NWSL Challenge Cup Preview: Orlando Pride Finish in 9th Place… Again
EDITOR'S NOTE: While the Orlando Pride will not be included in the NWSL Challenge Cup, we thought we'd showcase Nikki's hard work. Enjoy this alt history piece.
Head Coach: Marc Skinner
Following a disappointing 7th place finish in 2018, Skinner, former head coach for English side Birmingham, was brought in to revitalize the flailing Pride team. His first season at the helm, a World Cup year, proved to be a struggle, as the Pride finished at the bottom of the barrel. Skinner talks a good game – about bravery, about representing the community, the fans, the badge, about mentality and physicality – and he has a lot of buy-in from his veterans, namely Ali Krieger, captain Ashlyn Harris, and new signee Ali Riley. It’s time to see if words can translate to on-field success though. Skinner is under the gun after last season’s poor performance.
2019 Record: 4W-4D-16L (16 points) Last Place
Player You Should Know:
Marta’s Instagram stories during isolation led a lot of us to believe she was training for a triathlon, and they serve as proof (not that anyone needed it) that the 32-year-old superstar shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. She is a 6-time FIFA World Player of the Year (5 of those awards were consecutive – an incredible feat that even 6-time winner Lionel Messi couldn’t match). Marta has scored in 70% of the matches she’s played in for Brazil – an impressive 108 goals – and has added another 23 for Orlando. So far. If the magician of Brazilian football isn’t at the forefront of your debate for G.O.A.T., do you even soccer?
Under the Radar:
The partnership of Claire Emslie and Emily Van Egmond. Emslie is known for her creative distribution. Most recently, the Scottish winger scored 5 goals and tallied 3 assists with Melbourne City in the W-League. More importantly though, she got needed minutes alongside Pride teammate Emily Van Egmond. After ending her 2019 NWSL season early to have surgery, Van Egmond returned to form in the W-League, registering 6 goals. Their increased familiarity will be key for the Pride midfield. A solid Emslie-Van Egmond connection is the spark this defensive-heavy team is looking for on the offensive side of the ball. Look for Emslie to feed Leroux in front of goal.
Sydney Leroux. I know, I know… in what world is a former National Teamer under the radar? But, the 30-year-old missed most of the 2019 season pregnant with daughter Roux, and subsequently, on maternity leave. The supermom of two was back on the pitch only 3 months later, in an emotional return against Sky Blue FC. With the National Team, Leroux scored 35 goals in 77 appearances. Former coach Jill Ellis called her “the most competitive person” she’d ever worked with. She’s not a star in the league anymore, but the bottom line is, Leroux is solid, and with Alex Morgan out on maternity leave, “Syd the Kid” will be relied on heavily to put points on the board for the Pride.
Offseason Moves: The Pride looked to make quite a few changes after their last place finish in 2019. Gone are Rachel Hill, Danica Evans, Dani Weatherholt, and backup goalkeeper Haley Kopmeyer, who saw time in the net while Ashlyn Harris was on National Team duty. As part of a trade, the Pride sent allocation money and Hill to the Chicago Red Stars in return for the third pick in the draft that allowed the team to select Taylor Kornieck. Hill started 22 out of 24 games for the Pride in 2019, and tallied 4 goals and 2 assists. Probably the biggest loss for Orlando, Hill’s attacking presence will be missed. A member of the inaugural Pride team, Weatherholt led the team in overall appearances, but was traded to OL Reign for a second-round pick in 2021. Evans was waived by the team in January to sign with Spanish club Sporting de Huelva. In February, Joanna Boyles announced her retirement due to injury. The Pride also recently announced the release of fan-favorite Bridget Callahan. It is of note to add that even though the Pride got the rights to Aussie Caitlin Foord in a trade, she chose to sign with Arsenal instead.
Emily Sonnett. In a move that came as a shock to pretty much everyone, the Portland Thorns traded fan-favorite, and former #1 pick herself, Emily Sonnett to the Pride as one piece of a deal to secure the #1 pick in the 2020 draft. Sonnett is a stellar grab for a Pride team that had the worst defense in the league in 2019. She’s a fireball of energy that will reinvigorate a team that was lackluster last year, she comes with National Team experience, and before COVID shut down sports, she was seeing solid minutes under USWNT Coach Vlatko Andonovski. Most recently, Sonnett earned two 90-minute performances in victories against Canada at the CONCACAF Final, and against Spain (arguably one of the best teams in the world) at the SheBelieves Cup. She can play center back, outside back, and defensive mid, the latter possibly being key to Orlando holding on for points in the form of ties during the Preliminary Rounds. Conversely, playing Sonnett at outside back will provide an additional offensive threat, as she is constantly reminded to “feed the machines” on the National Team.
