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Orlando Pride fired up by sub-par play early in opener, vow to bounce back at North Carolina

Orlando Pride goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris said her team needs to execute better than the team did during the season-opening loss to the Portland Thorns. (Jeremy Reper/ISI Photos)

ORLANDO, Fla. — 

Nobody expected the Orlando Pride to become fluent in Marc Skinner’s new system in a matter of weeks. At the same time, no one would blame Skinner for wondering if they hadn’t reverted back to Square 1 at times Sunday.

The fluidity that had shown promise in the Pride’s final two preseason games took a step back on Opening Day, falling 2-0 to the Portland Thorns.

Results matter, but more frustrating to Skinner was how the Pride got there.

“You have to be brave to be a footballer, playing for me in the way we want to play,” Skinner said. “We were not brave enough first half. Now don’t take that as the team are not brave. They were not brave enough first half and that’s what needs to change.”

The Pride simply could not keep Portland from sustaining an assault in the attacking third, resulting in 15 shots — seven on frame — before halftime. Goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris was kept busy from the fourth minute, when she went high to tip Christine Sinclair’s shot over the bar.

Harris wound up with four saves in the half, six by night’s end, and was no less frustrated than Skinner at the mistakes.

“There’s tactics and there’s plans and there’s strategies,” she said, “but when we’re out there it’s who’s willing to do the little things right. The small details. The plans don’t always work out the way we train, but it’s how hard you’re willing to work. I feel we lacked that a little bit.”

A few missing pieces may have contributed to the malaise, as Australian internationals Alanna Kennedy and Emily van Egmond were both felled by a virus and Camila started on the bench with knee pain.

Defender Joanna Boyles made her NWSL debut, while Bridget Callahan and Rachel Hill slotted in at midfield.

Changes aside, though, the Pride showed little of the movement that propelled them to preseason wins over USF and Puerto Rico Sol FC by a combined 9-0.

The jump in opponent quality was inevitable. The Thorns — last year’s NWSL runners-up after winning the title in 2017 — aggressively disrupted any flow to Orlando’s passing, while Sinclair and goal scorers Caitlin Foord and Tobin Heath constantly worked their way into space.

“We need to do a better job of defending all around,” said defender Carson Pickett. “We can’t give their backs enough time to find a forward who’s going to get a shot off. We need to be tighter on their forwards.”

The Pride often looked a step behind, leading Skinner to unload on his team at intermission.

“We got our [expletive] chewed out. It just has to be better,” Harris said. “We have incredible talent; we have all the tools. We have an incredible coach that is putting everything on the line, giving us all the tools we have been begging for. It’s now about executing.”

Skinner said: “We were better in the second half, we were. But it took some words at halftime.”

The Englishman, hired in mid-January away from England’s Birmingham City, has brought a renewed emphasis on details — things such as body positioning and passing the ball to where a teammate can run onto it in stride.

“Detail” might very well be the most common word in Skinner’s soccer vocabulary.

That said, he admits he’s had to work hard emphasizing detail with players who aren’t seeing action at the international level.

“Detail beats any physicality,” he said. “The simplest rule in the game is the ball moves quicker than any individual on that field. We need to move the ball with correct detail – correct body position and so forth, which my players have just not been coached.

“It will happen, trust me. We’ve been working at it hard, but it takes a little more time than maybe three or four weeks.”

The Pride only have two days, though, before taking the field in a midweek road game at the reigning NWSL champion North Carolina Courage.

“What better way to bounce back,” Harris suggested. “When I feel the way I feel right now, to wait a week to play a game is really difficult. So to be able to let it out in two days — that’s good for us.”

The road trip then continues all the way to Washington, where they’ll visit Reign FC next Sunday. Reign was third in the league a year ago.

“We’re going to turn this place into a fortress in the future,” Skinner said. “I’m learning faster and faster about what our players do and don’t know already. For me, it’s not personal. It’s about understanding.”

Said Harris: “I think we can only go up from here. We were missing some pieces and credit to those who stepped in at the last minute. But yeah, we have to get better. And it will get better.”

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