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Orlando Pride get jolt from return of World Cup players, fans during win over Sky Blue FC

Orlando’s Claire Emslie and Marta showed a spark during their first match together

Orlando Pride forward Chioma Ubogagu pushes the ball up the field while her jersey is grabbed by Sky Blue FC's Erica Skroski Saturday at Exploria Stadium. (Roy K. Miller/ISI Photos)

ORLANDO, Fla. — Highlighted by a goal from rookie Marisa Viggiano, the Orlando Pride picked up a 1-0 home win over Sky Blue FC on a night focused on the return of the team’s nine World Cup players.

The night served not only as a celebration of the international players, but as a celebration of the club itself. The announced crowd of 9,415 marked the highest attendance for the Pride since April 2017, and after the game players thanked the crowd on social media for pushing them to a win.

The 1-0 win was also the team’s first shutout win since June 2018. Here are three things that we learned from the win:

Krieger, Harris bolster backline

Although forward Alex Morgan remained on the sideline while recovering from a slight knee injury she suffered during the World Cup, defender Ali Krieger and goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris returned to the field as starters Saturday. The pair’s return to the backline injected a new sense of calm to the Pride defense, which has ceded the most goals (31) in the National Women’s Soccer League.

Harris serves not only as the Pride’s keeper, but also as its captain, and she embraced that role on Saturday, leading the team’s huddle both before and after the game. Although the night didn’t offer a huge defensive challenge for the Pride — Sky Blue took 10 shots, forcing Harris to make only two saves — coach Marc Skinner attributed the team’s defensive poise to the return of its veterans.

“Tonight was about building mentality and sort of breaking the wall for the mentality tonight,” Skinner said Saturday. “It was really good having [the] senior players, like your [Ashlyn Harris] and Ali [Krieger], because they’re very vocal. It was excellent to have that balance behind the backline.”

Krieger played out of position on the left flank, with rookie Erin Greening playing in her typical right back position. Regardless of position, however, the defender’s reintroduction to the team also affected the Pride on the attack, as she pressed up the field from her left back position to feed Chioma Ubogagu. 

“If you try to restrain Ali — good luck,” Skinner said. “She’s got so much energy. To bring Ali in, with the experience she has and the energy she has, she just wanted to go battle.”

Emslie, Marta bond quickly

After a two-week break following her run with Scotland during the World Cup, forward Claire Emslie played her first minutes in an Orlando Pride kit during Saturday’s game.

Although she had only practiced twice with the team before Saturday’s match, she entered in the 65th minute and injected the right flank with speed.

The forward brings a different layer to the Pride’s attack, adding an element of creativity that will serve to build opportunities for technical finishers such as Morgan or Ubogagu. Most important, Skinner said, she brings yet another burst of energy to the team’s competitive attacking front.

“She’s been electric,” Skinner said. “She’s been quiet because she’s coming into a new culture, but she’s quietly confident in what she does. With Claire, I’m happy in that department and I think you’re going to see some fantastic things from them on the front line.”

Against Sky Blue, an immediate connection began to form between Emslie and Marta, who battered the right flank in the final third of the game. Emslie darted into the box and fed several crosses into Marta, nearly resulting in goals that flew only a few feet wide and high.

Although the pair never managed to put the ball in the net, Emslie said that she could feel their chemistry beginning to form.

“To be honest, I was really excited to play with her,” Emslie said. “It’s exciting, I hope to link up more with her.”

Pride welcome break

After Saturday’s game, the Pride now faces a stretch of 20 days before their next game at home against the Houston Dash. The team will take a small break during that time, pausing training until Friday to allow players to visit family and relax.

The Pride faced one of the most compact schedules at the start of the season, playing three games during the first eight days of the season. The tough stretch started with a home game against Portland on a Sunday, April 14, followed by a road game in North Carolina on Wednesday, April 17, and then a road game in Seattle on Sunday, April 21. Orlando ceded eight goals during those three games, suffering two losses before managing a draw in Seattle.

After a grueling opening week, the team also faced the loss of its World Cup players during the summer. For Skinner, the break will offer a much-needed opportunity for his players to rest and recharge.

“I think it’s welcomed for the simple fact of the mental release of going to see your family and going to spend time with your loved ones is so important for me,” Skinner said. “I know when I go home and see [his partner] Laura and [daughter] Saede, it fills your soul up so when you come back, you’re hungry again. I think that’s really important.” 

The break will also give the Americans the opportunity to play in the first game of the U.S. women’s national team Victory Tour in California without missing any action for the Pride. Morgan is also expected to return to play after the break, using the time to rest her knee and reintegrate into the offense.

When his team returns at full health and with a full roster, Skinner said the pressure will quickly spike for the Pride. The team sits eighth place in the nine-team NWSL table, nine points behind the fourth and final playoff spot.

“There’s no stopping now,” Skinner said. “We’ve got to put our foot on the gas. We’re gonna try hard every single game to get as high up the table as much as we can. There’s no resting. This will be their break, and then when they come back we’ll be putting our foot on the gas.”

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