The preseason is usually a time for a team to get back together and prepare for a new season. While there might be some new players, the majority of the team generally stays the same. The Orlando Pride have additional challenges this preseason as they prepare for their first NWSL regular season since 2019.
Last year was a difficult one for the Pride. After the NWSL season was canceled, a COVID-19 outbreak in the squad caused the team to withdraw from the NWSL Challenge Cup. By the time the Fall Series took place, many of the first-team regulars were playing in Europe. It left the Pride with several young players looking to win a spot under the watchful eye of Head Coach Marc Skinner.
Those loaned to Europe included most of the starters for the team, like Shelina Zadorsky, Alanna Kennedy, Claire Emslie, Emily van Egmond, and Alex Morgan. Some of those players ended up leaving the club permanently, requiring replacements.
The departures mean that Skinner and his coaching staff are getting their team back together for the first time since early last summer. That has brought challenges that the team hasn’t experienced since its expansion season in 2016.
“We have a lot of new players so it’s about gelling and reinforcing some of the things we were doing last year with them before they left to go out on loan,” Skinner said in regard to this year’s preseason.
Assisting the team this season is an extended preseason in the NWSL. Teams have already been together for over a month and still have another month before the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup begins on April 9. As Skinner said, the changes in the roster means that the work is more than just on the field.
“It’s engaging the players on not only a football level, or soccer level, but also engaging them on a personal level,” Skinner said. “I think what we can do in the next month is learn a lot about our people. What that allows us to do is recognize what motivates them, what they need in terms of how to support that process.”
While it’s important for the coaching staff to get to know the players on a personal level, the teammates need to as well. Skinner says that the extended preseason period allows the players to spend more social time together. This experience will help them communicate better on the field.
To say that it’s been a difficult start for Skinner and his staff would be an understatement. In 2019, the team lost most of its starting lineup to the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France. Representing some of the most successful countries, including Brazil, Australia, and the United States, some players were gone for over half the season.
That was followed by the 2020 campaign, which stopped before it even began. The COVID-19 outbreak and significant number of loans means that the coaching staff has only had the whole team together for a few games since arriving. Considering that it was nearly two years ago, the roster has changed significantly.
“We’ve never yet seen the real Orlando Pride under our tenure as coaches,” Skinner said.
Last week, the Pride played their first preseason game, a 1-0 loss to the newly-relocated Kansas City NWSL team. For the Pride, it was the first time the coaching staff could implement their strategy with a whole squad as the team was missing three key players during the SheBelieves Cup. That included Alex Morgan representing the United States, Jordyn Listro representing Canada, and Marta representing Brazil.
Fortunately for the Pride, the extended preseason will give them several more opportunities to match up against outside opposition. They still have four preseason games set up over the next three weeks, including one against an NWSL opponent.
With only one playoff appearance in four full NWSL seasons, it’s been a rough go for the Pride. However, the lack of games in 2020 and a largely rebuilt team makes the 2021 NWSL preseason one of the most important in club history. Skinner and his team will be able to show off the work when the Pride take the field next month in the second-annual NWSL Challenge Cup.