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Three Things to Watch for as the Pride Head into the NWSL Challenge Cup

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Orlando kicks off the 2020 event against Chicago.

SOCCER: OCT 12 NWSL - Reign FC at Orlando Pride Photo by Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In just under a month the Orlando Pride will kick off the NWSL 2020 Challenge Cup against the Chicago Red Stars. This opening match is expected to be be aired on CBS, although official start times and broadcast info will be announced later. Orlando then plays against the Portland Thorns, North Carolina Courage, and Sky Blue FC. The Pride will have to come in at least eighth place to make the “postseason” — or the second round of the event.

Out of nine NWSL teams, eighth does not seem like such a difficult task. However, three of the Pride’s four opponents have the best odds of winning the Challenge Cup while Orlando was given the worst. The Pride also finished the 2019 season in last, so the odds are not in Orlando’s favor.

Still, it is a new season with a completely different format and anything can happen in a short tournament setting. There are bound to be surprises and upsets with so many unknowns about each team.

Here are three things to keep an eye on:

Player Rotation

The Pride play a game every four days. That’s four games in two weeks. A hectic schedule like this, combined with the tough opponents, means that Marc Skinner will have to use his entire roster. This also means that Orlando may never have its “best XI” in a single game.

Also, it is unclear on the status of the United States Women’s National Team players at this point. While no Pride players have declined to participate in the voluntary tournament, it is uncertain how many minutes they will receive and Alex Morgan just gave birth recently.

This will be an excellent opportunity for other players to fill the void they left. Chioma Ubogagu left in the middle of 2019 and Claire Emslie filled in respectably for her. The Pride’s depth and versatility will be tested.

The Back Line

The 2019 Pride defense was weak to put it nicely. Orlando had a -29 goal differential and allowed 53 goals. Many of the goals were because of poor defending; however, just as many were from poor play, turnovers, and mistakes made in the middle of the field. There were a decent number of rookie mistakes as well.

This year the Pride’s defense could consist entirely of players on their respective international sides. The Pride have a goalkeeper and seven defenders on national teams — goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris and defenders Alanna Kennedy, Ali Krieger, Konya Plummer, Ali Riley, Emily Sonnett, Jade Moore, and Shelina Zadorsky. Backup goalkeeper Erin McLeod has international experience as well. Add in defenders Erin Greening, Carson Pickett, and the versatile Kristen Edmonds, and the Pride’s defense has the potential to be an extreme upgrade over last season.

Mistakes will happen, and Orlando is bound to give up a few goals that leave Skinner fuming. It will be interesting though to see who he pairs together. While player rotation is critical in this tournament, switching up a defense typically has adverse effects. The back line needs to play together to build chemistry, so keep an eye on what happens with the Pride defensively.

The Attack

I can hear you screaming, “Marta is the attack!” at me right now. My response to that is two-fold. First, Marta cannot be the attack. Orlando cannot rely on her. She is one of the best players in the world, but history has shown when Marta is out there doing everything, things do not go well for the Pride.

Second, who will get her the ball? When watching the attack, start focusing on when the ball is in Orlando’s own third of the field. When the ball is with the goalkeeper or center backs, where is the support? Last season, Orlando struggled to move the ball from the defense to the midfield, and then from the midfield to the forward line. There were periods when it was looking great, but the majority of the time the ball movement was poor. If there is not an improvement then Orlando will lose all four games and finish in last place two years in a row.