Orlando Pride coach Tom Sermanni said it for weeks: His club is talented enough to win without its international stars.
Still, week after week, the wins didn’t come. Against the Houston Dash on Sunday in Orlando City Stadium, during the Pride’s final match before the final group of international stars are available for selection again, the club had one last chance to prove its coach right.
The Pride still have issues. The passing in the final third must be sharper. Chemistry must improve in the middle third.
But for now, thanks to Christine Nairn and Chioma Ubogagu, the Pride (1-2-1, 4 points) can at least enjoy their first win of the season.
After 64 minutes of futility against the winless Dash (0-2-2, 2 points), Ubgoagu headed home a free kick from Nairn in the 65th minute to break a scoreless draw and give the Pride a 1-0 victory over the Houston Dash in front of a sparse announced crowd of 3,890.
“It was so, so crucial that we did it,” Ubogagu said. “It’s one thing saying we can do this and we can do that, but we came out here today in the heat and grinded out three points. It’s massive. It shows the depth of the team and it shows that whenever they’re leaving on an international break, we can take care of business.”
Goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, the club’s captain and a vocal leader even when times are good, said she was particularly hard on players during training this week.
Harris had a diving, one-handed save to keep Houston’s lone shot on target from finding the back of the net.
“Here’s the problem when you have really good international players: You tend to rely on them,” Harris said. “We have really good league players. I’m not scared to say this. At halftime, I went up to [midfielder] Kristen Edmonds and I said, ‘You are one hell of a player. … You are good enough to be here.’
“We need players like her to feel like huge key players on this team because she is. I can’t make her believe that. She has to believe that. For me, it’s that self-belief.”
Harris said she wants to see her teammates believe in themselves when they’re out on the pitch.
“Tom can’t bring that out in someone,” she said. “I can’t bring that out. They have to bring it out of themselves. These players are unbelievable, but they have to freaking dig and find it. Right now, it’s like we flirt with it. It’s like in moments. It needs to be all the time. It needs to start with training. It needs to carry over to games.”
Nairn and Ubogagu linked up last week for a goal during the Pride’s 2-1 loss to the Portland Thorns. The Pride have just three goals through four matches this season, and two have come from the Ubgoagu-Nairn connection.
The third goal was scored by Marta from the penalty spot in the season opener.
The Pride had trouble connecting in the final third again Sunday against the Dash, especially in the first half. After Ubogagu’s goal, the Pride generated a couple more chances and better dictated the tempo of the match.
“I was really, really pleased with our response in the second half,” Sermanni said. “I thought we upped the tempo a bit.”
Ubgoagu’s goal came after forward Rachel Hill entered the match for Carson Pickett and the Pride’s formation changed. The Pride started in a 3-4-3, but when Hill came on, the shape looked more like a 4-4-2 with Edmonds at right back and Ubogagu and Hill as midfielders.
“In the first half, there was a little bit of frustration,” Sermanni said. “We talked about that at halftime and I think the response I got from the players in the second half was first class.”
Sunday’s match was the Pride’s last one with five international players missing. Club officials said Australians Alanna Kennedy and Emily van Egmond and the Brazilian trio of Marta, Poliana and Mônica should all be available for selection for next weekend’s home match against the Seattle Reign.
Forward Sydney Leroux and son Cassius lead a group of Orlando Pride players dressed in 90s gear into Orlando City stadium ahead of their NWSL match against the Houston Dash. (Jordan Culver/Pro Soccer USA)