The Orlando Pride arguably had the worst off-season in the NWSL and it has left them flagging in the early weeks with only one goal and one point to show from the opening four games. The Pride now have a winless streak that stands at 10 games stretching back to last year. Thanks to such form, the impatient and reactionary takes alike have already started to surface with some around the league wondering what new Head Coach Marc Skinner is trying to build in his short tenure.
The irony of accountability being mentioned on a team that has underachieved with the same core roster since the beginning of last year is truly breathtaking. pic.twitter.com/QJ0fsbFPDQ— Chris Henderson (@chris_awk) April 28, 2019
The Pride are coming off the back of missing the playoffs, having spent half of last season above the line before sliding all the way down to seventh. They ultimately parted ways with Tom Sermanni after three years and brought in Skinner to try and turn things around. In hiring Skinner, they committed themselves to a complete overhaul in playing style, one that will take time, and some carefully planned personnel changes.
Skinner has previously cited Maurizio Sarri and Pep Guardiola as influences, admiring their sides’ positional fluidity, high press, and control of space on the field. Such change doesn’t happen overnight. In his first season at Manchester City, Guardiola finished fourth and spent record fees on half a dozen players to eventually win the title. Sarri, meanwhile, is coming to the close of a difficult debut season at Chelsea and can still be seen frantically gesticulating on the sideline, barking instructions to his players.
Both bear similarities to the situation currently in Central Florida. We might not see the fruits of the labor until Skinner’s second season as he will look to recruit the players he feels fit his system, alongside developing the ones he already has. The Englishman said himself that it will take time for the current players to adapt but his decade plus experience in youth development prior to his time at Birmingham City breeds confidence for the long-term future.
While some in the media and online have been quick to criticize his energetic sideline manner, it is simply the only way to get an entire team to play on the same page in such an intricate, yet organic, system. He’s doing what he’s paid to do — coach — and there is no greater coaching opportunity than in an actual game.
The exact same starting backline and goalkeeper that gave up five goals against the North Carolina Courage is starting again, for the second-straight match, against Reign FC. Either they pick it up tonight, or Marc Skinner has to make some changes. #NWSL #RFCvORL https://t.co/piLsCznfNx— Rachael McKriger (@RachaelMcKriger) April 22, 2019
While it may seem like the Pride are underachieving, it’s worth remembering this is a seventh-place team that has so far only played four times under its new boss and the schedule has been nothing short of brutal. The opening three games were against the top three teams from last season, with two on the road and all in the space of eight days. The fourth saw the visit of Utah Royals FC end in a 1–0 defeat, progress from the earlier thrashings but still riddled with errors both defensively and in possession. All this came after a disruptive preseason with no less than eight players called away by their respective national teams at some point. So while the great and good of the NWSL have been able to pick up exactly where they left off by sticking with the same coach and minimizing roster turnover, the Pride are one of three teams in a whirlwind transition. The other two teams, Houston Dash and Washington Spirit, both only have one win apiece and those were against last season’s stragglers, Sky Blue FC. Houston, meanwhile, were handed a similar thrashing by North Carolina this past weekend, just the like the Pride were in week two.
Same dog, different collar or rather in this case same losing club, different head coach. The Orlando Pride have become a disappointing club from top to bottom. #NCvORL https://t.co/zpd0frXGE1— Urban Artifacts (@UrbanArtifacts) April 18, 2019
Despite a host of international caliber players, it is naive to think this roster is “too talented” to be missing the playoffs. Look around the league and you’ll find every team has its own collection of federation players alongside top level foreign internationals. Comparatively speaking, Orlando is not the stacked roster it is so commonly made out to be after a cursory glance at names like Alex Morgan and Marta, neither of whom has found the back of the net in 2019.
The support cast has been left wanting. Orlando’s next tier domestic talent has proven to be wildly inconsistent, the team hasn’t had a draft pick earlier than the third round since their debut season, and the depth leaves a lot to be desired in a year that will see teams increasingly lean on their newly expanded rosters.
Simply put, there has been a systematic failure when it comes to recruitment, something the team has tried to address with the hire of the Pride’s very own dedicated General Manager Erik Ustruck, the first to not also hold the same role for Orlando City. But Ustruck’s reign has gotten off to an unconvincing start. The front office allowed Brazilian internationals Poliana and Mônica to leave, and traded Christine Nairn to the Houston Dash. In doing so, Orlando let a combined total of 17,995 NWSL minutes leave the building. Factor in Sydney Leroux’s current inactive status due to her pregnancy and the Pride are missing the wealth of experience and quality that 321 NWSL appearances bring. A non-playoff team doesn’t lose that level of talent and suddenly start winning. Instead, suitable upgrades need to be found.
For Ustruck, that has so far come in the shape of one third- and one fourth-round rookie from January’s college draft, two undrafted rookies, and four players entering their second years as professionals who combine for three top flight professional appearances between the eight of them. That’s not a quick fix, it’s a long term project. But then again, nobody should think this is close to the finished product. These new players not only need time to adapt to the system but also the chance to develop as the professionals they aim to be.
However, even for those who #TrustTheProcess, the Orlando Pride really aren’t looking good at the moment. The team is on such a poor run of form, the players appear to lack any chemistry based purely on the eye test, and the new possession-heavy style has so far not made for good statistical reading either.
The Pride only average 47% possession and are out-passed 429-377, allowing for 75.7% accuracy to their own 70.7%. In terms of attack, they average 13 shots per game, with 15.4% on target, but allow 21 shots to a staggering accuracy of 37.8%, and are only making eight tackles to the opposition’s 13. It seems simple to say but improving on these and cutting down individual errors, something Skinner was keen to emphasize after the Utah game when he spoke at length about the accountability of both him and his players, will bring about an uptick in results. But that won’t happen until this team starts playing hard, fast, and for each other.
Remember, it is not just a style of play Skinner is trying to create but also a new culture, one he says has no room for excuses. His post-match press conferences have so far been notable for their unfiltered honesty, reminding players that they are professional athletes and that what he has seen from them so far simply hasn’t matched their potential. He’s not wrong. The NWSL’s coverage recently came into criticism for its unconscious misogyny and the frequency with which analysis is treated with kid gloves. Skinner’s high demand reminds us all of the elite nature of the league and the responsibility of the players to play to such a level.
We will see if Skinner’s latest call to arms inspires the players to step up and claim their first victory when they travel to Houston to take on the Dash next Sunday. Then, we should get a better sense of whether the team really has been underachieving or if this simply is its level.