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Orlando Pride 2019 NWSL Preview

What happened in the off-season and what can we expect for the season to come?

Scott Carnevale, The Mane Land

The 2019 NWSL season starts up this weekend and the Orlando Pride will open their fourth year in the league, looking to get back to the playoffs after missing out in 2018. With 2019 being a World Cup year, this will be an interesting (yeah, let’s go with that word) season, given the large chunk of the Pride that will be missing on international duty while league games are going on.

There have been big changes at the top for the Pride since they last played a match, but precious few differences at the roster level. Let’s take a look at what lies ahead.

How Did the Orlando Pride Finish in 2018?

The Pride ended 2018 in seventh place in the nine-team NWSL, finishing 8-10-6 and on 30 points — seven points shy of a playoff spot and two out of sixth place, while 19 points ahead of eighth place Washington. The Spirit and last place Sky Blue were awful last year and to only finish above those two clubs can only be seen as disappointing given the quality on the team’s roster.

The Pride were in a pretty good position until the end of the season, when the club went winless over the final six matches and lost the last four in a row. The downward spiral at the end cost the team a postseason spot but it was merely a magnification of an underwhelming year that saw Orlando win consecutive games only one time and that came against the aforementioned basement teams, Sky Blue FC and the Washington Spirit.

What’s New in 2019?

There haven’t many changes for the Pride since we last saw them but there’s been a really big one. Head Coach Tom Sermanni and the Pride parted ways at the end of the 2018 season and after a lengthy spell Marc Skinner was brought in to replace him in January. Skinner, the former Birmingham City manager, is just the second head coach in the club’s history after three seasons under Sermanni. Additionally, the Pride announced a dedicated full-time general manager in the hiring of Erik Ustruck.

As for player changes, there haven’t been many, but let’s get to those now.

Who’s Out?

There weren’t many departures after the 2018 season, but the club lost two Brazilian international defenders in Monica and Poliana. Both were mutual departures, with Poliana headed back to her native Brazil and Monica reportedly having decided to accept an offer from another club. However, Monica has been training with the Pride this preseason and there’s an outside chance she could even be re-signed.

The other departure was midfielder Christine Nairn, who was shipped off to the Houston Dash in exchange for an international roster slot in 2019. With Poliana leaving and Camila receiving her green card, that should mean three additional slots available to Ustruck and Skinner for player signings once the European season is over, but that remains to be seen.

Who else is out? Well, striker Sydney Leroux will miss most, if not all, of the season due to pregnancy. There’s a chance she could return after delivery if her body responds to her safe and gradual return to training.

Who’s In?

Only one of the few new faces in Orlando is actually under contract as of this writing. The Pride recently traded a fourth-round selection in the 2020 NWSL College Draft to the North Carolina Courage for defender Morgan Reid. The Duke product was a national team replacement player for the Courage but was signed a few weeks ago and is thus eligible to play. The other two new faces are 2019 NWSL College Draft selections Erin Greening and Marisa Viggiano. Skinner told us on the Mane Land PawedCast that he can envision both Greening and Viggiano as future productive NWSL players, but to date they still must be signed by the team.

What’s the New Jersey?

The new kit will be unveiled this Friday evening at Lake Eola Park at the Pride in the Park Kit Unveil event. The club’s 2019 home jersey will be revealed at that time as part of the team’s 2019 Kickoff to Soccer series of events in Central Florida.

How Will the World Cup Impact the Squad?

The World Cup will have a dramatic impact on Marc Skinner’s squad in 2019. The club could lose as many as nine players in the lead-up to, and during, this summer’s tournament. Certainly the Pride will be without Alex Morgan, Ashlyn Harris, Marta, Alanna Kennedy, Emily van Egmond, and Shelina Zadorsky. Orlando could also be without Chioma Ubogagu, Camila, and Ali Krieger, who are all on the cusp of their national team rosters.

Skinner has spoken repeatedly this off-season about getting their backups ready to step in and play so that there won’t be a drop-off in quality when the internationals leave. However, it is naïve to think the squad will be as good without all of those top-notch players, especially considering that some NWSL teams will only lose a few key players this summer and will be much better equipped to deal with the absences.

Orlando’s reliance on national team players has been an issue over the last few years and it’s unlikely to change now. There are simply too many of them and they are too important given the team’s lack of attacking depth. The success of those players’ national teams could mean a long summer for the Pride.

What is the Pride’s Projected Starting XI in 2019?

This is a difficult question to answer, given that the team played only one home preseason match that was open and the internationals were missing for that game. Skinner’s team isn’t reliant in staying in one particular shape, but it seems he at least prefers to start in a 4-3-3 and let the game dictate where things go from there. There are also strong indications that the Pride will sign some players out of Europe once the season ends overseas and that will change things. Here’s how I see it for now:

Ashlyn Harris; Carson Pickett, Shelina Zadorsky, Alanna Kennedy, Ali Krieger; Dani Weatherholt, Marta, Emily van Egmond; Chioma Ubogagu, Alex Morgan, Rachel Hill.

What are the Expectations for 2019?

Pride fans should probably have tempered expectations for now, but that could change. Certainly with this roster it should compete for a playoff spot most years, but perhaps not in a World Cup year and in particular this World Cup year. Skinner will be learning the league as he goes, the players will be learning his system and trying to nail it down, and they’ll all be trying to do it with pieces moving in and out all season long as a result of a congested international calendar. If the squad can add some quality pieces from Europe — who won’t be gone for most of the summer on national team duty — the Pride could compete for a top four position. However, as the roster currently stands and given the talent that will depart for as much as half the season (or more, depending on “victory tours”), I am setting my personal expectations fairly low for 2019. A finish anywhere from sixth to eighth is not out of the question but if things go well Orlando could maybe climb to about fourth.

Who is the Player to Watch on the Pride, and why?

She may be 33 years old, but the player fans will want to watch is Marta. Despite having a lot of matches and miles on her body, the Brazilian superstar is one of the best to ever play the game and she still does things in every game that bring fans out of their seats. Her footwork, vision, and quality stand out above most other players on the planet and she reads the game so well that she is sometimes two or three passes/movements ahead of her opponent. She still has a hunger and passion for the game and she also still has fun playing it and that shows on her face. Although she can become frustrated in games that aren’t going well, her emotions are part of who she is on the field (and off). She still revels in her team’s goals and wins and it drives her to continue working hard to stay at the top of her game.

How Much Will this Roster Change After the Season Starts?

As mentioned above, the club will have a few international slots available and Skinner said he’s identified some players he’d like to add. However, he is still evaluating what he has and will continue to do so, so things could change. I would expect two or three additions once the European season ends. The club will need more attackers and defenders to not only survive the international departures, but also to thrive during them. With Skinner’s background in England, it’s likely that we could see an arrival from that country, particularly from his old club, Birmingham City.

Who is the Player Fans Will Learn to Love?

I think the fans will learn to “re-love” Camila in 2019. The Brazilian was a dynamic part of the Pride’s run to the 2017 playoffs and Orlando missed her in the postseason meeting with Portland after her major knee injury suffered in the regular season finale that year. She spent most of last year trying to regain her form but never quite pulled it off. She scored a golazo Sunday against the Puerto Rico Sol on Sunday, which could be a sign that her form is returning. Her game seems well suited for Skinner’s fluid style as she likes to freelance on the attack. If she can regain her form — and if Brazil leaves her off their roster this summer — it would be like signing a new star player.

That’s your 2019 Pride season preview. As always, we invite you to chime in or offer up your rebuttal on any of the above in the comments section below.