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Orlando Pride Preseason Creates Talking Points

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So far, 2019 has provided more questions than answers as the Pride enter a new era.

Image courtesy of Orlando Pride

The Orlando Pride are in transition. After only one playoff appearance in three seasons, they come into 2019 with a new head coach and renewed vigor. Fans will get a chance to see the team for the first time under new boss Marc Skinner when the Pride take to Orlando City Stadium for their final of three preseason outings. Reigning Liga Puerto Rico Femenino champions Puerto Rico Sol will visit for a friendly open to the public for free next Sunday, April 7 (tickets here). It’s been a tough preseason to assess so far, but it hasn’t been without its talking points.

New Philosophy

NWSL preseason camps officially started on March 4 and senior internationals have been in and out with national team duty, something that will continue to be a factor across the entire NWSL season with the impending FIFA Women’s World Cup and preceding warm-up fixtures. The missing players don’t make for ideal conditions for implementing an entire new philosophy. Skinner, when asked about his playing style at media day, said he doesn’t put any great emphasis on shape or formation but instead sets his team up to play in a way that “makes people want to come and watch” and one the players will “enjoy playing.”

He has cited Maurizio Sarri and Pep Guardiola as influences, admiring their sides’ positional fluidity, high press, and control of space on the field. Despite the world class talent among the ranks, the Englishman has warned that it may take time to get it right and it is as much about creating good habits as it is being talented — as seen in Orlando’s 4–0 defeat to the North Carolina Courage, a game where the score line doesn’t tell the story and was ultimately decided by Pride mistakes rather than Courage quality according to Skinner and his players.

The team had a much better showing in the 6–0 victory over USF, the biggest margin of victory across the four preseason meetings between the sides over the years. Regardless of the opposition, putting the principles into practice to such a clinical extent is good to see. The Pride’s highest competitive goal total to date is five and no player has ever scored a hat trick, something Rachel Hill managed in five minutes at the weekend. Remember, it was only last year that the Pride lost to college opposition in the preseason.

Learning Process

It is not just the players who are learning. Skinner comes to the NWSL for the first time and is still getting used to the league. Playing the reigning NWSL champions, who have a league-leading 2.208 points per game average over the last two seasons where they appeared in consecutive championship games, was called a litmus test at Media Day by both Skinner and new Pride General Manager Erik Ustruck. It also gave Skinner a chance to see his opposition in person instead of on tape and provided all the staff with the experience of the type of travel involved in the league. While others may have seen the result as a setback, Skinner and the Pride only saw it as valuable learning experience against the toughest opposition they could find.

Transfer Business...or Lack Thereof

On the surface, it had seemed worryingly quiet this off-season with the head coach position remaining vacant until after the NWSL College Draft in January. However, contact had been made with Skinner (who was still under contract with Birmingham City at the time) before Christmas. Perhaps the lengthy hiring process, coupled with many players heading out to Australia to compete in the W-league, delayed any player movement. It wasn’t until March 4, the opening day of preseason camp, that we found out the five remaining players who were not yet under contract, had been re-signed. But so far those are the only signings the team has made, although Skinner was keen to emphasize his role in the draft, saying, “the players that were selected were my players. I selected them. I was part of everything. I made the decisions.”

Currently, rookies Erin Greening and Marisa Viggiano, although neither have signed with the club yet, along with the seven trialists, remain the only prospective additions in an off-season that saw three regular starters depart (although defender Mônica is not only still training with the Pride, but also started in the friendly over the weekend — more on that below). Heading into a season with a team that missed the playoffs and one that will see the team decimated by international call-ups, it’s a risky strategy to say the least.

However, Skinner has already said that he doesn’t want to rush, bring in bodies to fill gaps, and have them be the wrong players. He wants to assess what he has already and eventually select the right players to improve the squad, also likely hinting that he will wait to sign at least one player he is familiar with from his time in England, especially given the acquisition of a 2019 international roster slot in the Christine Nairn trade, but only after their season ends on May 11.

Youth Movement

Skinner spent a lot of time in youth development and coaching prior to his senior appointment in England, which should be a boost to the younger members of the squad, particularly given the chances that will be presented to them this year. Rachel Hill (23) and Dani Weatherholt (25) are both coming off the back of successful spells in Australia with their confidence high and they are likely to be given more senior roles in their third and fourth seasons, respectively.

Of the seven trialists currently with the team, Lainey Burdett, Leah Mohammadi and Caitlin Farrell are undrafted rookies, while Bridget Callahan, Abby Elinsky, and Joanna Boyles all graduated in 2018 and enter their second years as professionals. A trademark of Birmingham City is its productive youth setup and Skinner wasn’t shy in bringing that through. A former goalkeeper coach, he entrusted teenagers with the starting goalkeeper job on two separate occasions to great effect following the departure of his first choice. Add to that the increased roster size and additional supplemental roster now available and it might be worth remembering a few names if Skinner’s Media Day response was anything to go by: “The name of today isn’t the name of tomorrow”.

Reigniting a Spark

It’s a colloquialism of today’s coaching carousel, but many believe a lot of coaches only have a shelf life of two or three seasons before their message grows old and players start to tune out. Jose Mourinho was the perfect example of the so-called third season syndrome and there are many more tales of a sophomore slump. Obviously, there are logical arguments in favor of long-term stability and building for the future but perhaps the departure of Tom Sermanni, although never pleasant, has renewed the fire and hunger in the squad.

Veteran defender Ali Krieger, newly engaged to Pride teammate Ashlyn Harris and back with the U.S. Women’s National Team for the first time since 2017, said the following on opening day of training camp: “I feel like I’m 25. I feel good. I’ve been training my ass off this whole off-season and am really preparing for this day.”

Alex Morgan has already sung the new man’s praises following a two-hour conversation they had over coffee: “It was pretty exciting to see a coach just so eager to dive in and really coach, and I’m looking for that in my club team. I think he’s going to be the perfect fit.”

Skinner also takes a physiological and humanistic approach to coaching, publicly reminding the media that his players are first and foremost normal people and he must treat them as such. He also sent short questionnaires to each of his players prior to his arrival in order to get a better sense of what makes the person behind the athlete tick.

Mônica

The Brazilian center back and three-year Pride veteran said her goodbyes to Central Florida in the off-season as she decided to decline Orlando’s contract offer with reports suggesting she was moving back to Brazil. As mentioned above, the club confirmed she has been training with the Pride, something not unusual for out-of-contract players as they like to keep their fitness up and teams find it useful to have extra players to play training matches with.

However, the major talking point was that Mônica unexpectedly earned minutes in the victory over USF — significant minutes in fact, playing the full 90. With the Pride currently at risk of losing four of their six listed defenders to international duty, defensive reinforcement is essential, but Mônica would not be a solution as she too will also be in France, so it’s confusing to say the least.