SANFORD, Fla. — Forward Claire Emslie has looked to the U.S. for her future in soccer since she was 10 years old.
That was when she visited America for the first time, on vacation with her family in Orlando. She had already fallen in love with the game, watching “Bend It Like Beckham” on repeat and following the career of English star Kelly Smith. She knew she wanted to play professionally.
To Emslie, the only place to pursue that dream was America, the only country at the time with a professional league for women. Over the years, her career has continued to tug her back to Florida — first to play for Florida Atlantic University and now as the newest addition to the Orlando Pride.
In her first month with the team, Emslie is now looking to carve out her own place in the National Women’s Soccer League.
“She’s electric, and when she gets at people, they just don’t know what to do,” Pride coach Marc Skinner said. “You’re never quite sure which way she’ll take you, where she’ll play the ball next. She’s just exciting.”
The decision to bring Emslie to Orlando happened quickly. Skinner had been scouting the winger since he was the head coach at Birmingham City, but he was never able to sign her. When he took over the Pride, he worked to bring Emslie to Orlando.
He saw her as a perfect fit. His goal is to create a team that is fluid and adaptable on the attack, loaded with wingers who can create options and attack from a variety of angles. Emslie provides an ability to move on either side of the pitch and attack with both feet, bringing a hunger for one-on-one battles.
“She fits the future idea of what the Orlando Pride will look like,” Skinner said. “She’s a fluid player, she can adapt to any position on the attack. I want us to play intelligent football and she fits that mold.”
Emslie signed with Orlando in May, then headed to France with the Scottish national team for the World Cup.
Emslie became quickly recognizable for Scotland on the wing, slashing through defenses in a bright pink kit. She scored the country’s first World Cup goal against England, the best way she could have imagined, darting behind her defender and slotting the ball home with her right foot.
“I had dreamed about that moment for years, but in the moment when it happened, it just kind of felt like any game,” Emslie said. “It wasn’t really until after that it hit me.”
It didn’t matter, afterward that England won that game 2-1, or that Scotland didn’t advance past the group stage. The team’s World Cup berth was historic for the nation nonetheless.
It marked the first World Cup for the Scottish women’s team and the first since 1990 for the country as a whole.
In Scotland, buildings were plastered with murals of Emslie and her teammates and Scots who had never watched a game of soccer tuned in to cheer on the women’s team.
“It was the best feeling in the world,” Emslie said. “Not much will beat that. People were proud to be Scottish, and they were proud of us.”
She took a few weeks to recuperate after the World Cup, but her journey to Orlando was a whirlwind. She arrived with only one suitcase and immediately dove to training, trying to juggle all the complications of moving to a new country — buying a car and even just buying bedding from Target — with the complications of learning a new soccer system.
Two days after training with the team for the first time, Emslie checked into Pride’s game against Sky Blue in the 64th minute in front of an announced crowd of more than 9,400 fans in the stands.
For a week, she’d been moving non-stop, learning a new system, attempting to memorize new names and faces. Now, as Emslie listened to the roar of the crowd, she felt something new — for a moment, she was scared to take the pitch.
She wanted to make a positive impression in her first game, not only for her team, but for the crowd as well.
“I think apart from the World Cup, that was probably the best crowd I’ve played in front of,” Emslie said. “From the first minute to the last, it was just a different energy. The second I got on the pitch, though, I could feel that they were behind us and it helped.”
Once she started to play, the nerves melted away. During her first 30 minutes in a Pride kit, Emslie provided an added burst of speed to the attack, often serving up crosses to Marta with enough pace to catch the forward off guard. Although her first game only gave Emslie a taste of the NWSL, she feels that she’s beginning to adjust to the physical, direct style of play.
With 20 days between games, life has slowed down a little for Emslie. She’s using the time to grow with the team, attempting to learn her teammates’ style and preferences on the attack.
Her relationship with Marta is getting stronger as they continue to link up in training, and she reveled at the fact she was able to teach the veteran a skill. True to her position as a winger, Emslie is just as excited to assist her teammates as she is to score herself.
“Claire just wants to play football,” Skinner said. “I see a smile on her face whenever she walks in. She’s a quiet person, but she affects people with her performance, whether she’s on or off the field. She’s going to make an impact that’s going to be huge for us.”
The break in play has provided Emslie with an extended period of time to integrate into the system before the team’s next game against Houston. It’s also given her the opportunity to soak in her favorite things about Florida — the daily sunshine, American food and old friends from college who still live in Florida.
There’s still work left before Emslie will be fully comfortable with her new team. She’s still memorizing all of her teammates names, and they’re still figuring out her accent. But for Emslie, the Pride feels like the right fit.
“It actually feels like I’m coming home,” Emslie said. “Now, I think I’ve proved to myself that I can play at the highest level. I just want to go to the next one.”