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Pride Priorities: Orlando’s Biggest Needs

With the preseason officially starting, what areas can the Pride improve in?

Dan MacDonald, The Mane Land

In January, the NWSL announced the official roster size was increasing to 22 with the minimum now set at 20 and a further supplemental roster of four players available to each team, along with the salary cap and minimal salaries increasing. This is not only a sign of the league’s growth but also a response to this summer’s World Cup and preceding international friendlies which look set to decimate squads across the league.

The Orlando Pride’s preliminary roster currently stands at 18 following today’s re-signing announcement and the off-season departures of Poliana, Monica, and Christine Nairn, so it doesn’t take a math genius to work out that Orlando is as many as four players short in a year that is set to stretch even the best built squads to its limits.

With up to eight of the current roster potentially missing from late May to early July for the World Cup, it’s clearly not a question of if, but when, new boss Marc Skinner finally makes additions to his squad. The question pertinent to where those recruits fit in is asking what shape the Orlando Pride will be using in 2019. However, Skinner has already stated he isn’t much of a formation man. He encourages fluid, entertaining soccer that changes depending on the situation. He likes players that are versatile enough to play anywhere on the pitch and have the awareness and understanding to read the game and adapt.

It is perhaps fortuitous then that Tom Sermanni, so far the only head coach the Pride has ever seen and whose image the team has been built in for the last three years, wasn’t shy in testing a trio of players’ positional diversity. Alanna Kennedy spent of a lot of the last two seasons as a midfielder, despite spending most of her career as a central defender, but has since returned to the back line in her recent spell with Sydney FC in the W-League. Camila meanwhile, traditionally a fullback, frequently featured as a midfielder both in Orlando and internationally for Brazil.

The same philosophy can be seen in versatile defender Erin Greening, Orlando’s first draft pick back in January. Although Skinner wasn’t officially with the team prior to the draft, he has said he was making the decisions that day, stating that both Greening and creative midfielder Marisa Viggiano, who was taken in the fourth round, were his selections. Greening was listed by NWSL sources at the draft as a defender, midfielder, and forward, proving to be one of the most versatile players selected in Chicago — undoubtedly a big reason why Skinner chose her despite many seeing it as a reach.

Both of the rookies will not only be be buoyed by the opportunity this season will present to them when the international players depart but also by Skinner’s decade in youth development. The Englishman prides himself on developing and improving the players already at his disposal, a drive exacerbated by the budget constraints he worked under at Birmingham.

Given all of the uncertainty, the Pride could still line up as a 4-3-3, a formation used frequently last year, that can easily switch to a 3-4-3 or a 4-5-1 at the drop of a hat. In this instance, Alex Morgan, Chioma Ubogagu and Marta remain as a familiar and fearsome front three on paper although they only managed a limp 13 goals between them in 2018 with the entire team total of 30 down from 45 the season before. The Pride will need to find more goals in 2019, but with the trio currently all at the SheBelieves Cup with their respective nations, and Sydney Leroux expecting the birth of her second child this year, there will be huge gaps to fill on that front line. Rachel Hill and Danica Evans offer depth.

Hill is returning from a second spell with Perth Glory in the Australia where she tallied six goals and seven assists in her 14 appearances to add to her nine W-League goals last season. She struggled in Orlando, however, seeing her minutes limited by Sermanni to just 813, the second lowest of the team’s forwards despite making 21 appearances — the joint highest. Her 50% shot accuracy led the team, yielding four goals in a side that was led by Leroux, with six.

Cue Evans, who had an even tougher time of it in 2018, only playing 49 total minutes in her sophomore season. She will be keen to work under the new manager, who has a proven record for enabling goal scorers to thrive — Ellen White led the FA WSL in goals with Birmingham amid elite competition last season. But even with Hill showing her worth in Australia, Evans with something to prove, and Ubogagu on the fringes of the England squad, another forward will likely be on Skinner’s shopping list.

Orlando Pride’s current potential depth chart

Following the departure of Nairn, the Pride midfield looks bare and is arguably the biggest need on the team right now, regardless of any call-ups. Utilizing Camila’s versatility could fill a void in the middle of the park where she featured in nine appearances last season, completing 72% of her passes and winning 75% of tackles. But although she isn’t away with Brazil at the moment, she has been a regular feature for the side over the last couple of years and could still travel to the World Cup where midfielder Emily van Egmond, who returned from injury in the recent Cup of Nations, is likely a lock come summer.

That leaves Dani Weatherholt, who enters her fourth year with the team, as a key figure and is another Pride player returning from an excellent winter in Australia. There, Weatherholt registered two assists on the way to lifting the Premiership with the Melbourne Victory. She will be helped by rookie Viggiano, a self-described crafty midfielder who is tied for the second-most assists in Northwestern University history, with 20.

Those assists will come in handy. Not only is Orlando short on bodies in the midfield, but the Pride are short on production as well. Pride midfeilders only accounted for five assists last year and four of those came by way of the departed Nairn. Weatherholt had none, although her two goals were the most from the midfield. Remember when I said that the midfield is the biggest need? Underline it.

How Orlando Pride could currently line up when missing all eight prospective World Cup internationals

In comparison, the defensive line remains in pretty good shape. Although it conceded a club-high 36 goals in 2018, there’s proven quality there that should fare better this year by simply returning to the mean. Despite parting with Brazilian duo Monica and Poliana, Skinner still has seven defenders to pick from, although Zadorsky and Kennedy are another two looking set to compete in France.

That would whittle the center back depth down to just Krieger and Pressley for a month, while Pickett remains the sole left back on the team. Rookie Greening’s primary position appears to be right back and she will provide both cover and competition to Edmonds for the starting job.

Meanwhile, behind that back line lies U.S. international goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, who had a testing season last time out, ranking 11th in league-wide save percentage at 66%. Haley Kopmeyer, arguably the strongest number two in the NWSL, is once again in reserve, having seen the field three times in 2018, conceding twice, and looks set to be called upon again this year. With Kopmeyer re-signing, the goalkeeper position is one in which Skinner will hold confidence.

The truth of the matter is that there’s argument for need practically everywhere, especially in a World Cup year. I’d look specifically for a utility defender, two midfielders — one holding and one creative — as well as a wide forward to not only cover over summer but also push the squad to the next level. This isn’t exactly a rebuild year, but it’s definitely akin to a reload and Skinner has been brought in to change the fortunes of a team that should have made the playoffs last season only to fall disappointingly short.

He’s a squad builder and will need to be given the time to not only do that but also instill his style of play. For now, he’s got a healthy squad to add to. Acquiring an international slot in the Nairn trade has unsurprisingly led to speculation that Skinner might look for familiarity in recruiting, having already lured assistant coach Carl Green away from Birmingham, but he’ll have to be smart about it. It’s a big resource to invest in a player with precious little room for mistakes in comparison to the two or three other acquisitions I’d expect him to make this month.