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Orlando Pride prepares to counter Sam Kerr, Chicago Red Stars

The Pride’s focus will be on the league’s leading striker as it heads to Chicago on Wednesday.

SANFORD, Fla. — During the Orlando Pride’s visit to Chicago, there will be one focus for the team’s backline — striker Sam Kerr.

The Australian is the most dangerous attacker in the National Women’s Soccer League without a close second, scoring 13 goals in 14 appearances for the Red Stars. The last time the teams met, Kerr netted a hat trick during a blazing return to the league following Australia’s early exit from the World Cup.

For Orlando, the road rematch will require an extra level of defensive intensity.

“[Kerr] is one of the best strikers in the world,” Pride defender Kristen Edmonds said. “She’s quick, she’s good on the ball, she can hold it up, she can run in behind. We have to be aware of her at all times… but we like the challenge. That’s why we play in the best league in the world. We want to play against the best all the time.”

The teams most recently met six weeks ago in a game defined by an early defensive error. A bobbled back pass to backup goalkeeper Haley Kopmeyer gave Kerr an open shot on goal in the sixth minute. The Pride ultimately lost the match 3-2.

During that meeting, the Pride scored twice on the Red Stars, but that was a Chicago team without the defensive duo of Julie Ertz and Alyssa Naeher. In the five games since their return, the Red Stars have notched three shutouts and only ceded three goals.

“I thought we were very threatening in that game, but we gave away some awful goals,” Skinner said. “We had an element of control, we could lock down their shape.”

Marta will serve the final match of her two-game red card suspension on Wednesday, removing an important tool of the Orlando attack. The striker leads the team with four goals this season and her absence was felt during Saturday’s 2-0 loss to Utah. The Pride finished scoreless during their past two matches and haven’t netted a goal in a month since the team’s 1-0 win over Sky Blue.

Despite Marta’s absence, Skinner is encouraged by the return of striker Alex Morgan to the lineup. After sitting out several games due to a World Cup injury, Morgan entered Saturday’s game in the 68th minute. Skinner plans to “unleash” her again in Chicago, hoping to build her minutes as she returns to full form.

“I wouldn’t say she’s 100%, but you can’t ever be until you get games under your belt,” Skinner said. “The one thing I’ll say about Alex is she’s a class apart in terms of movement in the box. She’ll give defenders nightmares, especially as we adapt our play to suit the needs of a striker that’s world class. We’ll see the best of her soon.”

Despite returning to eligibility from her red card suspension, defender Julie King will also remain on the sidelines after taking a knock to her ankle during practice.

Falling to the bottom of the NWSL standings after Saturday’s loss, the Pride entered the week with a chip on their shoulder. This weekend marked the second week when the team felt slighted by a referee decision, this time following a hard collision in the box between Utah keeper Nicole Barnhart and Orlando forward Claire Emslie.

Emslie returned to training on Monday and Skinner said he doesn’t doubt she’d lay her body out similarly in the future. But this frustration has melded with the team’s disappointment over its spot in the standings, fueling players’ desire to return to the pitch for a fresh game.

For Pride veterans like Edmonds, the key to finishing this season lies in turning focus to individual games rather than the league table.

“Coming off of Saturday’s game, I think we’re happy to have a game so soon just to be able to forget about that one,” Edmonds said. “We want to take it game by game and focus on winning each game at this point instead of big picture focusing on the playoffs.”

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