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Orlando Pride cede late equalizer, draw Sky Blue FC as Sydney Leroux returns

Orlando led much of the match, but a late Carli Lloyd header forced a draw

Orlando Pride players celebrate with Shelina Zadorsky, center with blue headband, during the team's 1-1 draw with Sky Blue FC Sunday at Red Bull Arena. (ISI Photos).

The Orlando Pride allowed another late-game equalizer, falling minutes short of their second shutout of the year and instead drawing Sky Blue FC 1-1.

The Pride were bolstered by the return of Sydney Leroux, who entered the game to cheers from of an announced crowd of 8,314 at Red Bull Arena. But striker’s late substitution during the final minutes of the match wasn’t enough to power the Pride (4-15-3, 15) to a win.

With Marta back to full strength, the Pride brought a different spark of intensity to the pitch from the opening whistle. The team rifled off five dangerous shots during the first 10 minutes of play, with Marta, Joanna Boyles, Marisa Viggiano and Rachel Hill all creating chances for the Pride.

Coach Marc Skinner said Marta’s performance made a key impact for the Pride, who are a different team when she’s on the field.

“You know that when that ball goes up, she has the ability to hold the ball up, which brings the confidence in the players to give it into that central area to cross and change channels,” Skinner said. “It’s such a unique dynamic that we’ve been missing too much this season. We just missed that far too often.”

In the 18th minute, however, it was an unexpected defender who made the difference for the Pride — Shelina Zadorsky, who notched her first NWSL goal to give the Pride the 1-0 lead. Claire Emslie curled a free kick to the back post, sending the ball skipping across the face of the goal for Zadorsky to run through. 

The goal was the product of a relentless pressure that the Pride provided throughout the match. The Pride took 11 shots in the first half, but their main offensive success came from building sustained possession in the attacking third. The team hunted for extended periods around the box, playing balls in and out and switching out to the corners if an opportunity didn’t arise.

“I’m proud of the way the girls fought today,” Skinner said. “We simplified the message. I asked them to trust the training process and go on and show teams who we’re going to be next year. We see this in training all of the time, and unfortunately you just don’t see it in games. They were just being brave in possession. We have the ability to do that.”

This aggressive mindset also kept the Pride from falling into a defensive structure. Sky Blue FC (5-13-5, 20) still took seven shots in the first half, and the team created several chances in transition. But keeper Ashlyn Harris wasn’t called upon to make a single save in the first half, staying relatively comfortable on her line.

In the second half, play slowed as both teams looked to control the tempo. The Pride took fewer shots, finishing the game with a total of 17 shots, but they saw a continuous build of chemistry between key attacking players. Marta and Emslie continued to work off each other, playing rapid balls in overlapping combination to dance around players in the left corner of the box. Up the gut of the field, Viggiano looked to feed Hill, setting her up for a strike in the box that hit the net but was called back for offside.

“We were aggressive both in the back and in the front, and that to me is a mindset,” Skinner said. “They can do it, they’ve just got to believe in themselves. The one thing you can’t gauge is the psychology of a club, the psychology of the ‘nearly’ team. If you fix that, we will be successful, 100 percent. This club can be really successful.”

In the 86th minute, Leroux entered the game to replace Marisa Viggiano, marking her first NWSL game in more than a year. Leroux’s minutes on the pitch came three months after she gave birth to her daughter, Roux, on June 28. 

Although Leroux’s return to the pitch brought a boost of excitement for the Pride, it was quickly followed by a deadening equalizer from Sky Blue. Off a corner in the 89th minute, Carli Lloyd hammered home a goal.

Sky Blue FC continued to pummel the Pride backline in the final minutes, forcing Harris to make a diving save in the final seconds of play, but neither team could find the winning goal. For Skinner, the equalizer was less frustrating than others the team has ceded throughout the season — he acknowledged the skill of Lloyd, saying that she is always a difficult mark in the box.

But Skinner said that the finish reflected a lack of both physical and mental endurance that he hopes to fix with this team in the offseason. Part of that improvement, he said, will come from an increased focus on fitness so that his team can be more physical for all 90 minutes. The other adjustment will come from addressing the “fragility” that he sees in his team’s mental toughness.

“We won’t finish where we want to be this year,” Skinner said. “I hate the position we’re in. But what we do have is an opportunity to show people how to rebirth an Orlando team that should be competing for playoffs. That’s our job next year. We have to eradicate that weakness.”

The Pride will return home for their final two games of the season, facing the Washington Spirit next Saturday.

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