Game preview | Orlando Pride vs. Houston Dash

The hot anticipation for the Orlando Pride’s home-opener was proudly represented by the number of fans that showed up to the team’s open-training session Wednesday evening. From members of The Crown, the team’s official supporters group, chanting back and forth with fans across the stadium, to players spending nearly an hour signing autographs and taking pictures with fans after practice, it was clear that the City Beautiful is ready to welcome its women’s team.

And with more than 20,000 tickets sold for Saturday’s home-opener against the Houston Dash (1-0-0, 3 points), the Pride (0-1-0, 0 points) looks to start its home run of games on a high note, as they try to break the single-game attendance record in the National Women’s Soccer League of 21,144 fans.

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Orlando Pride forward Alex Morgan takes a selfie with fans following the team’s open-training session in the Orlando Citrus Bowl on Wednesday, April 20, 2016. The Pride will play the Houston Dash for their home-opener on Saturday, April 23. (Victor Ng / Orlando Soccer Journal)

“It’s been a longtime coming,” Pride forward Alex Morgan said. “I feel like I was waiting and waiting and waiting, and so it’s finally here. It was great to get the open training in and see all of our fans firsthand and see The Crown, our supporters group, out there in full force, and, hopefully, we’ll see even more of them come Saturday… I’m looking forward to showing this city what we have to offer.”

Orlando’s home-opener will have a lot of star power too, as it showcases two of the best women’s soccer players in the world in Morgan and the Dash’s Carli Lloyd. Lloyd, 33, won the 2016 FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year award and helped her team win the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. In the Dash’s 3-1 victory over the Chicago Red Stars, she scored once.

Morgan welcomes that sort of competition against other top players like Lloyd and U.S. national teamer Morgan Brian. Regarding the home-opener, she said it’ll help attract a bigger crowd; but she’s hoping that, soon, the Pride will be able to generate its own big crowds independent of whatever team they play.

“It’s great to have Carli and Morgan and all the players come here and play in the Citrus Bowl,” Morgan said. “Obviously it’s going to help draw some more supporters, but hopefully soon enough, we won’t need to draw from any opponents.”

In preparation for Orlando’s first home match in club history, Pride head coach Tom Sermanni said his team’s found a comfort in the 4-3-3 formation following the club’s season-opening 2-1 loss to the Portland Thorns.

“We’ve kind of settled on a more, I feel like, safer system in a 4-3-3 type of system,” Sermanni said Friday before training. “And I think that’s something that players are comfortable with and I think that’s something, at the moment, we’ve got personnel that fit into that system. Now, that might change as the season goes on, depending on what happens, depending on what we see. But at the moment, I think it’s a good solid system to get started with and then we’ll see how we’ll define things from there.”

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Orlando Pride head coach Tom Sermanni looks on at his team during an open-training session in the Orlando Citrus Bowl on Wednesday, April 20, 2016. Sermanni and the Pride open home play when the Houston Dash visit on Saturday, April 23.

Sermanni said during the Pride’s media day on April 14 that his biggest preseason challenge was getting to know where players play and what their strengths are and what they bring to the team. Now, with one NWSL match under the expansion team’s belt, the process has been easier. Pride left back Steph Catley, who recorded the club’s historic first goal in the loss to Portland, said finding the appropriate formation that fits the squad will be something the team has to build on throughout the season.

“I think it’s going to be a process and it always is sort of with a new club because you don’t know what to expect and how we’re going to go,” Catley said. “But I suppose with a 2-1 loss on the weekend, I think we did better than we expected to. So, it’s going to be sort of a building process from here, and game-by-game, I think we’re going to improve and hopefully a few games in, we’ll be sort of at 100 percent.

“We’re still learning about each other and learning about how we come up against other teams.”

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Orlando Pride left back Steph Catley participates in a small scrimmage during an open-training session in the Orlando Citrus Bowl on Wednesday, April 20, 2016. Catley scored the club’s first-ever goal in a 2-1 loss to the Portland Thorns. (Victor Ng / Orlando Soccer Journal)

From the inside looking outward, it seems as if the team is just as excited as the fans for the home-opener. But Sermanni is making sure the emotions don’t interfere with the task at hand.

“I think for us it’s to make sure the excitement doesn’t take over the focus on the task that we need to perform tomorrow,” the 28-year coaching veteran said. “And I think that’s the key thing that we’ve kind of emphasized this week is that outside all of the hullabaloo, which is fantastic, it’s really important that the players get the rest, calm down, get their mind on getting prepared for the weekend… And we’ve got a lot of experienced players for this team, so I don’t see it being a problem.”

Said Catley about the home-opener: “I’ve played in front of big crowds before, but we got so many fans down at the training session the other night, and they’re all so vocal and cheery already, so I can’t imagine how loud they’re going to be tomorrow. So we’re all pretty excited.”

Kickoff against the Dash is set for 7:30 p.m.

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