Orlando Pride face unknown challenge in season opener against Racing Louisville

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Julia Poe, Orlando Sentinel
·5 min read
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Orlando Pride coach Marc Skinner is known as a film junkie. But in the Pride’s first match of the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup against Racing Louisville, the coach faces a unique challenge — a complete dearth of film on his opponent.

The expansion team is an unknown quantity in the league, introducing itself for the first time at home against Orlando on Saturday.

The match will kick off at 7 p.m. at Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville, with a live broadcast on Paramount+ and an international stream on Twitch.

Without the typical amount of information on his opponent, Skinner said the Pride will focus on imposing their own style.

“You have to try and predict rather than prepare,” Skinner said. “We have to use our intuition, we have to use our knowledge of the league, we have to use video of players from other times. ... It’s a really unique situation this one, because how many times do you play a team where you’ve never seen any video on them? It sees how quickly we can adapt to something.”

Louisville will include familiar NWSL faces, including keeper Michelle Betos and forwards Savannah McCaskill and Yuki Nagasato.

The team utilized the 2021 expansion draft to select several players who don’t currently compete in the NWSL, including former Orlando midfielder Alanna Kennedy, American stars Tobin Heath and Christen Press and the rights to Australian star Caitlin Foord.

Although the Orlando Pride is entering its sixth year in the league, the team poses a similar unfamiliarity to opponents and fans alike.

The Pride feature 12 of the 19 players who suited up for the Fall Series, but nearly half of the starting lineup — including additions Ali Riley, Jade Moore and Gunny Jónsdóttir — is completely new to Pride fans. Only seven players from the 2019 team remain on the roster.

Following a long gap in games due to COVID-19 issues last year and a complete roster overhaul, Saturday’s match will serve as a reintroduction for the Pride.

Captain Ali Krieger said the team sees this game as an opportunity to set high expectations for the 2021 season, particularly for the young core of first-year players.

“I’m sure you’ll see that right off the bat in this game on Saturday, that we’re not here to just be average,” Krieger said. “None of us are going to be average, and I know they’re wanting to set a standard right off the bat, as a younger crop of players, that they deserve to be here and that they’re willing to roll their sleeves up and get the job done. So I’m excited for that this weekend and for all of you to see all the work that we’ve put in.”

The match will also be a reintroduction for a variety of Pride players making comebacks from various challenges in their careers.

Striker Sydney Leroux will make her long-awaited debut as starting striker after her pregnancy in 2019. Defender Toni Pressley will also make her return following a breast cancer diagnosis in 2019. Riley will play in her first U.S. club match since 2011. Midfielder Erika Tymrak will return to the pitch after a year of retirement.

Those individual narratives only add to the chip on the team’s shoulder.

“Obviously, a lot of good things take time and a lot of good things have a process, and I am understanding of that,” Krieger said. “But I understand that at times it can be frustrating, especially for our fans and supporters as well, to see that we haven’t had the winning seasons that we’ve all hoped for. But we are ready for that now.”

The Pride’s starting lineup will be shifted slightly for the first two matches of the Challenge Cup, which fall in the middle of an international window. Star striker Alex Morgan will be absent with the United States national team, while Jónsdóttir and backup keeper Erin McLeod will also be on international duty for Iceland and Canada, respectively.

Morgan said she’s doing her best to support the Pride for their opening matches, texting teammates on the way to the airport Friday and planning to watch the match — albeit recorded due to the time difference — from the team hotel.

“I think it’s really frustrating just not being able to be there in general because I’ve been in Orlando now for six-plus weeks through preseason since the end of SheBelieves Cup,” Morgan said. “It’s just really disappointing. ... Hopefully I can support Orlando as much as possible in their first game.”

Although the team won’t be at full strength, Skinner said he sees this as an important and useful test of his team’s depth.

The match will allow other players, such as rookie striker Taylor Kornieck, to challenge themselves against top competition. During an Olympic year, Skinner said it’s valuable for the team to learn how to thrive without international stars, a struggle for the Pride in years past.

Saturday’s match is a springboard for the team’s goals throughout the 2021 season.

“We want to absorb the moment,” Skinner said. “We want to absorb the pressure we poured into ourselves, upon to ourselves, but we also need to have a realistic viewpoint of managing performance to make sure that we are on the right track to be successful for the regular season.”

This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Julia Poe at jpoe@orlandosentinel.com.