As Ashlyn Harris Returns, Pride Host Sky Blue FC in Pivotal Playoff-push Matchup

Goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris has been out since May 21 with a torn quad, but she is now set to return for the Orlando Pride in one of their most pivotal games of the season.

Orlando Pride goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris advises her defense during the team's first preseason training session at Seminole Soccer Complex on Monday, March 13, 2017. (Photo by Victor Tan / New Day Review)
(Photo by Victor Tan / New Day Review)

ORLANDO, Fla. – No dramatics—simply focus.

That’s all there was to Orlando Pride goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris’ rehabilitation after she suffered a torn quad in the first half of a 1-1 draw with the Seattle Reign on May 21. While Harris was injured, the Pride struggled to stay in the top half of the standings until a recent five-game stretch in which the Pride went 2-1-2 to put themselves in position to nab a playoff spot.

For Harris, that meant she had one goal: to get back as quickly but as safely as possible.

“For me, I just put my head down, and I do my job,” Harris said after training Thursday. “There’s no time for me to go inward. You know, I gotta focus on the team and what’s best for the team. And I can’t be moping around on the sidelines worrying about myself. So, I just had to play a different role, and that’s being a leader and an organizer off the field and trying to coach them as much as I can and be around as much as I can…

“So I don’t really focus too much on myself and wasted energy on things I can’t control. So that’s kind of where I’ve been at the last 10 to 12 weeks.”

Now, last season’s National Women’s Soccer League Goalkeeper of the Year is set to return in one of the Pride’s most pivotal matches of the season. On Saturday, fifth-place Orlando will host sixth-place Sky Blue FC. Both teams are tied with 23 points apiece, but Orlando has the narrow edge with a slightly better goal differential.

Given a draw or loss from the fourth-place Seattle Reign in a matchup with the No. 1 North Carolina Courage on Sunday, a win for either Orlando or Sky Blue could propel the winning side into fourth place.

For Harris, she doesn’t focus on the implications and external pressures; there’s already enough internal pressure. Instead, she’s focusing on mental preparation.

“You know, right now I’m just not focusing on all the outside pressure,” Harris said. “You know, I put enough pressure on myself. That’s what fuels the fire every morning I wake up. So I’m just focusing on simple things.

“I’m trying to relax. I’m doing a lot of energy and mental preparation and putting myself through game scenarios because I haven’t played in a game in a long time, and no matter how I am out at training, it’s a completely different challenge out in the game. So right now, I’m just doing a lot of focusing on my imagery and the things that I can control and not worrying about all the outside factors that are kind of out of my hands at this point.”

For head coach Tom Sermanni, his focus is on finishing the Pride’s “critical” three-game home stand on a positive note. After drawing with the Chicago Red Stars on Aug. 5, the Pride recorded their second clean sheet of the season with their first-ever win over the Washington Spirit on Aug. 8.

“It’s hard to say [if this is the most important game of the season],” Sermanni said after training Thursday. “It’s hard to say, you know, because if win, lose or draw, probably the next game because the most important game of the season. So it’s a very, very important game, and we’ve spoken all week about this three-game stretch being very critical to us. So, it is critical, but, you know, we’ve just also gotta be aware that things don’t always go to plan, and you’ve gotta be up for the game after this as well.”

As for managing Harris in her first game in two months, Sermanni said she simply has to play as if she’s never been injured. Sermanni’s biggest concern in any returning-from-injury situation, however, is a player picking up a new injury.

“Once she get out in that field, once she cross that line, you just don’t play any differently,” the second-year Pride boss said. “She’s gotta go out there as if she’s never been injured this season and just pick up from where she left off…

“You know, you’re always worried that somebody coming back in from a long-term injury does something else. So, you know, you’re protecting the bit that’s injured, but you haven’t played a full game and done some of those other things. So, there’s the potential to perhaps injure another part of your body. That’s probably the biggest concern at this stage. I don’t really have any goalkeeping concerns, I think, you know? She’s played enough games, got enough experience.”

Harris said her biggest challenge in returning to competitive play will be that she has been away from competitive play. The Tournament of Nations, which took an NWSL-high seven players from the Pride, and Orlando’s recent home stand have also inhibited Harris to train in a full-team scrimmage.

“I mean, I’m not played in. I haven’t played a game in over two months,” Harris said. “So that presents itself challenges. You know, being out here, training every day, doing goalkeeper training is completely different. So, I’m just gonna have to be focused 90-plus minutes. I can’t take a second off. Soon as I touch the ball, the nerves will go away, and, you know, I’ll do my job. That’s what I’m here to do, and, for me…I have to simplify everything, and then, as I get rolling, then you’ll see the crazy stuff come out.”

Orlando and Sky Blue kick off on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

For more on the Pride and Harris, as they take on Sky Blue, follow Victor Tan on Twitter at @NDR_VictorTan.