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Lauletta: Battle of Unbeatens lives up to the hype

Barbra Banda celebrates a victory against Kansas City with her Orlando teammates. Her back is to the camera and her arms are up in the air.
Photo Copyright: Nick Tre. Smith for USA TODAY Sports

All throughout Saturday night’s titanic, battle-of-unbeatens class at CPKC Stadium, the feeling in the air was similar to that of a final. The building was rocking, the soccer was cagey at first, chippy throughout, and wildly entertaining to the finish. When the match was over and the Orlando Pride had earned a 2-1 victory during which they grabbed the tiebreaking goal while playing with 10, players stormed off the bench to celebrate. They had just won arguably the most anticipated regular season match in National Women’s Soccer League history yet the reaction added to the narrative that there had been a finals vibe.

“It wasn’t something that obviously we were happy with but it’s something we will definitely remember,” Current coach Vlatko Andonovski said about the Pride’s ebullient reaction to the result. “They deserved to celebrate. I thought that was a big win for them, especially a player down. Congratulations.”

Emotions ran high throughout the match, but nearly boiled over early when Marta was shown a 23rd-minute yellow card. Clearly displeased with the decision she dissented to the point of a full-on temper tantrum, at one point miming a yellow card back to center ref Joshua Encarnacion. Several teammates interceded to pull Marta away from the scene but an argument can be made they were too late and a second card should have come out.

“I think emotions are part of the game,” Pride coach Seb Hines said. “When you get yourself that amped up because you want to go out there and press and you want it so badly, the environment and the occasion can get the best of you.”

The Pride did go down to 10 thanks to two dangerous fouls committed by Carrie Lawrence who was shown the door near the end of the first half. It was the third time this season Orlando has been down a player and as evidenced by their record (11-0-5) they have not lost any of the three. In April they held off the Spirit after a late red to Brianna Martinez. On opening night they were down a player and eight minutes from defeat when Summer Yates equalized.

This time they won a penalty kick on the wings of Barbra Banda who won a ball in midfield and created a chance for Adriana. It appeared the ball was already hopelessly out of play when Adrianna Franch took down Adriana, but a penalty was called and converted by Marta—who easily could have been off earlier in the match.

A reporter asked Andonovski about the call adding that it looked soft to him allowing the coach to quip back “Who am I to argue with you?”

“To go down to 10 players so early on in the game and show the character that we have been talking about all season long is just incredible,” Hines said. “To come to this environment, we knew it was going to be a tough game. We had the same amount of points, same amount of wins, same amount of ties and there was nothing between us in this game.”

The expression “this environment” and others that resemble it often get overused. But CPKC Stadium literally rocked and its ninth sellout in as many matches featured 11,500 in full throat from pregame warmups until beyond the final whistle. Not all NWSL crowds over the years have been fully locked into the action, but in this one there were even calls for a card to Pride keeper Anna Moorhouse when it appeared she may have handled the ball outside the box on a few punts in the second half. They crowd later mercilessly counted her down ahead of punts and goal kicks and wanted (probably justly) a time-wasting card in the closing minutes.

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Asked if the match was more the Pride solving the Current or a tight match that bounced Orlando’s way, Current players Izzy Rodriguez and Stine Ballisager both went with the latter while Andonovski said, “It’s not like they tore us apart.”

Banda scored for the Pride and had dangerous moments but was held in relative check by a Current defense that has sometimes shown some cracks. Her goal game when a ball in from Angelina was partially blocked by Elizabeth Ball and squirted free to a space where Banda had the best bead on it.

On the other end, the Pride did a fantastic job keeping Temwa Chawinga from running in behind. Her goal, almost as if personally answering Banda taking the Golden Boot lead, featured her strength to win the ball off Lawrence, her speed to roll through midfield, her skill to turn Emily Sams, and her composure to place her shot perfectly. (Was Moorhouse off balance trying to keep up or was it a keeper blunder that ended her Pride record streak of 337 shutout minutes?)

Banda and Chawinga are both on 12 goals, another subplot to what could be a budding rivalry.

“We want to win the Shield and then win it all,” Orlando’s Kerry Abello said. “We have proved that this is our potential and we plan on going for it.”

The teams will meet again September 13 in Orlando as part of a Prime Video doubleheader. Andonovski is already thinking further down the road. “We have 10 games to go, and we have playoffs ahead of us, and hopefully we meet them in the final.”

Around the league

Thorns 1, Wave 0

Izzy D’Aquila scored late at the end of a beautiful sequence to deliver the Thorns a win and send the Wave into the Olympic break on a nine-match winless streak. The Wave were hardly playing for the draw, and nearly went ahead through teenager Melanie Barcenas but Shelby Hogan’s reaction save kept it out. The winning sequence came after Kailen Sheridan dribbled well out of her box to build an attack. The Wave couldn’t control the ball in midfield though and eventually out caught on a sequence that went Jessie Fleming à Janine Beckie à D’Aquila.

Red Stars 1, Dash 0

Mallory Swanson’s rocket near halftime to lift the Red Stars back to .500. The Dash looked solid for most of the afternoon but rarely created any significant chances to challenge Alyssa Naeher. Swanson’s long-range shot beat Jane Campbell for her seventh goal of the season and extended her goal-scoring streak to four. The Dash were held without a goal for the fifth game in a row since they crushed the Courage 3-0 on May Memorial Day weekend.

