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Toni Pressley returns for Orlando Pride season-ending draw with Reign FC

Pressley returned to action for the first time since her surgery for breast cancer

Orlando Pride defender Toni Pressley, center, heads to the field in a warm-up breast cancer awareness jersey ahead of the team's match with Reign FC Saturday at Exploria Stadium (ISI Photos)

ORLANDO, Fla. — The biggest moment in the final game of the Orlando Pride’s season didn’t come from either of the team’s two goals against Reign FC on Saturday.

Instead, it came during an otherwise ordinary substitution in the 72nd minute. As defender Toni Pressley took the pitch, she earned a standing ovation from the announced crowd of 8,103 that joined in celebrating the defender’s first minutes since she was diagnosed with breast cancer three months ago.

The moment reflected the unity of the Pride (4-16-5, 17 points) and the NWSL in supporting Pressley since she announced her diagnosis. Players from both teams applauded as Pressley entered the pitch. Reign FC (10-6-9) coach Vlatko Andonovski walked over from his box to give her a pat on the shoulder and a few words of encouragement. And Pride goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris tugged the pink captain’s armband onto Pressley’s bicep, patting her gently on the cheek as the defender earned her first match minutes since undergoing surgery in August.

“For her to hand that over to me in that moment was so special,” Pressley said. “It was a special moment and it’s something that I’ll never forget. It felt amazing to have everyone be behind me and give me that extra push to get on the field. I think it’s a testament to how wonderful our fans are. Just to have them, it means the world.”

Fifteen minutes later, Marta delivered the perfect cap to the resurgent moment for the Pride. The ball skipped across the face of the box, where Marta wound up and slammed the shot home. As the ball hit the net, Marta turned immediately to Pressley, making a “T” with her arms as her teammates swarmed her in celebration.

The match highlighted many of the central themes of the Pride’s frustrating 2019 season. The team built strong offensive passages but failed to create meaningful shots on goal, then ceded goals in key moments of break down man-to-man defense. But the game also marked the first time Pressley and Sydney Leroux, who missed most of the season due to pregnancy, returned to the pitch at the same time.

By the final whistle, the team notched 21 shots and placed 10 of them on frame.

“I really think we deserved to win this game,” Marta said. “We had a lot of chances. For everything we did today, everything we tried, all the chances, all the goals that were almost there but didn’t go in, and also for the cause I really think we should have won.”

The Pride took a commanding start to the match, firing a flurry of nine shots in the first half and placing six of them on goal. A cut into the box in the 24th minute by Rachel Hill opened up enough space for the striker to drill home a strike, giving the Pride a 1-0 lead.

The strike served as a wake-up call for the Reign, however, and the visitors responded quickly. Darian Jenkins smashed home a goal off a backside pass in the 34th minute to level the score, and Jodie Taylor added another in the 41st minute to take a 2-1 lead into the half.

Both goals came from moments that Marta described as “switching off,” when the Pride fell passive on the defensive end. Yet despite ceding the two goals, coach Marc Skinner said the game highlighted the team’s ability to control the energy from the starting whistle.

“I think they were extremely motivated to show people that this season’s not been good enough,” Skinner said. “I think that internal motivation was proven tonight. We didn’t give them a second to breathe. We didn’t let them get a rhythm and I’m so pleased with how we did that. They had the belief that they could do it and that’s all I’ve ever asked for all season.”

In the second half, the Pride continued to pepper shots on goal. The return of Leroux and Pressley added an extra boost of energy to the home team in the final minutes of the half, spurring Marta’s goal as the team battled for the 2-2 draw.

“Maybe it sounds a bit cheesy, but to see Toni and to see Sydney come back to the thing that they love so quickly is a human feat,” Skinner said. “It’s not just soccer. When I reflect, I’m sure that will be the highlight of our season. We had a player beat cancer and then come back. That beats any football thing that happened this year.”

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