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Orlando Pride General Manager Ian Fleming Explains the Team’s Rebuilding Strategy

The GM discussed his approach to the Pride’s rebuilding strategy, both this past off-season and moving forward.

Mark Thor/Orlando Pride

The Orlando Pride have seen tremendous turnover over the past year. Several veteran players departed the club and have been replaced by a young group. While the club has shied away from using the term, the team is going through a full rebuild. We sat down with Pride General Manager Ian Fleming to find out more about the club’s plan and what fans should know about the moves being made.

The rebuild started in earnest during the off-season when the Pride traded Alex Morgan, Ali Krieger, Ashlyn Harris, Jodie Taylor, and Ali Riley. It’s continued into the regular season, with the club buying out the contract of Amy Turner and recently trading Sydney Leroux to Angel City FC.

“No one wants to say rebuild, and I’ve certainly shied away from using that word because of the connotations that come along with it,” Fleming said. “We’re looking at how this team gets better over the long run, right? I know at one point last year I mentioned a couple of times of trusting the process and have dropped that into social media here and there. But I also understand that it’s incredibly difficult to trust the process if you don’t fully understand what that process is, it’s not being communicated clearly, or if it’s just kind of left out there for you guys to determine for yourselves what the process is.”

The Pride were announced in 2015 and began play in 2016. From the first season, the team was largely built on international stars. While the team looked good on paper, it has been unsuccessful on the field. In five full regular seasons, the team has only made the playoffs once, in 2017, when the Pride were beaten 4-1 by the Portland Thorns.

Some of that previous lack of success has been due to losing key players for major international tournaments. Professional soccer is a summer sport in the United States, which means losing international players for tournaments during the summer months. The Pride, at times, have lost nearly their entire starting lineup to the Summer Olympics or the World Cup. It’s something that Fleming says they’re trying to change.

“For us right now, what we’ve seen is that the strategy of the past for the Orlando Pride hasn’t been overly successful, right?” Fleming says. “We all want it to be successful. We’ve watched what the build has looked like here in the past before I arrived. And it was exciting, and there were big-name stars, and we went out and we got those types of players in here to generate interest and try to win games. And ultimately, on the game side, it hasn’t been successful.

“This club has made one playoff appearance since its inception. And we want to change that. And we don’t want it to be a one-off.”

So what’s the process of which Fleming speaks? As he said, there hasn’t been a lot of communication between the front office and the fans, which has created a storm of frustration and speculation as to what the future has in store for the Pride.

One complaint some have made about the team’s moves over the past year is that they’re losing star players and not replacing them. Instead, the team is receiving Allocation Money and draft picks. Some fans have speculated that it’s a way for ownership to drain the club before moving, selling, or folding the team. Fleming says that’s not the case.

“It’s (Allocation Money) not being tucked away. It’s not being withdrawn by ownership in order to make some profits and move the club away and this club is not being used,” Fleming says. “There’s never been any indication whatsoever that that’s the case.”

Instead, Fleming says that the Allocation Money acquired is there to be used to better the team for the future. But he also says that throwing around Allocation Money won’t help the team in the long run.

“I see what’s out there. And the thing is that I collected a certain amount of Allocation Money that wouldn’t be useful to spend immediately,” he said. “And I could. I can toss it around and we can make a one-off run and try to have a really great season right now, and then bankrupt ourselves for future seasons or mortgage our future in order to make one run at it. And that’s not what I want this to be right now.

“What I want is something that’s going to be successful over a number of years. We’re laying the foundation for something that is going to be good — not just this year, not just next year. For this to be something that we can carry on and have it be meaningful and find the right balance over the right amount of time to find success for a number of years.”

Fleming also made the point that this isn’t the first time that an NWSL club has gone through a rebuild. In some cases, the rebuilds have gone rather quickly and resulted in long-term success.

Others have caused fans to experience some difficult times before seeing success.

“This is not the first time that this has been done in this league and it wouldn’t be the first time that it’s a highly successful process,” Fleming said. “We go back to the Western New York Flash, who became the North Carolina Courage, who rebuilt through one draft in particular that ended up leading to a number of championships with that club. We watched the Washington Spirit do it three years ago. And they weren’t very good their first year, just like that Flash and Courage team was. That year, after they drafted Sam Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper, they weren’t very good. They went through a rough year first before they became successful.”

Fleming says the process completed by the Spirit shows what the Pride are currently attempting to do. Rather than bringing in a bunch of big-name players, the team needs a core group of players in place. Then the Pride can go after star players that can help the team become a championship contender.

“In terms of how they built that squad, it was great. They went out and got an Ashley Sanchez and Trinity Rodman and Ashley Hatch,” he said. “And then, when they got to the point where they felt like they had the right talent in place to make a run at a championship, that’s when they threw significant assets to go get Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnet to shore up the back line. They got the pieces in place, then they went for it and they wanted to win a title. And it was about getting those pieces in place before making the big, over-the-top moves to win a title and getting the right pieces in place to be able to make a run.”

