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Orlando Pride Are Again in Free Fall as Season Closes

The Pride are in the midst of the team’s traditional late season free fall.

NWSL: North Carolina Courage at Orlando Pride Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

The Orlando Pride are doing it again. Since the team’s first NWSL season in 2016, it has become an annual tradition for the Pride to go into freefall in the final weeks of the season. With the exception of the club’s 2017 playoff season, Orlando has hit a winless downward spiral to finish out each year, regardless of who is playing and coaching the squad.

The traditional collapse is in full swing again as 2022 draws to a close.

In the team’s inaugural season, the Pride were 6-6-0 on July 10 and a postseason berth in the team’s first year seemed possible. But the team tanked the rest of the way with an eight-game winless streak to end the year, with seven of those matches ending in losses and just one of them a draw. It was a disappointing end to what had been a solid inaugural year that began with four wins in a five-game stretch in the first two months of the NWSL campaign. The Pride won three straight that year from May 8-20 and sat at 4-2-0 before finishing 2-11-1 with that eight-game winless skid providing most of those losses.

By contrast, and (so far) serving as the lone exception that proves the rule, Orlando finished the 2017 regular season on a nine-match unbeaten streak (6-0-3), reaching the playoffs for the first time with a record of 11-6-7. Sure, the team got mauled in Portland in its lone postseason appearance to date, but that final stretch run was incredible. It was also, unfortunately, unique.

Orlando seemed poised for a return to the postseason in 2018. Despite a slow start to the year in which the Pride won only once in their first five matches (1-2-2), the team was sitting pretty at 8-6-4 by July 14 after a road win at Utah, with a chance to return to the playoffs with a strong finish. But the Pride went the other way. A pair of home draws against Seattle — OL Reign was known as the Seattle Reign then —and Sky Blue FC (now NJ/NY Gotham FC) weren’t devastating but they did kick off a six-match winless streak to end the year. Orlando finished with losses to Portland, North Carolina, Chicago, and Sky Blue, and the Pride scored only one goal in that four-game stretch, getting outscored 9-1.

The 2019 season was a disaster from the start, with Orlando starting the year 0-7-2 and sinking to the bottom of the NWSL standings. But the Pride won four of the next eight games to “climb” to 4-11-2 on the season before the bottom dropped out yet again. After a 2-1 win at Chicago on Aug. 21, 2019, the Pride finished on a seven-game winless skid (0-5-2) and ended the year just 4-16-4. The team managed to draw two of its last three after a four-game losing streak, but it was yet another downward spiral to close out the season. Whatever the opposite of “finishing strong” is, the Pride had mastered it.

It’s probably not fair to even count 2020 among these poor finishes, because the season was canceled essentially. The NWSL teams took part in two competitions — the NWSL Challenge Cup and the NWSL Fall Series. The Pride, however, did not take part in the Challenge Cup due to COVID issues within the team that surfaced just before the team was set to take part. Orlando participated in the Fall Series and failed to win a single game, going 0-2-2 in four matches to “close” the season on a four-game winless streak and run the team’s winless streak in all competitions to 11 matches (0-7-4).

The 2021 Orlando Pride campaign began with a ton of promise. Marc Skinner led the team to just a 1-1-2 record in the Challenge Cup before the regular season, but the team got out to its strongest start ever, going seven matches without a loss in a 4-0-3 run. The team then went winless in six straight (0-4-2) to fall to 4-4-5. That stretch coincided with rumors that Skinner was headed back to England to coach Manchester United, his departure, Carl Green coaching the team to a 2-0 home loss in the first match without Skinner, and Becky Burleigh leading the team to a 1-1 draw at North Carolina in her first game as the club’s interim coach.

The team seemed to more or less right the ship with a 3-1-2 run in the next five games and had a shot at a playoff run when sitting at 7-5-7 on Sept. 11. And then it happened again. Orlando lost its last five consecutive games, getting shut out three times in that span and the Pride were outscored 11-3 down the stretch.

Orlando began a major rebuild after the 2021 season. Big-name stars were sent to other teams and the Pride chose to go with a lot of younger players and some holdover veterans. Not much was expected in 2022 as new coach Amanda Cromwell arrived, but there was some satisfaction in getting to see which young players developed and how the team would augment the roster to build around them. The Pride tried many different players in the Challenge Cup and went 0-4-2, failing to score in the first three games and getting outscored 11-4. The team then lost its opener 3-0 at home to Gotham.

But the team seemed to be correcting course under Cromwell, getting a result in the next three games, including road wins at Angel City and North Carolina. The team was suddenly 2-1-1 and limiting the opposition’s offense after surrendering 12 goals in the previous four matches. And then, well…something happened. We still don’t know what. But the team got shelled in a 4-2 loss to Chicago, managed to draw a bad Washington Spirit side thanks solely to a pair of goals deep in stoppage time to erase a 2-0 hole, and then tied its worst loss in club history in a 5-0 beatdown at Houston.

Cromwell and one assistant coach were placed on administrative leave, two other assistant coaches decided to take personal leave rather than pick up the pieces, and Seb Hines was the last one standing, taking over as the team’s interim coach without a staff under him. Hines struggled out of the gate with back-to-back shutout losses, including a franchise worst 6-0 defeat at Portland.

But then, improbably, Hines got the team playing better. With help from former Orlando City forward Giles Barnes as an interim assistant coach and some help from Miguel Gallardo on a volunteer basis, Hines led the team to an incredible seven-match unbeaten run. It started with another two-goal comeback — this time to draw Racing Louisville 2-2 at the Daytona Soccer Fest at the Daytona International Speedway. The team then beat Houston on a late own goal and played the Spirit to a scoreless draw on the road. Two more draws had the unbeaten run at five games, albeit just a modest 1-0-4 run. Hines then took the team to San Diego and got a huge 1-0 shutout win over the Wave and backed that up with a 2-1 win at Gotham.

The team was back to the .500 mark at 5-5-6 and just three points below the playoff line. It had gone seven matches without a loss and seemed to finally find a way to turn those draws into wins. A home win over the Reign would have pushed the Pride just above the playoff line with five matches remaining.

But the Pride reverted to their old ways. Orlando led the Reign 1-0 at halftime. But the visitors leveled things early in the second half. Still, a draw wouldn’t have been the end of the world and the game went into stoppage time tied at 1-1. Then the Pride fell asleep and conceded a 92nd-minute goal to Megan Rapinoe and things have only unraveled from there.

The team has now gone five consecutive matches without a win, losing the first four of those games by a combined 9-1 and getting shut out three straight times against Portland, Louisville, and North Carolina. Orlando then threw away a 2-0 lead late at home Sunday night against San Diego.

If the team doesn’t win at OL Reign this Saturday night — and the Pride are 0-3-3 on the road against all incarnations of the Reign combined — it will cap yet another winless free fall at the end of the season. It will be the team’s sixth collapse in seven years (or fifth in six if you only want to count “normal” seasons). Any way you look at it, it’s a worrying trend that the team finishes so meekly when in several of those seasons there was a realistic chance to make the postseason with a strong close to the year.

The team has one game remaining and it’s largely meaningless, except to the Reign, who have a shot at the Supporters Shield. However, the Pride can make a statement on Saturday with a win. They can show supporters that it’s time for a change in Orlando with an ending that isn’t yet another loss or draw in a long string of them. They can tell fans that things are turning around. They can provide hope for 2023 by breaking the cycle.

The Orlando Pride have not won a game after Sept. 11 in any season except 2017. Historical data says they’ll lose again on Saturday night. Hopefully they can put an end to that tradition and finish on an unexpectedly high note.