As the Orlando Pride entered their matchup with the potent Chicago Red Stars, they knew their defensive lineup wasn’t their biggest strength.
Orlando fielded a rookie, a midfielder and one of the league’s best right backs playing out of position as a center back linking up against Chicago’s Sam Kerr, the league’s most dangerous goal scorer.
Shelina Zadorsky was the Pride’s only veteran playing in her natural position, but that didn’t matter. Orlando pulled together to clinch a 2-1 victory in Chicago, flexing defensive versatility to pick up its fourth win of the season.
“If you’re a good player, you can play any position,” Pride coach Marc Skinner said. “It’s just whether you play effectively. That’s the question.”
The anchoring force for the defense came from the centerback pairing of Zadorsky and Ali Krieger. Although Krieger is one of the most experienced right backs in the National Women’s Soccer League, she shifted into the center of the defense last Saturday against Utah and remained there in Chicago.
The change was necessary following an ankle injury to Julie King, who was meant to fill the position in the absence of Toni Pressley. Against Chicago, Krieger’s versatility was on full display, negating Kerr’s typical aggression in the box and smothering the Red Stars in transition.
“The speed of Ali, the aggressiveness, the ability to recover, the ability to jump, the power — she genuinely amazes me that she’s 35 and not 25,” Skinner said. “She has an effervescence. She’s a world class player and we’re very lucky to have her on this team.”
It wasn’t a perfect performance. On the defensive flanks, rookie Erin Greening and midfielder Kristen Edmonds were both pushed to their limits, often scrambling to recover after getting beat in transition. The pair’s speed, however, helped mask mistakes caused by lack of experience.
Chicago took 20 shots, placing eight of them on frame and glancing one off the crossbar. But together as a unit, the backline held off the constant probing attack of the league’s top goal scorer, negating the threat of Kerr in the box.
Ashlyn Harris continued to stand stalwart between the posts for the Pride, knocking away the Red Stars’ best chance of the game with an off-balanced swat of her right hand. But the game didn’t require the same heroics that Harris has offered in previous matches. After making seven saves in the team’s 2-0 loss to Utah, Harris only had to come up for three major saves against Chicago.
With a two-goal lead notched in the 61st minute, the team shifted into a more compact defensive shape for the final third of the game, further cementing one of its most complete defensive performances of the season.
“There were definitely moments where they probably caused us some problems with a little bit of lack of positioning from offense, especially with someone like Sam Kerr,” Skinner said. “But you look at the speed of our fullbacks, their ability to read the ball as it switches strikers … our outside backs had to be focused, especially with [Kerr] and I thought they were excellent.”