After a pretty uneventful 2020 season for the Orlando Pride, this off-season has seen some major changes. Three key players departed, raising eyebrows among some fans of the team. However, the changes in personnel could be beneficial to the team moving forward.
Since the Pride started play in 2016, they’ve built their roster largely on international players. Building a roster from all over the world, the team appeared on paper to be one of the league’s best. However, there is a key flaw with building a roster full of international players.
During the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the Pride lost the majority of their starting lineup. They needed national team replacements just to fill out the team sheet on a weekly basis. This is a problem that will occur at least every two years in the NWSL as teams deal with the departure of players for the World Cup and Olympics. Orlando isn’t the only team that has had to deal with these issues, but hasn’t had sufficient depth to overcome international absences as well as some other NWSL teams have.
Two players who left the Pride this off-season were Australian international Alanna Kennedy and Scottish international Claire Emslie. Kennedy was left unprotected during the 2020 NWSL Expansion Draft and selected by Racing Louisville and Emslie signed a permanent deal with Everton of England’s WSL.
Following the 2020 Fall Series, the Pride offered new contracts to both Kennedy and Emslie, who were out of contract. While the team didn’t necessarily want them to leave, it creates an opportunity to lessen the team’s vulnerability during this year’s Olympics in comparison to the quality of the team during the 2019 World Cup.
The trade of U.S. international Emily Sonnett was a choice by the club that could add some stability that has been missing over the past five years, depending on how Orlando uses the draft picks and the allocation money it received in the deal. The Pride acquired Sonnett on Jan. 8, 2020 from the Portland Thorns for the first overall pick. Additionally, the Pride acquired the Thorns’ first- and second-round selections in that draft, as well as the NWSL rights to Caitlin Foord, which were subsequently taken by Racing Louisville in the recent expansion draft.
Following the shortened 2021 season, the Pride flipped Sonnett for a pair of draft picks and a quality player. The deal with the Washington Spirit saw the Pride acquire midfielder Meggie Dougherty Howard, $140,000 in allocation money, the Spirit’s first-round pick in the 2021 NWSL Draft, and a conditional first-round pick in the 2022 or 2023 draft.
Losing a player of the quality of Sonnett might seem like a negative, but it’s quite the opposite given the haul Washington offered for the international. Additionally, Sonnett would likely be gone for the 2021 Olympic Games, 2022 Concacaf Women’s Championship, and the World Cup in 2023. That could be over a month in each of those seasons.
Dougherty Howard worked her way through the national team system until the U-23 level, but she’s yet to appear for the senior team. That means that there’s currently less danger of losing her to international duty. The 25-year-old has made at least 22 appearances in each of her first three seasons for the Spirit and played in each game last year.
The Pride may be able to expect similar stability with the first-round draft picks they’ve acquired, depending on who those players are. The players can gain experience off the bench or with the occasional start and will be ready to fill in when needed. Rather than replacing nearly the entire starting lineup with new players, they’ll have replacements with NWSL and team experience while the international tournaments are going on.
It might seem troubling to lose three players of the quality of Kennedy, Emslie, and Sonnett, but the Pride can benefit from such changes. While they didn’t get anything directly in return for Kennedy or Emslie, they did receive space on the roster that can be filled with players who won’t be lost for long periods of time. The trade of Sonnett provided a quality starting-caliber midfielder, two first-round draft picks that can help the team fill those open spots on the roster, and allocation money that could be used to strengthen the team in other ways.
On paper, losing three international players might seem bad to some fans, but this ultimately could provide a depth and stability that the team has been missing over the past five years. What seem like difficult losses could be the key to future success.