Soccer

Orlando Pride 2021 preseason preview: As NWSL Challenge Cup debut nears, Marc Skinner’s side seeks new energy

Preseason is underway as clubs wrap up on their first month together. The Orlando Pride are looking ahead toward the future after their limited time together in 2020 was heavily impacted by the pandemic. 

The team withdrew from the inaugural Challenge Cup due to a series of positive and inconclusive cases among players and staff. After some uncertainty post-Challenge Cup, several players went abroad on loan for more playing opportunities. As the Fall Series was announced, Orlando Pride finally found themselves able to participate in their first competition of the year.

Despite the small window for matches, the club exercised the contract option for coach Marc Skinner and assistant coach Carl Green through the 2021 NWSL regular season. The club also signed forward Sydney Leroux to a three-year contract with an option for an additional year, which is the maximum deal available for players in NWSL. 

The club is currently closing the door on their first month in preseason together, and next up is getting some preseason fixtures in ahead of the 2021 Challenge Cup.

Coach’s perspective

Hired after the departure of inaugural coach Tom Sermanni in 2019, Skinner and the club have been presented with unique challenges throughout his tenure. Taking over during a World Cup year in 2019 meant the team lost several players on its roster for a period of time, including star USWNT forward Alex Morgan. They struggled to establish themselves as contenders during the season, finishing bottom of the league with a franchise-low 16 points.

To make matters worse, 2020 provided little opportunity as the league was forced to make adjustments in the wake of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Orlando continued to have disruptions as just days ahead of the inaugural Challenge Cup, it was forced to withdraw after a string of inconclusive and positive COVID-19 cases among staff and players.

The new year — and longest preseason in NWSL history — has provided the club with new energy and a new outlook.

“We have a lot of energy anyway. We have a lot of new players returning, and also new players coming into the team so. So, what it does is, it’s a lot of energy, because now for the first time there’s competition for places,” Skinner said.

“You know we have to variant on the edge of that. Because too much competition and people who don’t feel like they can flourish, and then not enough, and all of a sudden the comfort zone fits in. So, we’re actually trying to balance between the positions so that we’ve got competitiveness in each position, even if we change formation.”

One thing we don’t know

Skinner and the Pride may have had their time together disrupted, but that doesn’t negate the overall blueprint he has for the club.

With a lengthy preseason, the return of the Challenge Cup and a regular NWSL season ahead, Skinner wants his roster to shift their early preseason energy to ironing out tactics and perfecting their eventual formation, which could include multiple shifts during games.

“One of the things I’m trying to aim is that we’re able to transition out of formations in the game without having to wait to halftime or a break in play in order to do that,” Skinner said. “It’s recognizing triggers and so on. So, there’s a lot of teaching aspects within that. But I think the energy of the players has been there ever since last year, really, and there’s a real hunger here for this team to be successful. And you know preseason is going to be the chance for us to iron out any factors so that when we go into the Challenge Cup, we’ll be be ready to do what we need to do.”

Three things we know

Toni Pressley has been with the club since its inaugural season and has played in NWSL since 2013 when she returned home from the Russian league. The current preseason roster consists of first- and second-year players, trialists and other veterans. The 31-year-old defender admitted this current preseason stands out more than any previous year. Here’s what we know from her chat:

1. On Orlando having an extended preseason together: “I think that can only work to our benefit. I think just the bonds that we’ll be able to create in this extended period of time and the things that we’ll be able to work on. Also, previously, we’ve had like maybe five, six weeks of preseason and now we have the Challenge Cup as well. That kind of helps that building phase as well at the end of preseason. So it’s exciting. It’s long and it’s hard and it’s tough, but I think at the end of the day we’re all going to be so grateful for this extended time that we have together.”

2. On facing Kansas City in preseason: “We’re just really excited to get back into competition, and I think it was really cool. Our first preseason game was against an NWSL team. I don’t think we’ve had that since I’ve been here, and you know, what a great way to already test ourselves so early at this stage.” 

3. On participating in Challenge Cup for the first time: “I think everyone is super excited. I hate always bringing up how last year went for us, but obviously it wasn’t you know what we planned or expected. So, I think just to kind of have some normalcy of a season and get back out there and get back on the road. I know last year they did it all in one location so that’s going to look a bit different for us. But it might work towards our benefit because we didn’t have that centralized location feel of a tournament. So, yeah I think we’re all really looking forward to the Challenge Cup, and what it has to offer and bring us, and just use it as another learning experience and building blocks, as we head into the season.”

Looking ahead

Preseason will run through April as teams prepare for the upcoming Challenge Cup on April 9 with the regular NWSL season kicking off on May 15. During the two-month long preseason, clubs will likely have scrimmage matches set up with local university and college sides should all appropriate COVID protocols be in place and pending league approval. 

Orlando has already participated in a preseason scrimmage against Kansas City NWSL, a 1-0 defeat in tightly contested match. The team will meet other local colleges and universities for additional scrimmages, along with an additional NWSL fixture against Washington Spirit.

2021 Orlando Pride Preseason Schedule: 

Wed., March 3 vs. Kansas City (1-0 loss)
Sat., March 13 at Florida State University
Sun., March 14 vs. Flagler College
Sat., March 20 at Washington Spirit
Sat., April 3 vs. Florida State University

The preseason roster

The 22-player roster will eventually have to be narrowed down ahead of the Challenge Cup and the start of the regular NWSL season. The current preseason participants consist of players acquired through trades, offseason signings, non-roster invitees, trialists, and the NWSL draft. Midfielders lead the way with 13 players listed at the position.

2021 Orlando Pride Preseason Roster

GOALKEEPERS(3): Ashlyn Harris (FED/USA), Erin McLeod (INTL/CAN), Brittany Wilson

DEFENDERS (9): Ally Haran (NRI), Ali Krieger (FED/USA), Carrie Lawrence, Phoebe McClernon, Carson Pickett (NYR), Courtney Petersen, Konya Plummer (INTL/JAM), Toni Pressley, Ali Riley

MIDFEILDERS (8): Meggie Dougherty Howard, Gunny Jónsdóttir, Taylor Kornieck, Jordyn Listro, Jade Moore (INTL/ENG), Erika Tymrak (NRI), Marisa Viggiano, Chelsee Washington

FORWARDS (3): Sydney Leroux^, Alex Morgan (FED/USA), Marta Vieira da Silva (INTL/BRA)

Key: FED: Denotes 2020 Federation Player, INTL: Denotes International Player, NRI: Non-Roster Invitee, NYR: Not Yet Reported, ^: Contract Offer Extended



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