Chicago Red Stars survive to defeat the Orlando Pride 1-0
Chicago's Alyssa Naeher (R) had a very solid night in goal | Source:

On Saturday afternoon, after an hour-long rain delay, the Chicago Red Stars took on the Orlando Pride in an intriguingly significant match marking the halfway point of the season for both teams.

Both Orlando and Chicago were coming off of midweek matches, where both clubs conceded two penalty kicks, to Sky Blue FC and the Seattle Reign respectively. However, Orlando pulled off the 3-2 upset of the New Jersey upstarts, and Chicago succumbed to Seattle’s pressure to drop all three points in a 2-1 score-line.

Heavy schedule forces rotation

This placed both squads in the top 6 of the league going into Saturday’s action. They were also both gunning to end the first half of the season strong. Anticipating their third match in 7 days, the Red Stars rotated their outside backs for the event, inputting Sarah Gorden and Taylor Comeau in place of regular starters Casey Short and Arin Gilliland, but they also were bolstered by the return of central midfielder Danny Colaprico from an ankle injury that left her out of the lineup on Wednesday.

For their part, the Pride finally had a key super-sub in their pocket in the return of USWNT star Alex Morgan, who had finally recovered from a knock on her hamstring that she suffered in the Champions League Final with Olympique Lyonnais.

Immediately when the game started, one could tell that these teams were coming off of only a few days of rest. Particularly on Chicago’s side, who traveled from across the country after their match in Seattle, their ball movement was somewhat lethargic, and they allowed Orlando quite a bit of space to maintain possession throughout the half. Chicago goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher was frequently called upon to make small but vital decisions in order to keep the scoreline even, and she pulled off one of her best performances of the year between the sticks for Chicago.

Orlando keeper Aubrey Bledsoe also had a very efficient half, with one very important kick-save early in the match to deny striker Christen Press, and a number of quality saves from distance to not allow Chicago to punish the Pride on the counter-attack. Ultimately the goalkeeping duel kept the first half scoreless, with Orlando failing to convert their 70% of possession into a quality attack.

Chicago's Sam Johnson fought to preserve the shutout for the visiting squad | Source: Tommy Cardinal - New Day Review

Perhaps because of their slow start, Chicago came alive a little bit in the second half, stringing together a more coherent attack, and scrambling just enough to deny Marta and the Pride at their own end of the field. With both teams hanging tough, it took a couple of substitutions and some very astute coaching from Chicago’s Rory Dames to break the deadlock.

Near the 65th minute, it became clear that Alex Morgan’s long-awaited return to Orlando was imminent, and immediately after she subbed in, Dames called Short off of the bench to relieve Gorden, who’d done everything asked of her to hold down the left side of the pitch up until that point. Short provided a quick spark to the Red Stars, and after a close chance from Orlando’s Jasmyne Spencer, she drove the ball all the way into the Pride’s penalty box.

Orlando defense falls asleep

The Orlando defense was caught lagging behind, and defender Toni Pressley caught Short with her left foot, and was called for an immediate penalty. Press had no problem sliding the shot away in the 68th minute, giving Chicago the vital break-through they were looking for.

With both Marta and Morgan finally on the field, the game was surely not to end without some final theatrics, and Orlando almost pulled even in the dying minutes of the match. The Pride won a corner kick, and Bledsoe left her goal to try to draw the hosts even. She got her head on the corner kick, that was only saved from the back of the net by a goal-line clearance from Colaprico. She only got the ball as far as defender Ali Krieger, who’s point blank shot hit off the crossbar, denying Orlando a chance to salvage a point from what was otherwise a dominant performance. Chicago would have to be thrilled to have saved their legs sufficiently to survive the match with all three points, but the Pride are again looking for answers after they couldn’t hold their mental game together for a full 90 minutes.