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Orlando Pride: Who to Watch In 2018

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With most of the roster intact, which Pride players will lead the way in 2018?

Nick Leyva, The Mane Land

With the Orlando Pride season coming up in a couple of months and the team staying basically the same from last season (so far), many people are wondering if this team has what it takes to go to the next step: making it to the NWSL Cup final. After a disappointing match in Portland during the semifinals, the Pride have had a long off-season to reflect and come back even stronger.

The team has yet to make any moves thus far in the off-season. Tom Sermani hit the ground running as soon as the season had concluded, traveling to Europe and Australia to scout new talent for the team. The front office was able to re-sign Dani Weatherholt who had a very good season in the midfield for the Pride. The club was also able to send a handful of players to Australia and Europe to ensure that they continue to compete at the highest level. I would argue that this has done wonders for the players who went.

Five players from the squad went off to play in winter leagues this year. Rachel Hill went to play for Perth Glory for her first season in Australia. Toni Pressley also went to Australia for the first time, playing for Canberra United. Steph Catley and Alanna Kennedy returned to their homeland to compete for Melbourne City. Monica also played in a winter league but did not travel to Australia. She has been playing for Atlético Madrid. Later on in the season, Sydney FC received Aubrey Bledsoe on loan from Orlando Pride due to some goalkeeping issues they had. This made the total rise to six players playing abroad and I can’t forget to mention that Alex Morgan and Ashlyn Harris were getting regular call-ups with the U.S. Women’s National Team.

With all this work in the off-season, the Pride are poised to have an even better season this year. You could basically go position by position on a team with this much talent when discussing who to watch for in the coming year, but here’s who I’ll be keeping an eye on for 2018.

Rachel Hill

One of the most exciting players to watch going into this season might not be Marta or even Morgan (though both of those ladies are certainly exciting to watch). I have my eyes on 22-year-old forward Rachel Hill, a player who originally was not selected by the Orlando Pride in the 2017 draft but was traded for shortly after. The Pride gave up a few assets to grab the young striker out of UConn last year and she is poised to have a breakout season.

Last year, Hill signed with the Orlando Pride in May shortly after graduating from college. She took a bit of time to break into the starting 11, finally getting an opportunity on June 28 to show what she had. Hill had three goals, and one assist in 713 minutes over 15 appearances. Though Hill only had the fifth most minutes out of the forward group, her play off the ball, as well as her link-up play, were something to be delighted with.

The W-League has has done wonders for the young forward this winter, as she has lit up the league in the offensive end. I would argue she has had the best off-season of any Pride player that went off to play.

Hill joined Perth Glory in the beginning of the W-League season, playing alongside NWSL Golden Boot winner Sam Kerr. Boy did Hill take off from the start. She scored seven goals with three weeks left to play in the league. Hill currently sits second in goals right behind Kerr, who has eight.

2018 Outlook

The issue with this kind of form in the W-League begs the question: will she be able to bring over her goal scoring to the Pride when she returns? I believe she will. The opportunity that Rachel has had to not only have more professional soccer under her belt but to also study the game of Kerr has been invaluable.

This is not to say that working with Morgan and Marta hasn’t been influential but having as many opportunities to learn the forward position from some of the best strikers in the world does not hurt. Though Hill was fifth in minutes last year among strikers, I would not be surprised if Tom Sermani found ways to get her on the field more in 2018. The one thing that could help her is Camila’s absence from the team in the first few months as the Brazilian makes her way back from her ACL/MCL injury. If Hill can make an impact early for this team, she could not only see her minutes rise with the squad but she could also become an instant fan favorite.

Prediction: If Hill can grab a starting spot she could easily have a ten goal/five assist season.

Marta

If there is anything Pride fans can hope for going into next season, its the idea that their two biggest stars hit the ground running. Marta’s play in the 2018 season can set the tone for the Pride.

The five-time World Player of the Year took the NWSL by storm last year, joining the team right before the home opener against the Washington Spirit. Though she did not start that game there was a different feel in the air. The Orlando Pride had signed one of the best women footballers in the world. As she came on in the 59th minute the crowd erupted and you knew that she was going to be special for the Pride.

