The Orlando Pride entered a new era last week as interim head coach Becky Burleigh took over after the departure of Marc Skinner. The players and their new head coach have now had a week to get used to each other and so far it seems to be a good fit.
The last couple of weeks have been difficult for the Pride. The loss of Alex Morgan, Marta, and Ali Riley to the Olympics have caused players to switch positions and resulted in the lack of two of the team’s most important attackers.
Prior to the loss of those players, the team started the season on a seven-game undefeated streak, which included four wins. The team lost in Morgan’s final match before leaving for the USWNT camp and has since gone winless in an additional five matches, losing three of those five.
Already struggling on the field, the situation became worse when Skinner resigned to take the head coaching role for Manchester United’s women’s team, taking one of the assistant coaches, Carl Green, with him.
The Pride didn’t waste any time bringing in an interim coach. The day after Green coached the Pride to a 2-0 loss to OL Reign, the club announced that Burleigh would take over the team for the remainder of the 2021 season.
The former University of Florida head coach, who had retired in February, brought Alan Kirkup with her, who had been her assistant in Gainesville for 15 years. The club retained assistant coach Seb Hines and goalkeeping coach Lloyd Yaxley.
Burleigh revealed early on that she was a players’ coach.
“I think that the fact that we spent the whole first day just trying to gather information, both from the players and from the staff, I think they appreciated that platform,” Burleigh said during her introductory press conference. “Ultimately, my goal would be to create a platform for the players to coach themselves. Soccer is a players’ game, not a coaches’ game. And we need to give the tools so that they’re prepared for that. But at the same time, some of these women, most of these women, have so much experience and are so competent. Now it’s just providing the structure for them.”
The players seem to appreciate these aspects of Burleigh and indicate that there’s already been a change from Skinner’s tenure. One of the biggest differences for the players is having a coach they feel wants to be with the team. While Skinner was excited about the opportunity when he first arrived, he had been separated from his partner and child for long stretches during the pandemic and a return to England had been speculated for weeks leading up to his resignation.
“I guess the feeling of someone wanting to be here for us,” forward Sydney Leroux said about why the team feels so strongly about Burleigh. “I think everyone feels that and that’s what that can do for us, so it was really exciting for me to play under them tonight. And the rest of the team.”
While Burleigh wanting to coach the Pride has been noticeable to the players, they also say that they feel more prepared than they did under Skinner.
“This coaching staff is exactly what we needed,” vice captain Ali Krieger said after Saturday night’s game. “They’ve been tremendous in only the few days, preparing us for this season. And we’ve felt the most prepared we have all year so far.”
“We didn’t really have a lot of time to prepare under Becky,” Leroux added. “But I think she prepared, again, like Krieger said, this was the most prepared we’ve gone into a game.”
The passion for their new coach and preparedness they feel heading into games should help the Pride going forward. The 1-1 draw with the North Carolina Courage Saturday night saw the team temporarily move into one of the six playoff places before Sunday’s results dropped the team back to seventh in the standings. With the Olympics winding down, the team will also soon experience the returns of Morgan, Riley, Marta, and backup goalkeeper Erin McLeod. Those players will give the Pride a boost as they look to make the playoffs for the second time in team history.
Burleigh has only been with the Pride for a week but it seems she has already impacted the culture. With the return of star players on the horizon and a renewed willingness to fight for each other, the Pride could make a run similar to the one they made at the start of the season.
“Everyone had a willingness to win and to fight and to support each other,” Krieger said after the game Saturday night. “And that is something that we haven’t seen since the beginning of the season. So I think we’ve hit the restart button, and refresh button, and this coaching staff is exactly what we needed.”