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Orlando Pride Showed Growth Through Challenge Cup

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The Pride must carry the lessons they learned in the preseason tournament into the NWSL regular season.

Image courtesy of the Orlando Pride

The Orlando Pride had a successful 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup. While the Pride did not advance to the final, they finished third in the East Division and finished their last two matches with clean sheets. More importantly, Orlando improved in a few key areas in the past few weeks.

“I think we improved tactically in our discipline,” said Pride Head Coach Marc Skinner. “We’ve improved our connections with the players that will play together. We’ve connected a better team. We are connecting off the field a little bit better in terms of getting to know each other better, creating a team culture. We’re working hard behind the scenes to create an Orlando Pride that is together off the field as they are on the field. And so we’re going to continue that work. I’m pleased with the growth that you necessarily can’t yet see on the field.”

Orlando has struggled to have consistent lineups in previous years. The Pride typically has a handful of international players. This caused problems during international windows such as the World Cup and the Olympics. Many of the first team was out, and so the Pride was left to play with backups and have players on short-term National Team Replacement Player contracts fill in the holes.

Skinner and General Manager Ian Fleming have built a more complete roster. Orlando is now a team with a mixture of veteran and young players.

During the Challenge Cup, the starting XI remained similar, with just a few changes made between games. Non-coincidentally, the Pride recorded back-to-back shutouts for the first time since May 2018 and earned back-to-back results for the second time in Skinner’s Pride tenure.

“Having the ability of having good players on your team consistently — they read off of each other’s habits,” Skinner said. “We’re not blind to the links and the telepathic kind of thinking of our forward line; it’s not quite there yet. Of course, it’s not going to be every single time, but it will only get better the more they play together, and the more we introduce players to each other.”

Skinner said that as the players continue to play with each other and get to know each other better, the team can play more attacking soccer and have more tactical flexibility.

This consistency in player selection has also led the team to improve as a whole. Orlando was poor against Louisville. Although they fought their way back into the match, the Pride were second best for long stretches in the match, particularly in the opening half. The defense started the game all over the place but improved as the game went on.

In the next match, against Gotham FC, the Pride did well most of the beginning of the game. After an hour, Gotham took complete control of the game and won the match, 1-0, taking advantage of a transition opportunity. The Pride followed that performance up with a win against the Washington Spirit. It was not the best performance, but Orlando came out of it with a win.

The final match was against North Carolina. Orlando did not have many chances but kept the Courage scoreless. In fact, the Pride had more good chances in the game, even though Orlando was out-shot 19-9.

“I think a big takeaway [of the Challenge Cup] is that, in my eyes, we’re getting better as these games progress,” said defender Toni Pressley. “Whether that’s things that we’re working on and I think today a big takeaway from that is just our discipline as a collective.”

The Pride kick off their regular season in a few weeks. Orlando hosts the Washington Spirit on May 16. Orlando will have to use the lessons learned in these past four games and take them into the regular season.

“I want us to continue the discipline while adding to the ferocity of our forward play — which only comes with time and playing together, and then some of the things that will keep improving are those ways to score,” said Skinner. “Now, if we keep improving, you can score from set pieces, you can score more goals, you can score team goals. I think you can tell from my energy tonight that I’m pleased in this step we made tonight in the right direction. And as you look back on these games as a stepping stone for the development of this team and future of our wonderful club.”