Marta did not waste any time leading the Pride as she bagged her first goal on May 7 against FC Kansas City. She was the leader of the Pride up until June 21 when Alex Morgan returned from Lyon. During the time Morgan was gone, Marta had five goals and three assists, with her numbers improving each week. Even when Morgan returned, Marta had eight goals and three assists, ending the year as the Orlando Pride leading goal scorer with 13 goals along with her six assists.

2018 Outlook

So where does Marta go from here? Having a full preseason with the Pride can only bode well for team chemistry, especially with all the stars this team has. Expect Marta to continue to split time between the attacking line and her midfield facilitator role, depending on the opponent and the team’s shape.

Prediction: I would expect Marta to score a bit less if Hill is able to seize a starting role up top and look for the Brazilian to finish with about seven goals but a boost in assists, most likely hitting double digits.

Alex Morgan

After a lackluster first season with the Pride, Morgan decided to join Lyon for half of the year on a loan to provide another opportunity for herself. While with Lyon she was able to score five times in eight appearances, regaining top form. Due to the fact that she was away from the Pride for half of the season and returned with an injury, it took Morgan a bit of time to acclimate to the team. She eventually ended the season with nine goals and four assists, creating a kick in form for the Pride in the back end of their season leading them to the playoffs. Though it didn’t end how Morgan wanted it to, the season was a boost for her.

2018 Outlook

Alex can only continue to improve next season. She has not been on loan this off-season but she has spent time with the USWNT, continuing to work on her game. With having an entire preseason with the team, Marta being right at her side, and the improved form of Chioma Ubogagu and Hill, Morgan should expect to have an even better season than last year.

Prediction: I would expect Morgan to score at least 12 goals this season. If healthy, she’ll be one of the top scorers in the league.

Chioma Ubogagu

She would need to sign her contract offer to be in Orlando in 2018, but Chi has found a place among the Orlando Pride attack after joining the team last season. Ubogagu was acquired by trading a 2017 third-round draft pick to the Houston Dash. It was a move seen to bolster the attack that had been so lackluster the season before. Even with the additions of Marta in the beginning of the year as well as a few other attacking plays, Chi was able to make her presence known on the pitch.

She played over 1,300 minutes for the Pride in her first season with the club, scoring three times and providing three assists. Ubogagu played all but three games and was used in a variety of attacking spots. Her versatility is something that the Pride can value especially with some injuries and holes they will have to inevitably deal with next season.

Though she did not play in a winter league this off-season, Chi received a USWNT call up. Many believe that the reason she was brought into the USWNT was because of her position flexibility. This is a big step for Chi and if she can continue to play well and receive call-ups it’ll only improve her stock.

2018 Outlook

Chi could have an interesting season for the Pride but could certainly hold on to her spot in the starting 11 (I do not foresee Jamia Fields or Danica Evans taking over those spots, although Nadia Gomes could provide pressure). Her main area to improve is consistency in the final third.

Prediction: I would expect Ubogagu to net at least seven goals this year if she can hold onto a starting 11 spot. Even if she cannot, she could be a huge spark off the bench and provide goals to close out games. Though I would prefer to see her start, this could be a possibility.

Dani Weatherholt

Most of Weatherholt’s game goes under the radar. Unfortunately, that is a common thread with more defensive players. Nonetheless, she was a key cog in the wheel for this Pride team since she was drafted in 2016. Though it took some time for her to see the field, she has been consistently locking down teams and connecting the defense to the offense in transition.

Last season, Dani went from playing just under 800 minutes in year one to almost 1,500 minutes in year two. She was asked often to play a double pivot (two defensive midfielder set up) to bolster the defensive end of the field. Weatherholt and Kennedy were a dynamic duo in the defensive part of the pitch. Like stated above, this type of play is not recognized as much because there aren’t a whole lot of stats to bolster the argument but when it comes to more defensive players that can be a good thing.

2018 Outlook

With Dani being only 23-years-old, she still has room to grow and I fully expect that to continue going into next year. With the uncertainty of Kennedy up to this point, Dani could be asked to hold down the defensive midfield position solo. Even if Kennedy comes back (which at this point we expect to happen) Weatherholt can blossom even more becoming one of the best defensive midfielders in NWSL. As long as Weatherholt can continue to settle into the team and work well in possession, she will undoubtedly continue to hold down that defensive midfield spot.

