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Orlando Pride Breaking Their Youth Records

Despite the current slump, the Orlando Pride are setting themselves up for future success.

Dan MacDonald, The Mane Land

Last week I looked at the Orlando Pride’s transfer struggles and how the roster rebuild is still very much in the “tear it down” phase and painfully stalling at its attempt to rebuild. While things are still bad, there’s an intriguing new youth movement worth watching develop.

The long and short is that the team had no room left under their salary cap, with few assets and only two draft picks (a third and fourth round) to help rebuild the core of their team. The Pride parted ways with three starters from last year, lost Sydney Leroux due to a pregnancy, and saw a further eight players now leave on international duty. That’s not to mention being denied a loan player from Chelsea FC Women by the NWSL. Last weekend’s trip to Utah saw the Pride dig deep into the back end of the senior and supplemental rosters. The starting lineup even included two players making their first ever professional starts: Marisa Viggiano and Abby Elinsky.

Meanwhile Caitlin Farrell, an undrafted rookie and MAC Hermann Trophy finalist fresh out of Georgetown University, who was signed to the Pride’s supplemental roster in April, made her professional debut from the bench aged 21 years, 238 days — the youngest ever appearance maker for the Pride. She took the title from fellow rookie Erin Greening, who had only set the latest record herself on April 14 in the 2019 season opener. It was a stat that had previously stood for two years, from when Danica Evans made her pro debut back in 2017.

Having rewritten the record twice in a couple of months, and the prospect of National Team Replacement player Taylor Porter doing so for the third time, the injection of untested youth is no coincidence. The team partly had its hand forced by the aforementioned roster situation, compounded by the World Cup absences. But it’s familiar territory for new Pride Head Coach Marc Skinner, who will turn to his 10 years’ worth of experience in youth coaching prior to becoming a senior head coach to lay the foundations of this new look Orlando side.

General Manager Erik Ustruck, alongside Skinner, has had to recruit cheap, young, and inexperienced players with the incoming eight players on permanent contracts having an average age of just 22.7 and a combined total of 33 professional career minutes between them prior to the season. Essentially recruiting an entire U-23 team, the average age of the roster has gone from 28.3 down to 26.3.

It’s not known how many of the new players will be carried over into next year, but it’s a promising sign that there’s now a long-term strategy in place to buy low and develop given the Pride’s current finances and aging squad. The NWSL is a league not known for the impact its rookies have and it’s not like we’re talking about players selected at the top of the first round either. But it’s a strategy that if done right, can pave the way for a stronger overall squad and more consistent performances when key players are missing.

The team has historically relied on individual talent to win games — talent it either no longer has or cannot reliably lean on each week. Eleven of the 24 Pride players are currently on league minimum salary deals, just a show of how all-in the previous Niki Budalić/Tom Sermanni regime was on a small handful of key players in a bid for short-term success to the detriment of squad depth and prolonged viability.

They say Rome wasn’t built in a day and the same applies here. Expecting a team that finished in seventh last year, and has since lost a bunch of its starters, to suddenly start winning is frankly insane. It’s like planting a seed and being mad at it for not being a tree two weeks later. It needs time to grow. Taking on the Pride in the current state is no small undertaking and there’s no quick fix. It will take the whole year and another off-season to steer the ship back on course.

The elephant in the room, however, is that the organization has already proven with the mismanagement of Orlando City that it is impatient and self-destructive when it comes to head coaches. It tends to not allow projects to be seen through and sparks a nosedive in a cycle of abject instability and rebuilding.