Sydney Leroux participating at training - Photo Credit: Orlando Pride
The National Women’s Soccer League features some of the biggest stars in the world. With the Summer Olympics kicking off in July, many of those stars will be absent for a significant portion of the season. Additionally, the start of the league’s Challenge Cup competition will fall at the start of an international FIFA window, meaning the national team players will be called up instead of being with their club team to start the tournament. Fortunately, the league’s impressive depth will be showcased while the internationals are away. This series will highlight five players from each NWSL team who can take advantage of the opportunity to make a name for themselves this season.
The less said about the 2020 season for the Orlando Pride the better, as the team looks to turn from a mostly disappointing campaign to the fresh start this year brings. Coach Marc Skinner, in his third year in charge, finally looks to have a squad that shows his mark on the roster. A noteworthy mention for the Pride is the appointment of General Manager Ian Fleming, who was able to bring in and sign several key players this year. Last season, a large portion of the roster was sent out on loan, and those who stayed to play in the Fall Series at most logged 360 minutes overall.
Entering the Challenge Cup, Alex Morgan will once again miss time with Orlando; she has appeared in only six of the 28 matches under Skinner. From the countries already qualifying for the Olympics, the players most likely to miss NWSL matches are Ali Riley and Marta. Morgan, Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris are all federated players whose names are in Vlatko Andonovski’s notebook, and the door is open for Canadian and British players to book their own tickets to Japan as well. On paper, the revamped Pride seem like a much improved side, but without any significant playing time to prove it, the team has plenty of questions left to answer. Here are five players to watch who should give the Orlando faithful hope for 2021.
With Marta and Morgan mostly likely heading to the Olympics, Leroux will be counted on to be the primary goal scorer for the Pride, having inked a three-year contract with an option for an additional year, the maximum deal possible for NWSL players. She logged 270 minutes in the Fall Series, and, like Morgan, has only been a part of a match for Skinner six times since 2019. Leroux looks to reclaim her previous form; she scored six goals in both 2018 and 2017. She will provide veteran leadership to the other forwards on the roster, Abi Kim and Crystal Thomas, while the international players are away. The Pride demonstrated how much the organization values Leroux, and the level of expectation for her is high. Someone needs to score the goals in Orlando, and it’s a safe bet that if Syd can be that player, the Pride will leave the bad taste of 2020 behind.
Coming into her own, Viggiano played every minute of the Fall Series and led Orlando in scoring with two goals. All this came after a 2019 rookie season in which she capitalized on her situation in the midfield, starting 14 matches in 19 appearances and chipping in the lone goal in a 1-0 win over Sky Blue. The Pride committed to her this off-season with a two-year contract extension, with an option for an additional year. The challenge for Viggiano is locking down her starting spot in the matchday XI with a new batch of reinforcements to the midfield added by Fleming. They include Meggie Dougherty Howard, Gunny Jónsdóttir and Erika Tymrak. Look for Viggiano to continue taking her skills to the next level as a starter by being more creative in the attack, connecting the back line to the offensive third. She is still looking to record her first assist at the professional level, and it looks likely to happen this year.
It’s been a wild ride for Gunny in 2020. She started by playing in the Challenge Cup for the Utah Royals, and she logged 288 minutes in four matches, starting two. Jónsdóttir was then announced in August to go on loan to Valur Women’s Football in Iceland for three months. Coming back after her loan, Utah became Kansas City, which in January traded her to Orlando along with Erika Tymrak (Tymrak's rights, because she was technically still retired) for Kristen Edmonds and the Pride’s second round pick in the 2022 draft. For my money, Gunny comes to Orlando and immediately becomes a starter. She brings the grit that Skinner has been hoping to add to the midfield. Jónsdóttir also proved to be one of the fittest players on the roster, as her beep test prowess was lauded on the Pride Twitter account March 17. She is happy to be in the City Beautiful and seems to be looking to return Orlando to the postseason.
The University of Virginia defender was drafted fourteenth overall by Orlando in the 2020 NWSL draft and ended up going on loan last season when the Pride didn’t take part in the Challenge Cup. She went to Växjö in Sweden, where she could get regular time, and started in 12 matches, racking up 1,035 minutes. After her loan, she returned to Orlando and was signed to a two-year contract. McClernon brings versatility to the Pride back line, as she is able to play both as a full back and a center back, with several potential players called away for international duty. She can certainly work to get herself into the starting XI as the team rates her highly. The things to watch for Phoebe are if she can log as many minutes in Orlando as she got overseas last year and how well she combines with her college teammate, Courtney Petersen, at the professional level.
Generally speaking, Wilson is going to be the third goalkeeper on the roster in 2021 behind Ashlyn Harris and Erin McLeod, both players allocated by their respective federation. However, it wouldn’t be an Orlando Pride season if the team didn’t have to call on another keeper to mind the net in place of Harris. Fun fact: Orlando has had to use a third goalkeeper in three of their four regular seasons; in all the Pride matches, including playoffs and Fall Series, a different keeper has stepped in for Ashlyn in 32 of 97 matches. Wilson earned a start in the Fall Series against the Houston Dash on Oct. 9 at Exploria Stadium, and she faced 20 shots, seven on goal, and recorded five saves. Odds are good that she will spend some time on the pitch, perhaps while Harris and McLeod are with their national teams for the Olympics.