Prediction: I would expect Weatherholt to work on her passing stats, not that she was terrible in that department, but having better possession and passing percentage would go a long way for this team. If Weatherholt can hold the ball more often or even distribute at a better rate, this Pride team could be even more potent. I expect even better growth out of her becoming an enforcer at the defensive midfield spot.

The Goalkeeper Position: Ashlyn Harris & Aubrey Bledsoe

When it comes goalkeeping, the Orlando Pride had the goal locked down last season. When Ashlyn Harris went out with a quad injury, Bledsoe came in and did a great job keeping the team in the fight for a playoff spot. With both goalkeepers doing well last season this could create a potential issue: If a team needs a goalkeeper, could one of these players be dealt?

As the season approaches, teams around the league could start inquiring about the availability of one of the Pride’s keepers if injuries occur. But for now Harris and Bledsoe return for the Pride and could be the most dominant one-two punch in terms of goalkeepers.

Harris began the season as the starting goalkeeper, a role she held in 2016 as well, when the team came into the league. She played the first six games of the season for the Pride putting in solids performances in all those games. Though she did not grab any clean sheets, she only let up about 1.5 goals per game and had four saves per game, also tallying a 10-save game against North Carolina Courage. However, against Seattle, Harris went out in the 26th minute and emergency backup Caroline Stanley was forced into action. Harris returned Aug. 13, grabbing a clean sheet in her first start back. She then led the Pride to the playoffs. Harris has done a bit of off-season work as well, playing with the USWNT, keeping her in form.

Bledsoe was pushed into action the week following Harris’ injury. She started 10 games for the Pride, allowing 1.5 goals per game and averaging 3.5 saves per game. Bledsoe also had two clean sheets. She slid right into a team that needed her to step up and boy did she. During the off-season, Bledsoe is currently with Sydney FC, where she’s made the most of her opportunities, chalking up five starts and two shutouts so far. The time with Sydney FC has done wonders for her thus far and only helps improve her stock.

2018 Outlook

Could it be possible that the team deals one of these bright stars to gain a missing piece? Bledsoe could be an attractive player to trade for due to her performances and her age. However, Harris also has her own appeal with a plethora of experience in the professional game, 14 USWNT caps, and the ability to inspire the players around her. I’m not suggesting that either player needs to leave the team but this could be something that the team entertains if there are needs that can’t be solved with just finding a player.

Prediction: Harris will retain the starting job by the time the season begins but if there is any slip in form or if Harris gets injured again, we could see a changing of the guard, allowing an opportunity for Bledsoe to come in and compete for the job. If this team needs to grab one more piece and can do so by trading one of its keepers, it could be possible that Harris or Bledsoe are dealt.

Camila

After having an explosive year last year, Camila had an unfortunate ending to her season after tearing her MCL & ACL in the final regular-season game. Camila played 1,900 minutes last year in 24 games. In that time she scored four goals with five assists, creating a lot of chances on the attacking front but also was able to get back on defense. The unfortunate injury was something the Pride were not expecting and may have hindered them from going all the way to the NWSL Cup final.

Camila began her career at the age of 18 in Brazil, bouncing around a few teams. She also had a small stint in Houston before returning to Brazil. However, when Camila joined the Pride there were high expectations for the young defender/midfielder and she did not fail to disappoint. Though her stats may not be as high as some would have hoped, her effect on the field could not be missed.

2018 Outlook

The number one goal for Camila in 2018 is for her to get healthy. Tearing one of either your ACL or MCL is tough enough but having to come back from both is no easy task. The Pride will do everything in their power to ensure that she rehabs correctly and gets back on the field. Injuries like Camila’s can take about six to nine months to properly heal pegging a summer to early fall return. Best case scenario for the Pride would have them above the line at that time with Camila gently sliding in so she can rehab back in time for a playoff run. Even so, this team should have enough depth to fill in for her even if the player isn’t as explosive.

Prediction: I would expect Camila to have a slow return to the squad, easing back into the lineup midseason. With that, she could have a handful of assists and a goal or two by the end of the season.