It’s Friday night in the NWSL and the Orlando Pride welcome the Washington Spirit for the only game slated that evening. The Pride are fresh off a drubbing at the hands of the Chicago Red Stars while the Spirit are playing right in the middle of an exhausting schedule.
It was all set up for another night of #NWSLAfterDark vibes due the afore mentioned circumstances but for 90 minutes, the Spirit were poised to ruin that vibe as they looked to wind the game down with a 2-0 lead.
The Orlando Pride however, were very much ready to make the last few minutes of this game a pulsating spectacle.
For most of the match, the Pride had tested the Spirit and Darian Jenkins had come closes when she it the post in the first half. However, the Spirit were more clinical in front of goal. Trinity Rodman put them in the lead with a great effort that beat Erin McLeod all ends up.
Ashley Sanchez then put in a fantastic through ball for Ashley Hatch in the second half that Hatch finished with clinical precision. That was the dagger, many including myself thought. There was no way the Spirit would allow Orlando to come back into this game, not with the talent and strength of will they have on the pitch.
Orlando continued to try and find a way back in this game but errors in their play made it easy for the Spirit to prevent too many clear cut chances at goal. Head coach Amanda Cromwell knew she needed to make changes if she wanted to salvage something out of this game and she looked to her bench to provide a spark.
That was the turning point of this game.
The Spirit, whether through exhaust or game management or both, looked to slow down the tempo and waste as much time as possible until the final whistle. While that may have worked for Olympique Lyonnais last weekend, this time around it gave Orlando enough time to mount a comeback and secure what seemed to be an improbable draw.
First, substitute Mikayla Cluff found herself in space not once, but twice in stoppage time. Cluff had come in and changed the game for Orlando with her presence and she underlined that with a goal. She laid off the ball to another substitute in Jordyn Listro before running into the box, seemingly unnoticed by the Spirit backline. Listro picked her out and Cluff placed her header well.
Three minutes later, Darian Jenkins who had hit the post previously in the game, knocked the stuffing out of Washington. Listro was found once again out wide and when her cross was blocked, another substitute Julie Doyle looked to find a teammate inside the area. The ball fell to Jenkins, who found herself unmarked at the far post, and she proceeded to curl her finish past Aubrey Kingsbury for the equalizer.
When we talk about #NWSLAfterDark, which may have started off as an inside joke that has now become a staple in this league, this is what we mean. Nothing but pure chaos for five minutes in a match which turns a straight-forward win into a soul-sucking draw for the Spirit, and a morale-boosting tie for the Pride. The Spirit had everything sewn up, they were cruising to a 2-0 win after a few days from securing a tough point on the road at Portland. They just needed to see it out and get on a flight back to their city. Instead, they lost focus for one small period in the game and Orlando said “we’ll take that loss of focus and score goals, thank you very much”.
At this point in the season, I couldn’t tell you who the best team in the league right now is because one minute, a team as dominant as the Spirit will drop points in a span of five minute while a team that has moments but ultimately can’t seem to put those moments altogether, digs out a last gasp draw from nowhere. The NWSL can frustrate at times but when things like this happen, it reminds us that league can leave you in disbelief at the unwillingness to quit and the quality that every team posses. Long may the NWSL continue to blow our minds.