SANFORD, Fla. — The Orlando Pride will be the closest to full strength it has been all season when they face Sky Blue FC Sunday, with Marta, Sydney Leroux and Toni Pressley all cleared from the injury report.
Coach Marc Skinner said that he was “hopeful” to see Leroux and Pressley back at game fitness level within the next week. Sunday marks the first time both players have returned to the available roster for the Pride, with Leroux out due to pregnancy and Pressley out since since undergoing surgery for breast cancer.
The most important return for the Pride, however, will be Marta, who leads the club with five goals. An injury sidelined her during the team’s past three games, keeping the striker out of the Brazilian national team lineup as well. Although Marta has been practicing with the Pride for more than a week — Skinner said that it’s often hard to restrain her eagerness to return to the pitch — the coach was careful to not rush her back.
The striker’s return to the pitch on Sunday would offer a boost in both leadership and scoring firepower that the Pride has desperately missed in her absence.
“You know Marta, you can’t hold her down, she wants to run everywhere all the time,” Skinner said. “She’s one of the world’s best at what she does. You miss that, because she links everybody else, she galvanizes everybody else. I can’t wait to have her back in the team. We’ve missed her.”
The Pride and Sky Blue FC have already met twice this season, with the Pride earning a 2-1 win on the road in June and collecting its only shutout of the season in July. This will be the first time, however, Orlando has faced Sky Blue with captain Carli Lloyd in the lineup. She missed the first two matches due to the World Cup.
Lloyd has exploded on the offensive end during the final stretch of the season, scoring four goals in the past four games for Sky Blue. With Lloyd on the pitch, the Pride mindset will change slightly to anticipate the star striker, but Skinner said the game plan remains the same regardless of personnel. His main focus will be to find space in the Sky Blue diamond structure while staving off the team’s aggressive counter-attacks.
“[Lloyd] is definitely a key feature of what they do,” Skinner said. “Anybody who has that quality is somebody you have to watch out for, but Paige Monahan and the rest of the team behind her have been firing and they’ve been dangerous in every game.”
The match also marks another turning point for the NWSL, with Sky Blue FC moving the match to Red Bull Arena. Kickoff for the match was shifted two hours earlier to accommodate the New York Red Bulls, which will play later in the day.
The Pride has already been impacted by the trend of NWSL teams moving to MLS stadiums, playing against the Washington Spirit in front of a sold-out crowd of 19,871 at Audi Field. For both teams, playing in the larger stadium offers another opportunity to celebrate the growth of the women’s game throughout this year.
“It’s incredible,” striker Claire Emslie said. “Some of the atmospheres I’ve played in here have been the best I’ve ever played in. When we play in the big stadiums, playing in front of that crowd gets a big buzz about the game.”