The Orlando Pride’s 3-1 loss to Racing Louisville FC on Saturday night eliminated the team from playoff contention with one game remaining. It effectively puts an end to the most disappointing season in the team’s six-year history.
To say the Pride’s existence in the NWSL has been a disappointment would be an understatement. The team has had multiple international stars in the lineup since its inaugural season in 2016, including Alex Morgan, Marta, and Ashlyn Harris. Despite the talent, the Pride have only qualified for the NWSL playoffs once.
After a 2020 year that saw the Pride only play four games, it looked as though the 2021 season would be the team’s best to date. The Pride started the year on a club record seven-game undefeated streak that included four wins and had the Pride at the top of the standings heading into the Olympics.
The team’s struggles started when the Olympians (Morgan, Marta, Erin McLeod, and Ali Riley) started departing. The Pride lost three of the first four games after Morgan departed following a 2-1 loss to the Houston Dash on June 26.
It seemed to get worse for the Pride when head coach Marc Skinner resigned to join Manchester United’s women’s team. But the Pride hired former University of Florida head coach Becky Burleigh on an interim basis and things started to change.
Her second game on Aug. 8 ended a six-game winless streak, beating the Chicago Red Stars 2-0 at SeatGeek Stadium. That game included the first Pride goal for English striker Jodie Taylor, who scored again the following week against the Portland Thorns. Between Burleigh’s arrival on July 25 and the team’s 3-1 win over Racing Louisville on Sept. 11, the Pride went 3-1-3 and were climbing the NWSL standings.
The Pride were in high spirits following the win over Louisville, which included goals by the team’s three offensive stars — Morgan, Marta, and Sydney Leroux.
“It’s just really positive in the locker room right now,” Morgan said after that game. “It’s just such a great squad. We have a lot of new faces this year, but they’ve been integrated really quickly.
“We know that we have the potential to have our best finish ever in the club’s history. So we want to take every game like it’s the last game of the season, and we need to get points.”
“I think we saw that in the beginning of the year,” Leroux said about the team playing like it did earlier in the season. “I think we were firing on all cylinders and now we brought different people in and I think they’ve only added to our team. So I’m really excited to see what happens after the international break.”
Since that game, the Pride have lost four straight. It started with a 3-0 drubbing by OL Reign and continued with a 3-2 loss to NJ/NY Gotham FC, a 1-0 loss to the Red Stars, and Saturday night’s loss in Louisville. The four-game losing streak was the team’s longest this year, with the team getting outscored 10-3 over that span.
This current streak has been even worse than 2019. That season was the first with Skinner as head coach and the roster was largely built around international talent. The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup saw eight regular starters depart, a list that increased with Leroux pregnant and Toni Pressley diagnosed with breast cancer. Those absences meant that the majority of the lineup had players with little or no experience in the professional game.
Heading into the 2021 season, Skinner, General Manager Ian Fleming, and Executive Vice President Amanda Duffy had built the team with sufficient depth that it could withstand missing some star players during extended international breaks. Younger players like Courtney Petersen, Taylor Kornieck, and Phoebe McClernon joined veterans like Gunny Jonsdottir and Erika Tymrak to fill out the squad. They were later joined by English additions Taylor and Amy Turner, ensuring that the majority of the squad would be intact during the Olympics.
The team did struggle without its Olympians, but seemed to be as strong as ever heading into the final games. A good run and the health of the team down the stretch adds to the disappointment of the season.
With the start they had and the strength of the roster, the Pride should be competing for one of the top spots in the league. Instead, they currently sit in eighth place of the 10-team league — a low spot that’s become too common with this team.
Looking at the Pride’s roster over the years, it might be surprising that they’ve only qualified for the playoffs once in six years. However, from being a new team to losing most of the starting lineup during international tournaments, there’s always been a solid excuse for poor performances.
There’s no excuse for the fall of the Pride during the 2021 NWSL season. They got off to the best start in team history, had the best lineup to withstand international absences, and remained relatively healthy throughout the season. And yet, the team has been eliminated before the end of the regular season again.
Duffy and Fleming will have a tall task ahead of them this off-season. The search will soon begin for a permanent head coach and they’ll be looking to solidify parts of the team. Changes will likely come following the most disappointing season in the Pride’s history.