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How the Orlando Pride Turned a Difficult Season into a Playoff Chase

Reflection and unity have resulted in a six-game unbeaten run for the Pride as they hunt for a playoff spot.

NWSL: Orlando Pride at San Diego Wave FC Ray Acevedo-USA TODAY Sports

The Orlando Pride used a Meggie Dougherty Howard penalty to beat San Diego Wave FC 1-0 away from home Saturday night. While it was only the fourth win of the season, it extended the team’s current unbeaten run to six games. After a tough start to the season, what has changed with this team?

It’s been a roller coaster season for the Pride. The team was previously built on international stars like Alex Morgan and Marta, but only made the playoffs in 2017. As a result, the team is undergoing a significant rebuild, led by General Manager Ian Fleming.

“We’ve watched what the build has looked like here in the past before I arrived,” Fleming told The Mane Land last month. “And it was exciting, and there were big name stars. 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. Right? This club has made one playoff appearance since its inception. And we want to change that.”

During the past off-season, the Pride traded away several players that played significant minutes for the team, including Ali Riley, Jodie Taylor, Ali Krieger, Alex Morgan, Marisa Viggiano, Phoebe McClernon, Taylor Kornieck, and captain Ashlyn Harris. Additionally, the team parted ways with Amy Turner, Angharad James, and Sydney Leroux during this season.

These departures led many to predict that the Pride would finish near the bottom of the NWSL standings. And it appeared as though that would be the case. The team lost almost its entire coaching staff as Amanda Cromwell and Sam Green were placed on administrative leave for a potential violation of the league’s policy on workplace misconduct. Assistant coaches Michelle Akers and Aline Villares Reis decided to take time off during the investigation, which is still ongoing.

The remaining assistant coach was former Orlando City player Seb Hines, who was the only coach who remained on staff when Cromwell took over. But the 34-year-old had never been a professional head coach and had to create a makeshift staff, which consists of former teammate Giles Barnes and former Orlando City goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo.

It looked even worse after Hines took over. Cromwell’s last game was a 5-0 loss to the Houston Dash, which matched the team’s largest defeat in its seven-year history. After a close 1-0 loss to the Chicago Red Stars in Hines’ head coaching debut, the team lost 6-0 to the Portland Thorns for its worst loss in team history. But then things changed.

After going down 2-0 early in the second half against Racing Louisville FC at Daytona International Speedway, the Pride came back with goals by Kylie Strom and Darian Jenkins to draw 2-2. They followed that up with a 1-0 win over the Dash thanks to an Ally Prisock own goal and draws against the Washington Spirit, Kansas City Current, and Angel City FC. Then, after three straight draws, the Pride finally came away with a win in San Diego.

Part of the reason for the current run of form is due to a shift in the Pride’s mindset. The Pride looked like a beaten team when they lost in Houston and Portland. However, the current squad has shown a fight that has allowed the team to come back from deficits to gain points and hold on to a pair of wins.

“Honestly, I think it’s just we changed our mentality,” midfielder Megan Montefusco said after the win over San Diego. “We know we’re the underdog, but now we know we have it in us that we can do it. And we train so hard every single day. We train with that underdog mentality. And we put in so much work and, like I said, we’ve been through a lot, so I think we’ve had to have these hard conversations with each other which has brought us extremely close.”

Dougherty Howard said that the team’s current form was due to reflection. The Pride had a two-week break following the 6-0 loss in Portland on June 19, extended by a day so the team could play in Daytona on July 3.

“We have faced a lot of adversity as a team throughout the season and I think we had a little bit of a break that was much needed,” Dougherty Howard said after the win in San Diego. “You know, a few weeks ago after Portland. And I think that really allowed us time to regroup and look at ourselves, and at that point we could decide we are going to change things going forward for the rest of the season or it’s going to be a long rest of the season. And I think, at that moment, we all decided to put everything that’s happened in the season in the past and move forward because, you know, we want to win for our fans. We want to win for each other. We want to compete and I think that’s what we started doing.”

More than anything else, there seems to be a togetherness in this group that was missing before. People questioned the direction of this team when Turner, James, and Leroux departed. Whether they had an impact on the team’s mindset or the losses simply brought the current group closer together, the Pride seem to be fighting for each other.

“You can see that reaction at the end of the game there was, you know, they all celebrated together,” Hines said about the postgame celebration in San Diego. “From the players on the bench to the players who are on the field, there’s a real togetherness and, you know, a buy-in.”

“They’re working extremely hard every single day, setting that mentality, and then also being able to come together and just show love,” Montefusco added. “We’ve got a team and you’ve seen it tonight and you’ll keep seeing it going forward.”

The current run has completely changed the outlook on the 2022 NWSL season for the Pride. The focus was entirely on the development of young players but now they have a real chance at a playoff run. The team currently sits on 18 points, just six behind OL Reign for the sixth and final playoff spot.

It would seem that losing arguably the most talented players on a team would result in a lack of results on the field. But, in the case of the Pride, the opposite has happened. The team is playing its best soccer all season with a group largely unknown to those that don’t follow the team regularly. If the Pride’s current form continues, it could result in a very memorable season.