A lot has been made of the Allocation Money acquired by the club and the fact that the Pride haven’t spent that money to bring in more players. However, the club has also acquired several draft picks through its deals. That’s something that Fleming sees as a key way of building the team for the future.

“We’re still investing in the draft,” Fleming said. “I have two first-round picks and two second-round picks this year, two first-round picks and two second-round picks next year. We have nine draft picks currently — total — for the next draft. Doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to use all those. I might flip some. I can make some moves. I can do some more with them in potential future trades. But right now, we have a lot of draft capital.”

As for the players currently on the team, Fleming said that the development of the young group is a direct result of them getting consistent playing time instead of being kept from the field by more experienced players.

“We are witnessing right now already the growth and development — quick growth and development — process for some of the young players in this team right now,” he said. “You’re seeing Viviana Villacorta come back from an ACL injury that kept her out for over a year. Making the jump from college to the pros while going through the ACL rehab process and her acceleration right now is incredible. She’s starting to play some very, very good soccer already, and it just takes that rehab time. It takes that recovery. It takes being able to jump to the next level and get comfortable and build that confidence there. And now, all of a sudden, we have a central midfielder who looks the part of a first-round draft pick that we took last year.

“Mikayla Cluff is coming along really nicely right now. Kerry Abello is coming along really nicely for a third-round pick last year — so much so that she was called into the (U.S.) Under-23s and scored against Sweden last week. And that’s not something I think anyone expected at this point in time. And it’s because of the opportunities that they’re receiving right now. Because we are giving them those opportunities based on the way that our team is being built.”

NWSL: Racing Louisville FC at Orlando Pride Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

In addition to adding young players, the club has also brought in some NWSL veterans that will lead this team and the development of the younger players. This includes Megan Montefusco and Darian Jenkins, as well as players already on the team like Erin McLeod and Gunny Jonsdottir.

“As we recruit, we get a player like Haley (Bugeja), who’s 18 years old,” Fleming said. “But we also might look to get a player who’s 30 years old, and has been through every level, and has found success, because they’re the type of player who wants to grow and develop and who might want to teach the younger players as well — share their experience and be a leader.”

While the team has been looking to get younger through this process, there have also been some challenges. Fleming said that some players have asked to leave the club, which has made it difficult to get the most possible in return.

“It’s very difficult to find the right deal at that point, because you’re up against it,” he says. “When other teams know that a player has asked to go, the deals you get offered are not as good as what you would hope for.”

Most of the players who left the club were in their 30s. As a result, they’re either near the end of their primes or already past their primes. Either way, the players would likely be well beyond their last years by the time the Pride are ready to compete for a title.

However, there were some players who were traded during the off-season that didn’t fit that description and would have been ideal players to include in the rebuild. Taylor Kornieck (23), Phoebe McClernon (24), and Marisa Viggiano (25) seem like the types of players that you would want at the center of this rebuild. They should be entering or in the middle of their prime years when the rebuild is complete. When asked about those three, Fleming didn’t want to speak about each player individually. But, reading between the lines, he did give an indication that the players no longer wanted to be a part of the Pride.

“I don’t necessarily want to talk specifically about them as individuals,” Fleming said. “But what I will say is that in my year-and-a-half as GM here, I have never traded a player that either did not ask to be traded or that I did not have the express permission to trade them to the place that we’re trading.”

Another concern of Pride fans has been how the new owners, the Wilf family, view the Pride. Some have speculated that they were forced to purchase the Pride in order to acquire Orlando City. However, they’ve always said that the Pride were a key part of their investment and that they plan on being long-time owners of the team. When asked about how ownership received the idea of buying a team entering a rebuild, Fleming said that the members of the Wilf family were aware of his plans for the future and were supportive, even before completing the purchase.

“The truth is that this sort of restructuring of how we were going to move forward, the ideas that I had, what I wanted to be able to do with this club, looking at the roster when I took over, that predates them as well,” Fleming said. “So they came into a situation in which they purchased a club that this transformation was already underway. It’s still in its infancy. So those conversations were taking place quite early.

“They know from being in sports for quite a long time what this type of rebuild, restructuring, resetting looks like. And there’s patience for that. Everyone wants to win as much and as often as possible, but they’ve been supportive through this every step of the way.”

The main takeaway from Fleming’s plan is that fans need to be patient. As he said, the way the Pride was built from its inaugural season wasn’t working. A major change was needed and Fleming said he believes that building a young core is the way to make this team successful well into the future.

The club has used the trades over the past year to acquire a number of draft picks and a plethora of Allocation Money that can be used to build a good young core. While it could be a quick rebuild, it could also take a number of years. But the front office and ownership are committed to the future of the Pride in Orlando and the team being successful.