It’s no secret that the Orlando Pride have not had the best season so far. Orlando is in eighth place out of nine teams in the NWSL and have just three wins more than halfway through the season. But, despite the team’s struggles, the Pride have remained confident in first-year Head Coach Marc Skinner’s vision.
“I think what happens when a new coach comes in, you either hit the ground running and results go your way, and things fall into place,” Skinner said after the win against the Washington Spirit. “Or there was a clear culture change that needed to happen here and still needs to continue to happen. And what happens there in that is when you’re aware of things — so we’re aware we need to be better in possession, we’re aware we need to stop transition — [the players] start to think about the game too much sometimes, and that can get you out of flow.”
The Pride won that game, 4-3, and it was Orlando’s first home win of the season. The four goals scored were not only more than any other game this season, but the most Orlando scored since May 26, 2018. Rachel Hill, Chioma Ubogagu, and Marta all found the back of the net, but it was the return of the international players that made the most significant difference and they were involved in each goal in the game against Washington.
Hill talked about the impact that the international players bring to the team. The Pride have had to build a foundation and learn Skinner’s style without the star players. Orlando has been forced to deploy a young team this year, giving six players either their first start or professional debut.
“It’s been really great to have them back. It kind of freshens everything up,” Hill said after training on July 6. “We’ve done a lot since they’ve been gone, so kind of getting them back into the swing of things here and understanding what we’re doing has taken a little bit of time, but they obviously catch on really fast and jump right back into it.
“I think we really have [built a foundation]. Obviously, games still go on when they’re gone, so we really didn’t have a choice but to do that. I think everyone has jumped on board and did a good job with it.”
Skinner talked about that foundation after the Pride lost to the North Carolina Courage on June 1. He said that it’s important that he work with the younger players and the players not on their respective national teams. The team should not rely on the international stars, but instead the internationals should add to what the rest of the team has been doing.
“You’ve got all these young kids coming into our team that are breathing the breath,” Skinner said. “They’re defining the badge because they want to be here, they want to fight for this badge. And once you have that, the quality that we have with our international players, they come in and they sprinkle on a hardworking foundation. Without that, you build the castle on sand, and I’m not doing that. I’ll face the hard part, and I’ll build it effectively, and it will take time, and then you will have a real team that Orlando can get behind.”
Skinner acknowledged that it will take time and the stats agree with that. Orlando has the most goals allowed, the worst goal differential, and the fewest assists. The Pride are also in the bottom three in shots and shots on goal. Goalkeeper Haley Kopmeyer has the second-most saves in the NWSL. Additionally, Ashlyn Harris and Kopmeyer are both in the top three for highest goals-against average.
While the team has not performed especially well this season, the Pride have slowly improved since Skinner took charge. This has not always been obvious on the score sheet, but the results are starting to go Orlando’s way. Since June 22, Orlando ended a 15-match winless streak, moved a spot up the table, and scored 12 goals in the last six games (the Pride scored four goals in the nine games prior). The players have begun to grasp what Skinner has been asking, and it is evident in their play.
One of the players that has stepped up recently is Chioma Ubogagu. The forward had a goal drought to start the season, but, in the 10th game of the season she found the back of the net. She has now scored three goals and added an assist in the last five games and isn’t looking back. She also would have had another assist to Marta against Portland but the goal was officially scored as an Emily Menges own goal.
Ubogagu was arguably the best player on the field in last week’s 1-0 win against Sky Blue FC, and had one of her best performances as a member of the Pride. Skinner has mentioned multiple times this season that there is a need for the wingers to give better balls to the forwards. Ubogagu has stepped up in this role, and had the most chances created against Sky Blue (4) and it felt like she was involved in every attack. When asked about her success in front of the net, she gave credit to her teammates and coaches.
“I think we’re just building chemistry,” Ubogagu said after training on July 9. “I think our training sessions have been set up to build that chemistry, to get that trust, to know what we like — if we like balls in behind, balls to our feet.
“Marc and [assistant coach] Carl [Green] trust us, and that gives me a little confidence to try to go out there and do what the team needs. I think I’m playing more loose, I’ve been more relaxed, just trying to enjoy the game, and I think the more I do that, the more the goals will hopefully come.”
Ubogagu now has competition for that starting spot. For most of the season, there has been a lack of depth on the forward line. The Pride signed Scotland international Claire Emslie on May 30, and she made her debut last week. The United States internationals are back after winning the World Cup, and Alex Morgan is expected to return to the starting XI after the two-week break the team is currently on. This means that Ubogagu will have competition for her starting spot, but it isn’t something she is worried about. She said that she is “excited” to be in a positional battle with “world class players” and has confidence in her own ability.
The Pride have 10 games remaining in the season and currently sit nine points out of a playoff spot. Orlando has a steep hill to climb to reach the postseason being this far down the table, but for the players, they just want to take it game by game and continuously improve. Still, 10 points in the last six games is a positive sign moving forward.
“To get momentum going is huge,” Hill said. “You never know in the NWSL really. We could go on a streak and end up in the playoffs. You just kind of have to take it one game at a time and stay focused. The performances will get us the results, and that’s really what we have to focus on.”