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Orlando Pride 2019 season preview: New coach, new ideas … new team?

Photo Copyright Hannah di Lorenzo for The Equalizer

The 2018 Orlando Pride had one of the most disappointing seasons in National Women’s Soccer League history. After making the playoffs in their second year of existence and bolstering their roster with the likes of Sydney Leroux, Emily van Egmond, and Shelina Zadorsky — all experienced internationals — expectations were high.

They didn’t get a win until the fourth game of the year, falling to eighth place, but then managed to climb all the way to second. And then, the wheels fell off. Orlando ended the year on a six-game winless streak (losing the last four) and plummeting to seventh place. The skid was punctuated by a loss to Sky Blue on the final day of the season — Sky Blue’s first and only victory in 2018.

Therefore, it was no surprise when the Pride and head coach Tom Sermanni mutually parted ways after the season ended. It was increasingly apparent on the field that there was a dissonance between Sermanni and his players, and by the end he was at a loss as to how to get his team back on track.

Enter Marc Skinner. A rising star in England’s FA WSL, where he led Birmingham City Women to fourth place at the time of his departure, he did what he calls merely his due diligence in preparing for any new team.

“I think you have to firstly understand the roster you’re given, understand a little about how they were asked to play,” he told The Equalizer. “If you don’t do your homework about what a coach asked the player to do, you never really know if they’re the player that you expect, and I think if you leave yourself a little bit of an open mind when you come into the job and just speak to the players and ask them what they were asked to do and how you can affect that differently, if you then understand your style, then you can adapt the players quicker.”

Part of that preparation involved a player questionnaire, which Skinner says was as much about learning about each player as a person as anything else. “The old adage is if they know that you care then they’ll walk through brick walls for you,” he says.

But make no mistake, he did his homework on the pitch as well. Anyone who has ever watched the Pride knows that defense has always been an issue. They’ve given up at least 30 goals per season every year, an average of 1.4 goals against per game. Last year, only Houston and Sky Blue conceded more.

“We got opened up on transition far too often last year,” he said bluntly when asked about what he wanted to work on in preseason. “The first thing I thought was we needed to not only identify how long we stay on the ball and how we do that so we look to the detail behind keeping possession and how to affect the opposition, but then also how to defend almost while we’re attacking.”

Key to that will be more consistency on the back line. It’s often been a rotating cast for the Pride, with players like Ali Krieger, Toni Pressley, and Alanna Kennedy moving around to a variety of positions. Defenders are usually the least likely to be subbed out and the group to see the least rotation, helping them to develop the necessary chemistry that is a hallmark of successful defenses.

Unfortunately for the Pride (as for every other team this season), the World Cup will force Skinner to make lineup changes whether his wants to or not. The Pride are likely to miss at least seven regular starters, including starting goalkeeper and captain Ashlyn Harris. They could add two more to that list if Krieger makes the U.S. squad and Chioma Ubogagu is selected for England.

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Skinner’s plan for navigating that period hints at his philosophy as a coach overall. “We’ve got to adapt to the players we have,” he said, indicating that he’s not married to a particular style if his players aren’t suited for it. “If you don’t adapt you die, and that’s coaching in a nutshell, really.”

This is where Pressley could become essential. She’ll be one of the most experienced defenders on the roster if Krieger is gone, and she’ll need to serve as the anchor — the guiding voice that keeps a back line in sync. Also look for Dani Weatherholt, one of the more underrated players in the league, to demonstrate her leadership and ability to control a midfield. Finally, the Pride need a big season from Rachel Hill, who is often great as a substitute but struggles for consistency as a starter. With another stellar W-League season under her belt, hopefully she can bring that form back home.

At the end of the day, Skinner wants his team to be free, confident, and entertaining. He called it a “possession-based positional game,” a system in which players understand space and the weaknesses of the opposition’s structure and can control games more than they have in the past. He then added that he wants to see the following mindset in his players: “Right, I’m going to score. This is my opportunity. I’m going to take it and not look back, and I know I’ve got my team behind me supporting me.”

The Pride have the roster to be all that and more. If Marc Skinner is the man to unlock their potential, it’s definitely going to be entertaining.

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