When all else fails, rely on the legend.
Brazilian superstar Marta provided a critical spark off the bench for the Orlando Pride and set up the match-winning sequence during Orlando’s 3-2 victory over Sky Blue FC Saturday night in front of an announced crowd of 4,445 at Orlando City Stadium.
She easily blew by two defenders and found forward Alex Morgan near the left side of the penalty area. Morgan sent in a cross for Rachel Hill, who subbed on in the 60th minute and Hill smashed the header home to give the Pride the advantage in the 83rd minute.
“Alex put in a fantastic ball, so I really didn’t have any other option but to get my head on it and it happened to go in the back of the net,” Hill said after the match.
Once Marta stepped on the pitch in the 73rd minute, the Pride’s passing got sharper and the ball moved quicker up the pitch. She came on late because she was dealing with a calf injury during the past few weeks and coach Tom Sermanni said she still isn’t 100 percent.
“She immediately gives the team a boost, but the thing that she does really well is she rarely makes bad decisions,” Sermanni said. “That’s the difference. I think at times throughout the game — and the players, couple have already spoken to me — we just made some really poor decisions or poor execution.
“Marta, as well as adding a spark, she makes good decisions. That gets the flow of our team moving much better and things start to happen and people start to make runs and we start to open up teams. That’s the difference she made tonight.”
Marta’s presence sparked the win, but the Pride, who uncharacteristically gifted the ball to Sky Blue multiple times in the middle of the pitch, wouldn’t have been competitive early on without Sydney Leroux.
On a night when several Orlando Pride players looked rusty after two weeks away from NWSL competition, forward Leroux was in sharp form.
The forward netted her second brace of the season, scoring two goals in the first half and showing poise in front of the net. Her first goal was off a cross from Chioma Ubogagu in the second minute. It was the fastest goal in Orlando Pride history.
Leroux get her second off a header from a ball played forward by midfielder Christine Nairn. Leroux was off balance and falling down, but still managed to head the ball past goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan.
“I like to play both sides of the ball and I think maybe in the beginning of the season I was getting caught defending a little more than I should have been as a forward,” Leroux said. “I think I’ve been higher up the field, so I’ve been able to get some goals.”
Winless Sky Blue FC, however, took advantage of the chances the Pride gave them. Both of Sky Blue’s goals in the first half came off rebounds and they nearly had a third when Katie Johnson put the ball into the back of the net off a Savannah McCaskill shot that bounced off the post, but Johnson was offside.
Sky Blue’s goals were scored by McCaskill (16th minute) and Madison Tiernan (37th minute). Both shots were preceded by Ashlyn Harris saves and both tied the match when they were scored.
Those two goals left Sermanni feeling a bit frustrated after the win. Players weren’t overly pleased with themselves, either. Sermanni said he wasn’t displeased shots going in off rebounds, he was frustrated with the poor play leading up to the shots.
“It’s not an exact science,” Sermanni said. “Sometimes players have bad days and in the first half of the game, things just didn’t go right for us in there. We rectified that a little bit in the second half.
“The frustrating thing was giving a goal off a throw-in. That was the thing that almost drove me over the edge. It’s one of our mainstays that we talk about, reinforce, show, go over… and then we go brain dead and give a goal away.
“We kept giving the ball away in very bad areas and left ourselves very exposed. If you leave yourself unbelievably exposed and shots come in on goal, they’ve got players running in on the end of the shot, so it’s part luck, where that ball’s going to end up.”
Next, the Pride (5-3-4, 19 points) travel to D.C. for a match against the Washington Spirit on June 23.