For the first time in franchise history, the Orlando Pride are undefeated four games into the season. Actually, the Pride previously had never even been undefeated after two games in their NWSL history. But now the Pride (3-0-1, 10 points) are in first place in the NWSL and have won their last three games.
There have been a few themes during this run. First, Alex Morgan has had a goal contribution in every game this season. It had been a while since Morgan scored for the Pride before 2021, but the USWNT regular now has three goals and an assist in four matches. Her three goals lead the league.
Orlando has also used an imposing defense at the start of the season. The Pride have only allowed three goals and have yet to allow multiple goals in a game. In the last match against Kansas City, Ashlyn Harris was not forced into any saves. While the Pride are tied for the second-most goals scored in the NWSL, this defensive effort has allowed Orlando to remain unbeaten.
But the biggest reason for Orlando’s success has been because of consistency in player selection. Through Orlando’s first four games, there have only been 13 different starters. One of those changes was Erin McLeod in goal for Harris at North Carolina.
“It tells you about a mentality more than a physicality,” Marc Skinner said. “You have to go and be prepared to go to battle with each other, and that’s what we’re trying to do. There are psychological tests in any game — you have to defend, you have to be psychologically strong. The focus for our players was to be together throughout.”
Having the same players available for selection is something that Skinner has not had during his time in Orlando. In 2019, the World Cup took almost the entire starting XI for a huge chunk of the season. Skinner was left with a bunch of young, inexperienced players and National Team Replacement Players.
The following year, most of the Pride went out on loan. Orlando only played in four Fall Series games in 2020, so players went abroad to get game time.
Now, Skinner can keep players in the team. The Olympics will cause a few players to leave, but it shouldn’t be as big of an impact as a few years ago. The players will continue to improve individually but also as a collective team.
This is perhaps most evident in the back line. It is a vital part of soccer that the center back pairing understands each other well. When teams are constantly changing the center backs and back line, it is much more difficult to find results.
“It’s hard to be fair to the other players that were here in year one. I think we had 18 back lineups within the 24 games, so it was hard to get that consistency,” said Skinner. “What we’ve got [now] is that consistency. What then happens is you start to read. You know what that other person is probably going to do as that ball turns blind. ‘If I follow up this way, I know what she’s going to do.’ So that allows us then to shoot spaces, effectively — they’re brave, they’re committed.”
The big question now is what happens when it is necessary to go to the bench, or when players are out of the starting XI due to international call-ups or injury? Will the Pride be able to compete at this high level still? That remains to be seen, as Chelsee Washington and Marisa Viggiano are the only players to consistently make appearances from the bench — Viggiano has made multiple starts as well.
“We have quality on the players on the bench as well, but we’re trying to get that consistency,” said Skinner. “I’ve spoken to the group about ‘your opportunity will come, but we just need to get these games in where we get that consistency of what we want, where you can then come in and express what who you are, with what we want.’ We were never able to do that in the first year, so maybe that’s the key difference.”