ORLANDO PRIDE AND NC COURAGE U-18/19 TO FACE OFF IN LIVE FEATURE GAME BEFORE THE NWSL CHAMPIONSHIP

Before the NWSL (National Women's Soccer League) Championship kicks off on Saturday, the future of women's soccer takes the spotlight as the Development Academy's Orlando Pride and NC Courage U-18/19 squads face off in a feature game at the Seminole Soccer Complex in Sanford, Fla. It's the first matchup between the NWSL clubs in the Southeast Division, where the clubs are currently fourth and second, respectively, in the standings. The game will be broadcast live on the U.S. Soccer Development Academy Facebook page.

"We're really looking forward to the game," said Alan Hough, Orlando Pride Girls' Academy Director. "It comes with a great opportunity. We know it's going to be a tough opponent, it's going to be a good game. They're very similar to us."

Hours after the feature game and a short drive from the Seminole Soccer Complex, the NC Courage first team will look to take home the NWSL Championship at Orlando City Stadium as they take on the Portland Thorns. The Courage won last season's NWSL crown as the Western New York Flash, and finished the regular season as NWSL Shield winners, with the Thorns just two points behind. Portland won the NWSL Shield last season and last won the NWSL Championship in 2013.

Being a part of the NWSL has proven invaluable for both Academy clubs. Players have had the opportunity to train with the first teams, with Pride goalkeeper Hensley Hancuff training with the professional ranks on daily basis. NC Courage U-18/19 Head Coach Sean Nahas also serves as an assistant with the first team. He says that the pro sides also provide elite opportunity.

"The (Academy) players have players to look up to, players to go watch every single weekend," Nahas said. "Players to strive to be like, in how they carry themselves on and off the field, it just gives a whole different dimension to what we're trying to do."

The NWSL Championship celebrates the culmination of the fifth season of the nation's longest-running women's professional soccer league. The NWSL's investment in the Girls' Academy marks a major step forward in the league's player development initiatives and the long-term growth of women's soccer. Female youth players now have a clear pathway to train and play with an NWSL first team as part of their overall player progression.

Both teams feature a host of players in the pool for U.S. Youth National Teams: goalkeeper Hensley Hancuff of the Pride and Tori Hansen (defender), Marzia Josephson (goalkeeper) and Maggie Pierce (midfielder) of the Courage. In the first season of the Girls' Academy, Hough has already noticed a raising of the bar, especially in the presence of U.S. Soccer and National Team scouts. In 2016-17 (the last Academy season before the launch of the Girls' Academy), 92 percent of male Youth National Team call-ups came from Academy clubs.

"It brings a higher intensity in terms of the games," Hough said. "The oversight of U.S. Soccer in terms of what clubs do, in terms of their everyday environment, that's definitely raised the standards. Morgan [Church], the Technical Advisor for the Southeast, has already been out to some of our training sessions, she's already been to some of our weekends of games. That kind of presence elevated, without a doubt, everybody's game, from coaches to referees to players."

Hansen co-captains the Courage with midfielder Haleigh Stackpole, leading a young team (featuring several 2001 birth years) that have come up through the youth ranks together. She anchors the defense of a team that prides itself on building from the back and dominating possession. Nahas allows the players freedom to roam and pick their spots on the field in order to continue possession.

Kirsten Scott has lead the way for the Pride this season and her seven goals are good for top-10 in the Academy. She's been able to penetrate, find pockets of space in the final third and capitalize when the moment arrives with clinical finishing ability. The technical Ainsley Frazier holds down the midfield, key to the build-up in the Pride youth clubs' standard 4-2-3-1, and defender Jordan Michaels has maintained the back line, coming up to allow the Pride to play an attractive style and preventing any counterattack attempts.

The Girls' Academy is in the midst of its inaugural season and Saturday's contest marks its second feature game. Together, the Boys' and Girls' Academy program includes 197 unique clubs that field teams across six age groups in the boys' program: U-12, U-13, U-14, U-15, U-16/17, and U-18/19 and four age groups in the girls' program: U-14, U-15, U-16/17, and U-18/19. For more information about the Academy, visit ussoccerda.com.