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Orlando Pride 2021 Outlook Bright Heading Into Tonight’s NWSL Challenge Cup Opener

This should be a much improved Orlando Pride team. By how much remains to be seen.

SOCCER: OCT 17 NWSL - North Carolina Courage at Orlando Pride Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Orlando Pride kick off their 2021 campaign tonight with the first of (at least) four NWSL Challenge Cup matches, as they head north to face Racing Louisville at 7 p.m. The Pride famously did not compete in this event in 2020 due to COVID-19 testing results. Thus, Orlando played only four competitive matches under Marc Skinner during the last calendar year — and even those featured a young lineup that bore little resemblance to the one he’ll put on the field today.

Skinner has had, effectively, one season at the helm of the Pride and didn’t have most of his starting lineup for a large chunk of that 2019 campaign. Although every NWSL team was affected by player absences for the 2019 World Cup, Orlando lacked the depth necessary to deal with the departures. Much of 2020 ended up being about evaluating young players and looking at the roster to see where critical upgrades were needed.

Skinner and new Orlando Pride General Manager Ian Fleming have addressed the team’s depth, particularly through the midfield, and the 2021 season should be viewed as Skinner’s second season in charge. He’ll once again be dealing with international absences because of the Olympics, but the Pride should be better equipped to carry on without their international stars for more than a month than they were two years ago.

Although winning a trophy in the Challenge Cup would be nice, the Pride are not among the favorites in the tournament. Only one team from each of the two five-team divisions in the competition will continue on after round-robin group play. To do that, Orlando will have to navigate its way to the best record in the east after matches against Racing Louisville, Gotham FC, the Washington Spirit, and the North Carolina Courage. There are certainly beatable teams in Orlando’s group, but the Courage are the favorites to advance. It should be an interesting competition.

Skinner said the team will obviously try to win every game in the Challenge Cup, but more importantly, he wants the Pride to use these games as a springboard, to find consistency in the way they play heading into the 2021 NWSL regular season.

“I feel that we’re going to be in a place where after this we’ll learn much more about our team going into the regular season,” he said at Pride Media Day. “What I expect from us is to grow each game, be in the game to take the result, but then to improve our performance throughout — I think is going to be the real judgement of of our team over that period. Do we adapt, do we show the skill sets that we want, and do we try to dictate games?”

Where the team struggled in 2019 was in connecting the back line to the attack. Too often the ball was lost either by a defender trying to get the ball to a midfielder or by a midfielder trying to pick out a pass to someone on the forward line. The resulting turnovers forced the Pride back on their heels for long sections of games, having to defend for extended periods. This also contributed to a lack of rhythm on offense when Orlando did recover the ball. To that end, Skinner and Fleming have rebuilt the midfield by adding players who are good at ball recovery and adept at picking out the right outlet to transition the team into the attack.

England international Jade Moore was brought in last year, but never got to play for Orlando due to the team pulling out of the Challenge Cup. Instead, she went on loan to get meaningful minutes in competitive matches. The Pride acquired Meggie Dougherty Howard from the Washington Spirit in the Emily Sonnett trade this past off-season, and also added Gunny Jonsdottir and Erika Tymrak in the Kristen Edmonds trade. When you add in the potential of what is essentially a second-year Marisa Viggiano and young Chelsee Washington, the midfield depth has never looked better for Orlando.

“For us, it was imperative that we got a midfield that can control transitions,” Skinner said.

In fact, this midfield has so much depth and talent that the Pride ended up moving rising Canadian international Jordyn Listro because they just couldn’t guarantee her enough minutes for her to take her game to the next level. But Orlando will need to get by for a couple of games without Jonsdottir, who is with her Iceland teammates at the moment.

If there’s an area of concern, it certainly isn’t the forward line, where Alex Morgan (apart from when she’s on international duty, like she is now), Sydney Leroux, and Marta are formidable players with a lot of skill and finishing ability. Taylor Kornieck is a young player who will be counted on to add to the attack and Crystal Thomas and Abi Kim provide depth.

The goalkeeper position is also set, with starter Ashlyn Harris, Canadian international Erin McLeod — currently on national team duty — Brittany Wilson, and National Team Replacement Player Gabby English.

Where the Pride still see a work in progress is along the back line. The presumed center back pairing is Ali Krieger and Phoebe McClernon — another young player the team drafted last year. McClernon performed well in Europe while the Pride were forced to take most of 2020 off. Aside from that duo, Toni Pressley and Ally Haran provide center back depth. Ali Riley should significantly upgrade the fullback position and youngsters Courtney Petersen and Carrie Lawrence have a lot of potential. But it’s clear that the back line is an area that will be evaluated throughout the Challenge Cup.

“I don’t think it’s wrong to dismiss that we’re actually still looking for certain players in certain positions to really solidify the depth of the team that we have,” Skinner said when asked about the starting central defense pairing. “We know that Ali Krieger can play as a wonderful right back and we also know that she has the ability to play as a center half. One thing I am certain of is that Phoebe will be an exceptional center half and she has all of the abilities, and once she gets the consistency, she’s going to be a real player to watch for.”

Defense could be the position group that Pride Executive Vice President Amanda Duffy had in mind when she hinted that additions to the roster could be on the way.

“We have several conversations ongoing at the moment that we’re really excited about — some announcements that are forthcoming, some that will be a little bit further away,” she said.

To that end, the Pride have two international slots open.

The Pride should be a much more competitive team in 2021 than in last year’s brief Fall Series or at any point in what turned out to be a dreadful 2019 season. Orlando fans will likely need to be patient to let this team work out the kinks and find both its identity and some consistency. But there is more than sufficient talent on the 2021 roster for fans to be hopeful that the Pride will compete for the postseason. After all, the NWSL expanded the playoff field to six teams this year.

And, as eager as fans are for the season to kick off tonight and start that process, the players are equally ready.

“We’re very excited to finally get going because it feels like we’ve been in preseason since October,” Krieger said. “So, yeah, this is this is an exciting time and everyone’s really pumped to get started, especially with what happened last year, to finally get out on the field together as a team, and start the season.”