Today is deadline day as the primary NWSL transfer window closes. It’s no secret that the Orlando Pride, headed up by first-time General Manager Erik Ustruck, has failed to do anything significant by way of recruitment and it’s costing the team on the field. The Pride is currently winless through their opening six games, and while they were under no illusions that it would be an easy season, it shouldn’t really be “two goals scored, 13 conceded” level of bad. So what’s behind it all?
The Pride came into the season as a non-playoff team, ergo, they weren’t good enough. They knew they needed to change that and felt a change in head coach was part of the answer. Tom Sermanni departed in September, and after a lengthy off-season search, Marc Skinner was officially appointed in January. In the meantime, there was a huge change in the front office. Former Orlando City and Pride General Manager Niki Budalić was relieved of his duties for both teams and Ustruck was promoted as the Pride’s very first dedicated GM, with Luiz Muzzi taking the helm on the men’s side.
Essentially what you ended up with was a failing team and the two people tasked with turning it around both had huge learning curves ahead of them. Skinner is at his second ever club, having progressed up the career ladder at Birmingham City in England, a team with no huge financial clout but great at developing its own youth. He’s not only trying to adapt to the NWSL’s playing style but also the confusing intricacies of roster building within the league. Likewise, Ustruck, who was basically the understudy during Budalić’s reign, is still relatively new to his role and trying to find his feet. Combined, they have attempted to revamp and rebuild the Orlando Pride in probably the single worst set of circumstances possible.
Not only would they have to take a losing roster that tumbled out of the playoff places in the final few weeks of the 2018 season after only taking two points from their final six games, but they would have to do so in a majorly disruptive World Cup year that has seen eight players depart for this summer’s tournament and preceding warm up schedule — the second most of any team in the league behind only Portland’s nine. The league average is 6.33, with Sky Blue losing the fewest (three). Orlando also saw Chioma Ubogagu miss preseason with England but we now know she remain in Central Florida after missing out on the final Lionesses squad.
Add to that Sydney Leroux missing the season during her pregnancy, Christine Nairn getting traded to Houston, and Brazilian internationals Mônica and Poliana both departing to Brazilian clubs for free, and the Pride are currently missing 12 players that last year accounted for 69% of the team’s minutes. While most teams spent the off-season preparing to cope with this mass exodus of players, with a total of 57 NWSL players set to compete in the World Cup (roughly 29% of the league), the Pride had their own fires to put out.
Earlier in the month, Ustruck explained to ProSoccerUSA.com that he has been “handcuffed” by back-loaded contracts, historic issues geared towards short-term solutions that he was now working to undo. Not only did he have to free up some salary cap space in order to begin the rebuild, but he also only had two draft picks, a third- and a fourth-round selection, to help lay the foundations in his first year.
Amid such a mess, all the Pride have actually been able to do so far is replace those starters with untested youth. On April 4, the Pride made their only deal to do date, trading a 2020 fourth-round draft pick in exchange for North Carolina’s 2018 fourth-round selection, Morgan Reid. The other seven off-season acquisitions across both the senior and supplemental roster were the aforementioned draft picks (Erin Greening and Marisa Viggiano), along with free agents — two undrafted rookies (Lainey Burdett and Caitlin Farrell) and three players entering their second professional season (Bridget Callahan, Abby Elinsky and Joanna Boyles). Between all eight signings, they combined for three professional career top-flight appearances. In total, 11 players are currently on senior minimum salary deals.
With so little room to maneuver, it’s not surprising there hasn’t been better reinforcement to a squad now depleted to 16 players and sitting rock bottom of the league. But that’s not to say Ustruck hasn’t been trying. On Tuesday, news broke that the loan deal to bring a defender from FA WSL side Chelsea, potentially Jess Carter, a 21-year-old with an England cap to her name who had worked under Skinner at Birmingham, was not given approval by the NWSL despite both clubs agreeing to terms — a deal that the teams had been working on since the end of March. The loan supposedly fell through as Chelsea wanted a recall clause in the deal, something that comes as standard to most loan deals and wouldn’t seem to be an issue given Chelsea are now out of season until September. Ustruck also said he is still working on “three or four things,” although with very limited time, the aforementioned salary constraints, and the NWSL throwing obstacles at every turn, nothing significant appears likely.
Instead the Pride will now have to look towards the secondary window that opens on June 25, 10 games into the Orlando Pride’s 24-game season and 12 days before the World Cup final, if they want to make any signings. The Pride currently have two international roster spots available — one as a result of Camila getting her green card, and the other from the Nairn trade, although the second expires at the end of the season. Meanwhile, national team replacement players — like Elinsky and Callahan were for the Pride last year — can only be domestic players and must be on minimum salary deals, attracting nowhere near the same caliber of player they’ll be replacing.
In short, the rebuild is slower and more complicated than many would have hoped. Despite the available international roster slots, a significant number of potential signings are away at the World Cup and the Pride’s salary situation still isn’t clear. The team also has very few assets left to trade, especially considering the Pride haven’t had a draft pick earlier than the third round since their debut season. In the meantime, Skinner and his staff will have to develop and get the most out of the young talent he has very intentionally sought to bring in and use as a foundation building block for his long term plan during his debut window in charge now the vast majority of his starters have gone.
However, the rebuild may have also come at exactly the right time. The squad was on a downward turn, aging and being hit hard by the World Cup, something it was not in a position to cope with in the first place. Add a coaching change with a huge switch in playing style to the mix and it seems the Pride have approached the 2019 season with a “better to rip the Band-Aid off fast and in one go than prolong the suffering” outlook.
So, while things are bad, it’s hopefully the worst they’ll get, both on and off the field with all the key coaching and executive infrastructure now in place and closer to being settled.