ORLANDO, Fla. — For 94 minutes on Wednesday night, the Orlando Pride defense was poised to earn its second shutout of the season.
Despite a one-player advantage, the Pride couldn’t crack the Red Stars’ defense, fumbling their few chances in front of goal. The Orlando backline, however, dampened the typical threat of Sam Kerr, forcing her into mistimed runs and minimizing her ability to tuck in behind the defense.
But the shutout and effort to earn a point fell apart with a simple mistake during the final seconds of play. The breakdown began with a dispossession at the midfield, but it could have been stopped by a quick foul by rookie Erin Greening outside of the box. Instead, Greening swung wide, leaving the middle of the box open.
Kerr sent a cross to Casey Short, who had enough space to score the game-winner.
It was a split-second decision and one that dissolved 94 minutes of defending that Pride coach Marc Skinner and his team had lauded.
“You can’t coach that,” Skinner said. “You can’t teach that in training. You’ve got to let her learn from that and that’s what this season has been about.”
Ahead of the match, Pride captain and starting goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris said she feels the team’s youth has been one of its biggest hurdles throughout the season. Due to injuries and the World Cup, the team has deployed 10 different versions of the starting backline alone throughout this season.
The lineups often resulted in situations like Wednesday, when rookies and less experienced players had to take on international stars such as Kerr and Julie Ertz. Harris said the team has floundered without being able to field players with consistent experience in each position group.
“Right now, we’re just soft,” Harris said. “We’re pretty soft as a club. We’re getting bullied and pushed over on the field.”
Harris pointed to the loss of Toni Pressley as one of the key challenges of this season. While she does not have the same high profile as Marta or Alex Morgan, Pressley is a veteran of the league who brought a calm experience to the backline. Her breast cancer diagnosis completely flipped a defense that had just seen the return of its two World Cup stars, forcing Krieger to move to centerback and pulling Kristen Edmonds back to defense.
“You’ve got players who don’t know what it really takes, and they’re the leaders of the team right now. They’re being forced into roles they’re not really ready for,” Harris said. “They’ve kind of just been thrown into the fire at an early stage in their career, but they’re handling it the best they can.”
Skinner said Harris’ presence has been monumental for the team, both in goal and as the team captain. Against the Red Stars, Harris made six saves, at one point punching a shot off the crossbar, crashing to the ground and then leaping from a prone position to bat away two rebounding shots before falling on top of the ball.
The keeper recorded her 200th save for the Pride against Chicago, continuing to cement her role as the defensive cornerstone of the club. Losses like Wednesday night, however, can be a challenge.
“This is a tough season for her,” Skinner said. “She’s a winner. We have winners within our group, we just need everybody else to push that standard. To run harder, to work harder, to be better, with no excuses. I will make sure we have a team of no excuses so when we progress together we are focused.”
Pride players and coaches have made it clear the focus for the final games of the season have shifted toward the future. Harris and her teammates, however, are still intent on fighting to win the final games of the season.
Harris said that means using losses to continue to build the team’s mental toughness.
“For us right now, we’re not gonna have this dramatic change,” Harris said. “That’s nearly impossible. We’re just trying to make little gains and trying to build this culture that we envision there can be here. We’re just not there yet.”