SANFORD, Fla. — Orlando Pride midfielder Joanna Boyles’ path to NWSL minutes has been rocky.
She suffered two ACL tears – first in her left knee, then her right – while she was at the University of North Carolina. She was drafted, but she was picked up by the Boston Breakers, who folded prior to the start of the 2018 NWSL season. The Chicago Red Stars got her, but she didn’t make an appearance with their senior team.
“Somehow, you know, found my way here and I could not be any more blessed, couldn’t be any more grateful, couldn’t be any happier here,” Boyles said before a training session at the Seminole Soccer Complex.
She has made three appearances (two starts) for the Pride so far this season.
“It’s extremely satisfying,” Boyles said. “You know, I think I’ve worked for a very long time to feel this confident and this comfortable playing. For many years, with my knees and just with everything, it was always something. Now, I finally feel better than 100 percent, which is great to feel.”
With a sigh of relief Boyles said, “I can finally just, like, play soccer again, which is really great.”
UNC coach Anson Dorrance, who has been with the Tar Heels for more than 40 years, said Boyles was the team’s “technical and tactical master” while she was there.
“Her skillset is extraordinary,” Dorrance said in a phone interview with Pro Soccer USA. “Her decision-making on the ball is very good. So, I think, the best quality she had for us was just she’s one of those kids that works herself to death to master the ball. She absolutely loves the game.”
While Boyles was with the Tar Heels, she was used more as a No. 10, Dorrance said. He’s noticed the Pride use her more as a No. 6, or a holding midfielder. Dorrance said in college “good things happened” when Boyles had the ball, plus she had a knack for winning balls in the air.
“She scored some spectacular goals for us,” Dorrance said.
Boyles wrapped her UNC career with 14 goals.
Dorrance said it’s a huge challenge for younger players to get on the field in the NWSL and that everything he’s seen so far from Boyles has made him think she’s making a real impact in the professional ranks. He added the two text frequently.
He said he was excited for and proud of his former player, recalling what Boyles was like when she when she was getting back to playing fitness after her ACL injuries.
“We were playing a spring tournament and we were obviously guarding and protecting her and, I guess, not investing a lot of time in her because we wanted to make sure we could have her progress to full health,” he said. “Then, all of the sudden, we sub her in for, literally, I guess less than 10 minutes in one game we played, and I think she scored the game winner.
“Then we subbed her in for less than 10 minutes in another game and she got the game-winning assist.”
Boyles’ technical ability is something that’ll come in handy with the Pride hoping to adjust to a tactics-heavy system under new coach Marc Skinner.
Skinner said Boyles was excellent in her start against the Houston Dash. With a good chunk of the Pride’s roster leaving for international duty ahead of the 2019 World Cup, Skinner said support players like Boyles will have to step up.
“Her positioning, her intensity, somebody you wouldn’t necessarily go, ‘Ah, that’s one person,’ I thought she was excellent,” Skinner said about Boyles.
Boyles said the Pride’s coaches have prepared her and the other players who will still be training in Central Florida while the World Cup is underway.
“For us, I think [the goal is] to build a great foundation, so when [the World Cup players] come back, they can just seamlessly fit right back in and they don’t have that extreme pressure of, you know, when they’re gone, us not being successful,” Boyles said.
All of the Pride’s players are going to have to step forward as leaders, she said.
“I think us, the ones that are here, kind of take that one on our shoulders and take that with pride and we’re going to get after it so that when they come back, they’re coming back to a team that’s stable,” Boyles said. “Coming back to a team that has points, a team that knows what they’re doing. I think that’s definitely going to happen.”
Orlando Pride vs. Portland Thorns, 7:30
Where: Orlando City Stadium
Watch: Live stream on Yahoo! Sports
The Buzz: The Pride (0-4-1, 1 point) host the Portland Thorns (1-0-2, 5 points) in a rematch of the season opener. … Orlando, looking for its first win, has scored just one goal so far this season, while the Thorns have scored eight goals in three matches. … The Pride lead the league in goals conceded with 10. … Defender Toni Pressley returned to full training this week and is no longer listed on the Pride’s injury report. … Centerback Alanna Kennedy, who has the Pride’s only goal this season, is questionable with a left quad injury. … Midfielder Kristen Edmonds (left knee) is out. … Emily Menges (right foot) and Bella Bixby (right hand) are questionable for the Thorns. … The Pride’s Ashlyn Harris, Alex Morgan, Ali Krieger, Shelina Zadorsky and the Thorns’ Adrianna Franch, Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan, Christine Sinclair and Emily Sonnett will miss the game after getting called up to their national teams.