Current 1, Pride 2

Covered above but here is the fallout. At 11-0-5, the Pride equaled the 2014 Seattle Reign’s record for most unbeaten games to start a season. And their 17th in a row dating back to last season tied the Current’s record as that streak was snapped. And in what might be a sore spot for national team fans, the loss snapped a personal unbeaten streak of 28 games for Andonovski. His last loss was while coaching the U.S., in a November 2022 friendly to Germany.

Bay 0, Spirit 3

Makenna Morris became the last Spirit rookie to stamp her impact on the season. The No. 13 pick made her first professional start and contributed and earned a penalty inside 20 minutes. She added an assist on Ouleymata Sarr’s second-half goal for the icing on the cake in a dominant Spirit win. Before her one-hour stint at PayPal, Morris had seen 52 minutes in two matches, split by an injury absence. She scored early as the beneficiary of a Croix Bethune free kick that Bay could not clear. She then drew a penalty on a pass from Sarr and assisted Sarr a few minutes before being subbed out. Trinity Rodman converted the penalty.

“To score a first pro goal was such an amazing feeling,” Morris said after becoming the first player in club history with the goal/assist/penalty created triangle in the same game. “And to do it with such great teammates, it all comes down to them. I wouldn’t be where I am without them.”

Angel City 1, Gotham 2

Gotham ran circles around Angel City to open up a 2-0 lead at halftime and held on to win safely despite the hosts pulling a goal back on a Claire Emslie penalty. Both Gotham goals were things of beauty. For the opener, Delanie Sheehan won the ball high in midfield and sent it central to Nealy Martin to pull the strings. Martin found Crystal Dunn who quickly went wide to Ella Stevens and then to Rose Lavelle who released her run perfectly to get behind while staying onside. Lavelle was on the second goal too, earning a hockey assist when she capitalized on a turnover and found Stevens on the left side of the 6-yard box. Angel City keeper DiDi Haracic came out to shut down the angle but an alert Stevens found Sheehan streaking down the middle for the tap-in. Angel City are 1-6-3 in their last 10.

Courage 3, Louisville 1

The Courage rallied from 1-0 down at halftime to put three goals on Racing in a dominant second half to snag their third straight win. Ashley Sanchez found the equalizer heading home Meredith Speck’s cross at the end of a magical sequence. Narumi Miura had the first outlet pass but Manaka Matsukubo was instrumental as was Sanchez who one-touched a ball that kept Racing off balance. Matsukubo then scored the winner when a dreadful breakout pass from Katie Lund went right to her and she chipped the Louisville keeper. Olivia Wingate, in her first appearance of the season, side-heeled a Sanchez cross to make it 3-1. Reilyn Turner had Racing ahead going into halftime.

Reign 1, Royals 1

NWSL’s newest coach, Royals interim Jimmy Coenraets, earned a road draw in his first game at the helm. In doing so he kept the league’s most veteran coach, Laura Harvey, from her 100th regular season victory for the 9th straight match. No. 1 overall pick Ally Sentnor put the Royals on top with her first goal since March, an unassisted tally after she picked the pocket of Alana Cook. Veronica Latsko equalized when the ball took a fortuitous bounce that put her behind the Royals’ defense in the 75th minute.

Free kicks

  • This is not going to be the place where the burgeoning, off-the-pitch situation in San Diego is discussed. But a few thoughts. One is that enough different parties have come forward that it is absolutely not nothing. Two is that there have been no specific allegations made and we should be careful about manifesting them. Three is that the statement put out by the Wave was absolute garbage and shows a complete lack of regard for the culture shift NWSL supposedly underwent starting in fall 2021. The league statement and reaction have not been much better. The culture of secrecy and keeping quiet remains. Don’t let the next open report fool you.
  • Sad news from Louisville this weekend.

Carmelina Moscato ran the club in Yanez’ absence.

  • In Houston, Fran Alonso missed his second straight match, and this one feels decidedly more fishy. Circle this situation as one to watch during the break.
  • In Washington, Jonatan Giraldez finally took the reins after finishing his season at Barcelona. That leaves Adrian Gonzalez as his top assistant after he led the Spirit to a 10-4-1 start as interim. Does that make Gonzalez the top candidate for job openings in San Diego, Utah, Portland, and possibly Houston? Is Casey Stoney also a top candidate for those jobs other than San Diego?
  • A telling visual was Kristen McNabb putting her hands on her knees in despair even before the Thorns finished their goal that handed the Wave another loss.
  • The Royals have signed Japanese striker Mina Takaka who will join the club after the Olympics. The Royals’ eight goals in 16 matches is worst in the league and on pace to set the type of record you never want to be associated with.
  • Streaks alive:  Sam Staab (106 consecutive starts) and Kaleigh Kurtz (6,982 consecutive minutes)
  • The Courage win over Louisville after trailing at halftime is the first time in a regular season match the team has done that since moving to North Carolina in 2017.
  • Depending on where you were consuming NWSL over the weekend, you may or may not think the league is going totally dark for the next month and a half. It isn’t. The first summer tournament with select Mexican clubs begins July 19 and will be available on the CBS platforms. Since the league website makes it a senior thesis to find the schedule, I took the liberty of including it here.

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