Five regular-season games remain in the Orlando Pride’s inaugural season in the National Women’s Soccer League. That’s it. Fortunately for Orlando, the goal of reaching the playoffs is not completely out of reach. Currently, the Pride sit at No. 7 in the NWSL, and they need to be at least No. 4 for an inaugural playoff berth.
But that journey begins with a meeting with the No. 1 Washington Spirit on Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Camping World Stadium.
|3.||Western New York Flash||26||15||8||5||2||29||18||11|
|4.||Chicago Red Stars||25||15||17||4||4||14||13||1|
|5.||Sky Blue FC||22||15||6||5||4||18||20||-2|
|6.||Seattle Reign FC||20||15||5||5||5||18||14||4|
|8.||FC Kansas City||16||15||4||7||4||11||14||-3|
Throughout the 2016 season, the Spirit have solidified themselves as the most dominant, all-around team in the league, entering this week of play as the only team with double-digit wins (10).
Their offense, which is led by forward Estefanía Banini and her five goals, has helped them score the second-most goals in the NWSL so far with 24. Though, she is out for the next four to six weeks following knee surgery on Wednesday, according to a report by ExcelleSports.com’s Adele Jackson-Gibson. Banini isn’t the only one scoring goals, though. Joanna Lohman and Diana Matheson have each tallied four goals of their own while Katie Stengel has also scored three times.
As for their defense, they are tied with the Chicago Red Stars for the second-fewest goals allowed (13), second only to the No. 2 Portland Thorns (12). Both their offense and defense combined tie the Spirit with the No. 3 Western New York Flash in goal differential (11).
Pride head coach Tom Sermanni is confident his team will perform well against the Spirit.
“It’s like every game in this league. There hasn’t been any easy game for us this year, and this is going to be another tough game,” Sermanni said after training Thursday. “But I think when you look at our performances, perhaps with the exception of Seattle away, our performances against the teams at the top of the league have been very good, in particular here at home.”
Entering Friday’s match, though, the Pride will have a little extra firepower that’s been missing from the team for the past four matches, as teammates that played in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro have returned.
From the United States women’s national team, starting forward Alex Morgan and starting goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris are fit and ready to play. Brazilian Monica Hickmann Alves attended her first day of training with the Pride on Thursday since the Olympics concluded. Sermanni said she will likely not start but should be available to play.
As for Australian defenders Steph Catley and Laura Alleway, they have sustained injuries that will sideline the former for the rest of the season and the latter for at least Friday’s match against Washington. Catley, who played every minute in every game she played, will be missed by teammates on both sides of the ball.
“Steph being out is a huge blow…to our team,” Harris said. “I’m a huge fan of hers… But, you know, I can’t wish or hope. I got to put someone else in there and catch them up to speed, and she’s got to fill the role from the sidelines and be a leader.”
Said Morgan on losing Catley: “For me, she’s one of the best left-backs in the world without question. So, that’s really a huge blow. But we have players to come in and step up, even players that might not have played in the left-back position, and we have players that are switching from the right side to left side all the time.”
Canadian bronze medalist Josée Bélanger is still in Canada.
But the players returning to club play find the team worse off than when they had left it. Before the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, Orlando was 5-6-0 with 15 points. When the Olympic players left for their respective national teams, the Pride subsequently lost three of their next four matches, finishing the run 6-9-0 with 18 points.
For the Pride, though, there’s no time to dwell on injuries or what could have been in that four-game stretch. The team’s leaders know that, now, every game is a must-win.
“Every game is important. Every game is a push,” Harris said. “I think we do have pressure on ourselves now, at this point. When we left, we were in a good spot, and, unfortunately, we have to play catch-up [now].
“But we’re going to rise to the challenge, and we know what we need to do, and that’s get results and get points. And the good thing is we’re back home.”