Utah Royals FC will come away from this game as the happier of the two sides after they managed to contain a very potent Orlando Pride attack. Orlando will know that they will have to improve in the coming weeks and both sides will look forward to having their returning international players all back in a few weeks time.
For today, the two teams ground out a 1-1 draw in front of a vociferous Orlando crowd in their first game of the 2018 National Women's Soccer League match.
The first half produces the biggest moments of the game
No one could have predicted the events that took place in the first half and it made for an enthralling game of soccer for those 45 minutes. Newcomer to the NWSL, Gunnhilder Jónsdóttir, shocked the home crowd into silence when she got on the end of a Diana Matheson cross in the third minute to give Utah the lead. The Pride recovered well from that early upset and had a few openings on goal but it was referee Danielle Chesky that brought them back into the game. Chesky awarded a penalty to Orlando after adjudging Becky Sauerbrunn handling the ball when she blocked Dani Weatherholt's shot at goal. Replays show that the ball hit Sauerbrunn's face but the referee made a bad call and Marta stepped up to equalize in the 21st minute.
The game changed after that call by Chesky as more and more physicality crept into the game. Utah managed to keep Marta, Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux relatively quiet throughout the game and force Orlando to look at other options for a goal. Kelley O'Hara had a great game at right-back as she not only shut down Marta but also got forward well in support of Matheson throughout the game. Orlando's day took a turn for the worse near the end of the first half as Abby Smith and Morgan collided just outside the penalty area. Morgan then left the game with a head injury and Orlando were left to see out the first half without their top scorer from last season.
Morgan's injury forces Orlando to reshuffle
Morgan did not come back into the game after her collision with Smith and was replaced by Chioma Ubogagu. This meant that Orlando had to adjust their game plan and also shift their attacking players around to accommodate for the loss of Morgan. Marta, who had been getting no joy from O'Hara, shifted to a roaming role while Leroux went to the middle of the attack.
Marta's roaming should have given the Brazilian more freedom and she seemed to find a few more gaps to operate in but every time she had the ball, Utah would converge on her and try to prevent her from getting a pass off in a dangerous area. Marta, and Orlando tried to pen Utah back in their own half as they searched for a winner but the Royals were determined to hang on to their well-earned point and continued to shut down all the Orlando attacks. Jónsdóttir had the last chance of the game in stoppage but her shot went just over the crossbar, succumbing both sides to an opening day draw.