SANFORD, Fla. — During the final contest of a three-match week, the Orlando Pride will take on North Carolina Saturday, days after the Courage reclaimed the top spot in the league.
Both teams played Wednesday and had three days to prepare for their matchup.
North Carolina is fresh off a 6-0 road win over the Portland Thorns, a statement victory that moved the Courage back to the top of the National Women’s Soccer League.
For the Pride, who played in Tacoma, Wash., last Saturday and then hosted the Red Stars on Wednesday — the past week has tested the team’s endurance.
“They’re tired, I can see that in their eyes,” Orlando Pride Marc Skinner said. “It’s always tough having three games in that quick of a turnaround, but that’s the nature of this league.”
North Carolina is a quick, athletic team and the Courage highlighted those qualities in its six-goal blowout on the road in Portland this week. The game will provide a challenge for the Pride backline, which has struggled with consistency throughout the season.
Although a last-minute goal allowed a 1-0 loss, Skinner said the Pride’s midweek game against Chicago highlighted some of the strongest defense of the season for the team. Orlando limited Sam Kerr and broke down transitional breakaways, controlling a typically high-powered offense.
“When you defend like that, if this team can have consistency for the next game, that’s the key,” Skinner said. “I think they defended resolutely, with resiliency and with bodies on the line. That’s our base level. If they can give us that, then we know we can build on the attacking structure.”
While Skinner praised the defense, he is looking for improvement from the offense.
With both Alex Morgan and Marta unavailable for Saturday’s game, Skinner will continue to look to players such as Claire Emslie to spark the attack. Although Emslie was able to fire off several shots and finesse dangerous crosses into the box against Chicago, Skinner said the key for Orlando will be to create sustained possession on the attack to avoid bunkering on defense.
“There’s got to be a balance between attacking and defending,” Skinner said. “We’ve got to manage the transitions very well, and when we get the ball, there has to be some attack. You can’t defend for 90 minutes. You have to be able to take the game to North Carolina.”
Continued injury for the team’s top two strikers has been a concern in the months following the World Cup. Marta came back from France and immediately returned to the pitch, leading the Pride in scoring until she suffered a hamstring injury several weeks ago. Although her pain is now isolated, marking a promising turn in her recovery to Skinner, she will not play this weekend.
Alex Morgan’s return is even more uncertain. The striker has only seen six minutes on the pitch since returning from the World Cup. After undergoing scans earlier this week, Morgan continues to nurse a lingering knee injury suffered during the World Cup. For Skinner, the focus with Morgan is maintaining the star’s optimism as she battles to return to the pitch by the end of the season without risking re-injury.
“She’s come off the highs of the World Cup, of being the best team in the world by a mile, and it’s important that we manage the lows when she can’t play as much,” Skinner said. “If she was able to play on it without causing further damage, of course she would play.”