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USWNT players return to Orlando Pride training focused on earning more wins

World Cup champions Alex Morgan, Ali Krieger and Alex Morgan trained with their club time for the first time in two months on Wednesday.

United States women's national team players Ali Kreiger, left; Alex Morgan, center; and Ashlyn Harris, right , address fans in Orlando Tuesday. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/Orlando Sentinel)

SANFORD, Fla. — After almost two months away from their club team, World Cup champions Alex Morgan, Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger returned to training with the Orlando Pride on Wednesday morning.

After arriving in Orlando on Monday night, Morgan remained on the sidelines during Wednesday’s practice. The decision was mainly precautionary as Morgan continues to rest a slight tweak to her knee during the World Cup. Krieger and Harris returned for the entirety of training, their voices ringing out clearly across the pitch as they marshaled the backline during the scrimmage.

For all three U.S. women’s national-team players, the return to training with their club felt like a repayment of the level of dedication their Pride teammates have put in during their absence.

“We left a lot of people out to dry being gone as much as we have,” Harris said. “For them to continue to commit to grind and work really hard when we’re not here, knowing that when we show up we’re right back in the squad, that’s not easy. I think that’s just a testament to this culture that [coach] Marc [Skinner] is creating.”

Despite the time difference, the players did their best to follow the Pride while in France. Whenever the Pride played a game, Krieger stayed up until midnight to study the match, watching on her iPad with her headphones on to avoid disturbing her national-team roommate. Morgan lifted up the achievements of younger players on the team, such as rookie Erin Greening, who stepped up into the gaps left by the eight players who were gone to compete in the World Cup.

“There’s been a lot of positive growth,” Morgan said. “I think it’s [positive] seeing players like that grow into themselves, feel confident in this league and really take control of their future here.”

Pride players said that they felt a difference — “like night and day,” in Krieger’s words — with the Americans back on the pitch. The trio offers a depth of talent in three different position groups, but Skinner said the Americans’ impact ran deeper than just their physical play.

On the defensive side of the ball, Harris and Krieger’s experience and leadership offered a calm reassurance that Skinner’s team — which has ceded 10 goals in the past four games — desperately needs. On the offensive side, the presence of Morgan, even on the sidelines, notches up the competition for a team flush with talent at the striker position.

“They bring that psyche,” Skinner said. “When it comes to the psyche of winning, that’s what the American players bring to any team. Bringing a winning mentality to a team that wants to win but is trying to find out how they can do that is so crucial. I think tempo of the [training] session grows another 20, 30% just from them being here and expecting to win.”

It’s been more than a week since the U.S. won the World Cup, igniting a fanbase across the country and shining a spotlight on women’s soccer, but the buzz surrounding the team has hardly died down.

The win was particularly special for Krieger. After serving as the starting right back of the record-setting World Cup backline for the U.S. in 2015, national-team calls suddenly stopped coming for Krieger in 2017. The drought ended only months before the World Cup started. Krieger received a call-up, then the final spot on the World Cup roster. In the World Cup final, she started the second half to replace Kelley O’Hara, who suffered a concussion.

When the final whistle blew, the ball was at Krieger’s feet. For the defender, it was the most emotional moment of her career, a culmination of refusing to relax despite no contact from the national team for more than two years.

“You have to understand your value as a person and a player,” Krieger said. “I know how good I am. I know my value and I know my worth. I never gave up on what I wanted to do and what I wanted to achieve and now I’m a two-time world champion. I proved myself. Now I think it’s really hard to ignore me.”

After going viral for her Instagram stories documenting the team’s three-day cross-continent celebration of the victory, Harris joked that she’s not allowed to curse anymore now that she’s back at home. Since the whirlwind of ticker-tape parades and welcome-back parties, the past week has been about recovery and refocusing for the three players.

For Harris and Krieger, the time offered an important period of respite after the two-month grind of the World Cup. Harris returned to her home town of Satellite Beach, visiting with her nephew, Jenson, whom Harris says hasn’t taken off her jersey since the final. The pair also spent time with teammate Sydney Leroux, who gave birth to her daughter, Roux, the morning of the U.S. team’s quarterfinal match against France.

Now the three U.S. players’ focus is on reintegrating into club play. It’s been more than two months since the players have been able to focus 100% on the Pride. While Skinner hopes all three players will be available for Saturday’s game against Sky Blue FC, the players understand it could take longer to fully mesh with their teammates. However, all three players reiterated the same goal — mixing back in with the team as quickly as possible to win.

“I think that this league is very physical,” Morgan said. “It’s been a long time over the last two or three months of just focusing on the national team and just executing our roles perfectly within the national team. Now that that is behind us, we’re 100% committed to Orlando. [The challenge] is just making sure that we re-learn the style that Marc has been focusing on with this team over the last four months.”

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