The worst case scenario seemed to unfold early in the Orlando Pride’s road match against Chicago.
Forward Alex Morgan leapt for a header in the sixth minute Wednesday night, clashing in the air with Chicago defenders Julie Ertz and Sarah Gorden. Morgan stayed down, holding her neck and covering her face as trainers examined her for several minutes.
With Marta serving her second match of a red card suspension, the Pride’s attack was already thinned. Morgan’s return to the starting lineup was meant to offer a jolt for the offense. Instead, the Pride faced the image of a stretcher being wheeled out for the team’s star striker.
Morgan waved off the stretcher, walking off the field on her own and exiting the game as a precaution, according to a team official. Coach Marc Skinner started the game watching from above in a suite, but upon seeing the injury, he rushed to the sideline to offer support to his team.
Chioma Ubogagu entered the game in her stead, and the Pride refused to falter without their offensive stars on the pitch. Ubogagu and forward Rachel Hill took the reigns of the Orlando offense and powered the team to a 2-1 win over the Red Stars.
“We’ve had to endure everything,” Skinner said. “That’s where you build resilience. It’s about time Orlando Pride built the identity of a team that wants to be successful, and not just wish to be. We have to dig in, we have to win games ugly, and tonight I think we won the game ugly.”
With Morgan out of the game, the Pride lost a major target in the box, changing the dynamic of the attack. Skinner said that this actually opened up the attack for Orlando, allowing Hill and Ubogagu to cut in quicker patterns than Chicago was expecting with Morgan in the game.
Ubogagu quickly stepped up in her role, lofting a cross into the box in the 32nd minute for Hill, who beat her defender in a one-on-one and chipped a header toward the back post. The goal was the team’s first shot on target and it gave the Pride a 1-0 advantage.
The Red Stars continued to chip away at the Orlando backline, looking to take advantage of mismatches in transition to set up Sam Kerr and Casey Short for a goal-scoring opportunity. The attack brought a challenge for outside backs Erin Greening and Kristen Edmonds, who often had to scramble to recover and catch up with Kerr and Short, but bursts of energetic defending held off the onslaught.
“You could just see the speed of our fullbacks, their ability to read the ball when they’re switching strikers,” Skinner said. “When [Chicago] is switching from one side to the other, you have to stay focused on the back side. I thought that they were excellent today.”
Ali Krieger cemented this defensive effort, shifting out of position to fill the centerback role with Julie King sidelined due to an ankle injury. Keeper Ashlyn Harris batted away the Red Stars’ best chance of the first half, diving to knock away a shot from Short curling toward the near post with her right hand.
The Pride also applied sustained attacking pressure of their own, with Claire Emslie probing the right side of the defense to slice runs and crosses into the box throughout the half. Although Kerr opened the second half with a flurry of probing runs, the Pride continued to build attacking opportunities, refusing to bunker even with a lead.
In the 61st minute, Ubogagu took advantage of a transition opportunity again, dropping into the box to collect a pass from Hill with two defenders trailing and rocket a shot past Naeher. Ubogagu now has four goals this season and is tied with Marta for the Pride’s scoring lead.
For Skinner, the pair’s performance reflected the realization of one of his main goals as a coaches — building a team with deep rotational ability that can withstand challenges such as Morgan’s injury.
“I’m really pleased with them as a collective both in the defensive sense and on the offensive,” Skinner said. “If you want to build a team, you can’t build it on individuals. You have to build the togetherness of the team, and you could see that. Tonight belongs to the Orlando Pride as a team, and not individuals.
With the Pride advantage stretched to two goals, Orlando clamped down defensively for the final 30 minutes of play. Alanna Kennedy earned a red card in the 90th minute for a denial of a goal-scoring opportunity, tugging down Kerr to prevent her from running onto a ball in the box.
Playing with only 10 on the pitch for the final six minutes of the match, the Pride ceded a goal when Tierna Davidson hammered a rebounded shot into the net in the 96th minute. But Orlando was able to hold on to the final whistle, picking up a critical road win.
The win vaulted the Pride back over Sky Blue FC and out of the bottom spot in the NWSL standings. Orlando will stay on the road and face the Washington Spirit on Saturday.