I spent the last 36 hours savoring my large helping of crow. In the match preview I predicted a 4-1 Courage victory and a 5th straight win to start the season, but instead the Courage lost 3-1. On Sunday night I wanted to write a scathing article, lambasting what I remembered to be a miserable showing from a team that couldn’t do anything right. Instead I decided to do the responsible thing, re-watch the game after I’d cooled down (and sobered up), and write a meaningful piece about what actually went wrong.
It Wasn’t All Bad
For the first half, things mostly went to script for the Courage. The Courage had the advantage for most of the first half, they had some excellent chances throughout the first 45 minutes and even throughout the second half although it was tougher once we got down. When Lynn Williams and Debhina got on the ball the team looked great, but Orlando controlled the ball a bit too much for them to be as effective as they could be. We could have easily scored a goal or two in the first half, but our players weren’t looking to pass the ball off in the box, electing to take tougher shots instead of finding an open teammate.
Even once the second half started we looked dangerous. The Courage had two solid chances before Orlando scored their first two goals in the 49th and 50th minute. I’ll get to those goals momentarily, but in the 51st minute Williams forced a turnover, dribbled towards the box and then passed to Debhina who scored easily. The final pass is what was missing from the first half. In the 53rd minute the whole Courage team thought that Sam Mewis had scored off a header, but Ashlyn Harris seems to have made the save off the line…at least that’s what the ref saw. In a slightly different world the game would have been tied, but then things fell apart. Erceg got a red card, and once the Courage were down a man the chances were few and far between. There were chances, but it would have been a tall hill to climb.
Cards, Dahlkemper and D’Angelo
The game got off to an ominous start with McCall Zirboni drawing a yellow card in the 11th minute and Abby Erceg earning one in the 44th. Other than the two cards the first half was fine. The Pride weren’t effective at breaking through the defense and the Courage looked to be ready to score at the top of the second half. Then the first goal occurred. A weak, rolling cross came right through the 6-yard box while keeper Sabrina D’Angelo and defender Abby Dahlkemper watched it roll on by. This was easily the worst defensive play that the Courage had surrendered on the season. Either one of the players could have gotten the ball. D’Angelo could have jumped on the cross and Dahlkemper could have cleared it, but they did neither and it cost the Courage a goal.
The Courage turned the ball over immediately on the kick off, but won a throw in. Dahlkemper threw to Doniak who made an errant pass back to Dahlkemper who was knocked down by Camila who controlled the ball. Dahlkemper proceeded to lay on the ground watching the play as two Pride players attacked Abby Erceg. Erceg held her challenge a bit too long, the pass got by her, and D’Angelo made a late challenge. It would have been an impressive save, but it’s one she should have made. She didn’t an the Courage were trailing by 2. Then the Courage scored and nearly scored again, seemingly invigorated to play the game. Up to this point the Courage looked flat, telegraphing their passes and playing slowly, but the two goals finally gave them some urgency. Unfortunately Abby Erceg made an ill-advised challenge and drew her second yellow of the match. After that, while the Courage occasionally looked dangerous, the game was all Orlando and they scored their third goal in the 82nd minute to really put it away.
Hinkle > Smith > Witteman
For the second consecutive game Jaelene Hinkle rode the pine with a hip injury despite being listed as probable. Hinkle isn’t a player that gets much credit if you aren’t sitting in the stands, but she is a perfect fit for the 3-back system that the Courage like to employ. She has an almost endless motor and is able to work the ball up the sideline and distribute on offense while simultaneously being an above-average defender. She rarely gives up easy turnovers and can stymie the opposing offense long enough for the rest of the team to regroup when they try to play down her side of the field.
In Boston last week, the Courage switched to a 4-back system with Taylor Smith replacing Hinkle, and while the team looked more sluggish and had difficulty connecting passes the final scoreline was to our liking. This weekend saw a return to the 3-back with Witteman taking over for Smith taking over for Hinkle. This was, in short, a disaster. Witteman repeatedly turned the ball over or had errant passes sent to her by teammates. She wasn’t effective on defense or offense, and the team tended to look its best when she wasn’t in camera-view for long stretches of the game. Witteman isn’t a bad player, she would be pushing for a starting spot on at least half of the NWSL teams, but she doesn’t fit in with this team right now. It might be lack of practice with the 1s or it might just be that Orlando was a poor fit for her talents, but the difference between Hinkle three weeks ago and Witteman on Sunday was a major factor in this loss. Witteman ended up getting taken out for Smith in the 55th minute, the earlier Courage sub this season.
The Courage (4-1-0, 12 points) still sit comfortably at the top of the NWSL standings with a 2-game lead on the 2nd place Seattle Reign (2-1-2, 8 points) and they get to return home for the next two games. This game was a perfect storm of situations which lead to a closer-than-the-scoreline loss for our ladies. The longest winning streak in the NWSL in 2016 was 4 games by the Portland Thorns, highlighting the parity that the league boasts. We weren’t going undefeated, every team has bad games, and it’s necessary to lose occasionally in order to evaluate your toughness and tenacity. It is unlikely that we will incur many (if any) more red cards this season, and if things had gone slightly differently we still could have won this game. Playing 30 minutes with just 10 players in the sweltering heat of Orlando is a recipe for disaster, and disaster befell this team. We play 3 games in 6 days (Sunday, Wednesday, and Saturday), so hopefully Hinkle can be back and in game shape!