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Orlando Pride, Utah Royals draw 1-1 in physical opener

Orlando Pride vs. Utah Royals

Orlando Prides Alex Morgan holds the ball in the corner during the Orlando Pride vs Utah Royals NWSL match Saturday March 24th at Orlando City Stadium in Orlando, Fl. (Justin Green/ Special to the Sentinel)

Before the Orlando Pride’s 2018 season officially got started Saturday evening, there was excitement surrounding the club’s attack.

A group of new players were added in the offseason, including striker Sydney Leroux. Players were fired up about the club’s potential, especially considering the Pride led the NWSL in goals last season.

For now, things are a work in progress. The Pride – who trotted out five new starters – generated some chances, but overall lacked bite in a 1-1 draw with expansion side Utah Royals in front of an announced home crowd of 9,017 at Orlando City Stadium.

“It’s going to, hopefully, improve as the players get used to each other,” Pride coach Tom Sermanni said. “We’re also not what I’d call real match-fitness level yet. Fatigue sets in, therefore the decisions aren’t quite as good and the passing’s not quite as good.

“In fairness to them, they defended. They got bodies behind the ball and defended very well. I just thought, again, we lacked that little cohesion.”

It was a result made all the more frustrating by the potential loss of star forward Alex Morgan, who came off just before halftime after colliding with Utah Royals goalkeeper Abby Smith. Morgan was taken to the locker room and immediately entered into concussion protocol.

Striker Chioma Ubogagu subbed on for Morgan in the second half.

“Obviously, when you lose anyone it’s a big blow,” Leroux said. “Especially losing her so early. We were kind of rotating between me, Marta and Alex and then Chi came in and then I kind of stayed a little more central and tried to push the line.”

The home side’s lone goal came off a penalty kick, converted by Brazilian star Marta in the 21st minute.

The penalty was earned after midfielder Dani Weatherholt’s shot in the penalty area went off the hands of Utah center back Becky Sauerbrunn, who was shown a yellow card for “unsporting behavior, stopping a promising attack and deliberate handling on a shot on goal.”

Early on, it looked like the Pride’s back line would draw all the attention. The Royals snatched an early lead with a goal in the third minute, a textbook finish by midfielder Gunny Jonsdottir, who came running unmarked into the penalty area.

She easily put a cross from midfielder Diana Matheson into the back of the net.

Center back Shelina Zadorsky said there was a little bit of a mix up regarding who was supposed to mark Jonsdottir.

“We’ve got to clean that up, absolutely,” she said. “You know what? We fought right back and I’m proud of us for keeping our heads held high. But definitely, we have higher standards than that. She was wide open in the box and obviously that’s unacceptable.”

The Pride got their equalizer in the form of Marta’s penalty kick, but they spent the rest of the match trying to get their first lead. The club’s attack frequently ended with missed crosses. Players often had the right idea, but the passes were either off or players weren’t home inside the penalty area to receive crosses.

Sermanni said he wants to see some improvement in the club’s build-up play.

“I think we could have moved the ball a little better in that kind of inside their half towards their 18-yard box,” he said. “I think that’s why we turned it over. Probably tried to force things a little bit.”

Attempts to connect with Leroux in particular just weren’t on target.

The Pride controlled possession, but Orlando took the same amount of shots (seven) as the Royals.

The Pride return to action Saturday against the Washington Spirit at the Maryland SoccerPlex. The team will be without its Brazilian trio of Marta, Poliana and Monica and Australians Alanna Kennedy and Emily van Egmond. Morgan also could miss the match if she is still recovering from a concussion.

“With any team, it takes a little learning curve,” Leroux said. “Our Australians are gone. Our Brazilians are leaving. We just have to come together and figure it out. It’s almost like figuring it out on the fly sometimes. We need to be able to do that.”

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