released a statement that more or less suggested away fans were not welcome at Royals matches. And if they did show up, they could expect more hostility than hospitality.

The statement was met with nearly unanimous backlash, including from the Royals front office, and was eventually deleted. The Court later explained that it came from rogue members who were not authorized to speak for the group and that those members have been removed. Social media interactions between The Court and members of Thorns group The Riveters were all hearts and flowers by the end of the weekend.

When the dust settles, which it mostly has, this is likely to be remembered as an unfortunate blip for a group that has not been in existence long enough to have much positive reputation in the bank. The swift reaction and rectification of the incident backs that point of view. It is also why I will not copy or display any specific part of the statement here. Besides, if you’re reading this you have probably seen it or know how to find it.

I have long been a proponent of more rivalries, and more villains, within NWSL. Sometimes the “aw shucks” mentality is far too pervasive and it stifles good discussions that fuel awareness and support for the league. Supporters groups should be trying to outdo each other off the pitch and on social media, and to be shouting each other down during matches. Some of that could even lead to the occasional interpersonal tension. But at the end of the day, we’re all just soccer fans (not to mention people) trying to enjoy what is, at its core, a game.

***

The other Saturday incident came in Orlando where a postgame highlight montage on the live stream showed what looked like Ashlyn Harris clothes-lining Jodie Taylor as the Reign forward ran at her, presumably just after play was blown dead. This sequence was not on the running broadcast of the game, and no one seems to have been able to find when it happened. The NWSL Disciplinary Committee reviewed the incident and elected not to suspend Harris, instead ruling that the play should have been a penalty kick and yellow card.

Let’s be honest: The clip doesn’t look good. Harris steps partially out of the way and at the same time brings her hands up and appears to toss Taylor to the ground. The most common reaction was that it should have been a red card. But the video offers no extra context. How much time did they have between the whistle and collision? Was Harris using Taylor as a prop to avoid going flying and as a result, Taylor wound up on the ground? Whether the league had additional video in making its ruling, but based on what we have seen, I would not have suspended Harris either.

Meanwhile, the reactions to this clip have been the polar opposite of the Court statement. Harris has one of the most rabid fan bases in women’s soccer and most seem to have lined up in support of her. At the very least, they have referenced old transgressions of other players that were either not reviewed or had reviews that did not result in any discipline. That is, of course, not the point.

We’ll see what happens, but if you take the names off the jerseys and watch it as two nameless, faceless players, can you really not think the goalkeeper got a bit carried away?

NWSL Attendance Watch

2018 NWSL Attendance Chart

Games
AVG 2017 2016 2015 2014
2013
+/-
2017
+/-
all-time
Thorns 2 15,476 17,653 16,945 15,639 13,362 13,320 -12.3% +7.1%
Royals 2 13,825
Red Stars 3 6,139 3,198 3,005 4,210 2,949 1,711 +92.0% +94.3%
Pride 3 5,988 6,186 8,785 -3.2% -16.9%
Dash 3 4,290 4,578 5,696 6,413 4,650 -6.2% -17.6%
Spirit 3 3,965 3,490 4,188 4,087 3,335 3,625 +13.6% +6.3%
Courage 4 3,814 4,389 -13.1% -10.1%
Reign 1 3,561 4,037 4,599 4,060 3,666 2,306 -11.8% -4.0%
Sky Blue 1 1,913 2,613 2,162 2,189 1,656 1,666 -26.8% -0.7%
TOTALS 22 6,385 5,083 5,589 5,046 4,139 4,271 +25.6% +30.3%

Free Kicks

— The Royals attendance of 8,446 is an incredible number for a second game. It’s easy(ish) to sell your inaugural game ever with a three-month run up. Everything after that is different. Now they have three more home games in a row including a Saturday-Wednesday stretch next week against the Spirit and Pride. The good news is the Pride are probably the best road draw in NWSL.

— Sofia Huerta’s appearance for the Red Stars on Saturday was her 50th consecutive regular season appearance. They have not all been starts and it is not the Red Stars record. That belongs to Vanessa DiBernardo who went 62 straight without missing between August 2, 2014 and August 16, 2017.

— Jaelene Hinkle is quietly having a fabulous start to the season and has been without peer at left back so far (Stephanie Catley has played but one match for the Reign.)

— Sabrina D’Angelo has won her last six decisions dating back to last September when she stepped in for a match and won to clinch the Shield for the Courage. The NWSL record is seven straight wins by Hope Solo in 2014. Nicole Barnhart also won six straight later that year.

— Two players who appear to have slipped on the depth chart – Carson Pickett and Lauren Barnes

— The Spirit have two straight 1-1 draws and they could not have been more different. In Portland they dominated the league champs early and then held on late. At home against the Red Stars they got a goal out of an early surge and were dull most of the way after that.

— It’s great to see Amy Rodriguez get back on the score sheet. We have overstated the notion that the Royals desperately need her to score a lot, but for a player returning from a torn ACL and pregnancy, I’m sure nothing short of getting one was going to make her feel fully back.

— The Courage win over the Dash on the weekend was a bit unsettling because it looked like the Courage were toying with a club that has not scored since the first half of opening day and does not look to have many solutions at hand. Meanwhile, the Courage were on cruise control when they brought Sam Mewis and Debinha off the bench together.

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