Ali Riley. The American-born defender captained Stanford over a decade ago and has since moved on to lead New Zealand’s National Football Team. An outside back with tendencies to push into the offense third, like Sonnett, her versatility could prove vital in a compressed tournament setting. After graduating from Stanford, Riley started her professional club career in the States, but moved to Sweden when the WPS folded. She has also seen time with Chelsea and most recently, Bayern Munich. In 13 years with the Football Ferns, Riley has notched appearances in four World Cups and three Olympics. She’ll bring solid experience and a positive attitude to the Pride backline.
Taylor Kornieck. The Pride’s 1st round draft pick, #3 overall, is the tallest player in the league. Standing at 6’1”, she has an inch on Tower of Power Sam Mewis. The Pride will look to capitalize on her height, athleticism, and physicality up top as a potential target player. This will be a bit of a shift for her from attacking mid in college, but Kornieck knows how to find the back of the net. As a four-year starter at UC-Boulder, she amassed 39 goals, and is the school’s all-time leader in points (goals+assists). She also has experience with the U-18, U-19, and U-20 National Teams.
Konya Plummer. This up-and-coming star captained the Reggae Girlz during the 2019 World Cup in France at the young age of 22 - before she had even graduated from college. Plummer played her collegiate soccer in the States, and was named the AAC Defender of the Year last year. She was selected 10th overall, and is the first Jamaican-born player to be drafted in the league. Even though the Pride backline is stacked this year, the team seems intent on investing in Plummer for the future, signing her to a two-year deal with an option for a third year.
What Makes Them Exciting: Who doesn’t have a special place in their heart for the underdog? (And no, I don’t mean Paul Riley’s self-proclaimed underdog THE back-to-back NWSL champion North Carolina Courage). The Pride going from worst to first seems improbable, but it would certainly make for a memorable storyline for years to come. Doubted Skinner’s over-dependence on buzzwords and lack of real, measurable change? Thought the Pride were crazy for giving up their 1st round draft pick for Emily Sonnett and the rights to Caitlin Foord? What if it was all part of a master plan to fly under the radar and register some major upsets? If that’s not enough for you, Marta’s ball work and intensity are both the definition of excitement.
· Saturday, June 27 at 10:00 pm (EST) vs. Chicago Red Stars on CBS ALL ACCESS
· Wednesday, July 1 at 12:30 pm (EST) vs. Portland Thorns on CBS ALL ACCESS
· Sunday, July 5 at 10:00 pm (EST) vs. NC Courage on CBS ALL ACCESS
· Thursday, July 9 at 10:00 pm (EST) vs. Sky Blue FC on CBS ALL ACCESS
While on paper the game against Sky Blue provides the most obvious chance for the Pride to steal some points, from a pure storyline perspective, the match against the Portland Thorns is where it’s at. Pride defender Emily Sonnett will line up against her former team and current national team teammate/bff Lindsey Horan for the first time. Sonnett is always a bolt of lightning on the field; give her a reason to kick it up a notch, and we might see a full-blown tornado complete with slide tackles and aerial challenges, and if we’re lucky a healthy, albeit spicy, side of fouls. I can’t think of a better way to say “Hey, remember me? I was your #1 draft pick in 2016” to the team who traded her in the offseason. With the competitive fire that Emily Sonnett has, and her willingness to do whatever the team needs, there is no doubt that she is going to be ready for this game - to prove her worth, her value, and her versatility. Sonnett aside, the Pride took the Thorns down to the wire in their last regular season meeting – in Providence Park, no less – last year, with Tyler Lussi’s goal in stoppage time proving to be the difference-maker for the Thorns. This team can hang with the best when they’re locked in.
Why They Could Win It All: It’s hard to bet against a team with a fired-up and in form Marta, and we know she’s missing the beautiful game right now. Case in point: Marta returned to the Pride after Brazil’s crushing Round of 16 exit from the 2019 World Cup and proceeded to score a banger against perennial powerhouse Portland. (Side note: if you didn’t get a chance to listen to the impassioned speech Marta gave after that match, you should find some time to do that today.) Additionally, the duo of Marta and Ali Riley is a proven winner. Together, the pair won WPS Championships with FC Gold Pride and Western New York Flash, and two Damallsvenskan league titles with FC Rosengard in Sweden. Can their partnership prove to be a difference-maker for the Pride now that Riley is back stateside?
Not counting Kennedy and Moore, who don’t appear to be in country, and Morgan, who is out, the Pride have 12 – that’s right… 12 – current or former National Teamers on their roster. They’re not lacking in the talent department. At all. The individual pieces are there; if this team can find a way to come together, they just might shock us all.
Biggest Challenge: Where do we start, really? Last season was one debacle after another, but was it a true reflection of their talent?
There is no doubt that the Pride ended up with the toughest draw for the Preliminary Round, having to face off against three of last year’s playoff teams, including the team that won it all, the North Carolina Courage. They’ll also be struggling to go on very little rest.
Then there’s the Pride defense – abysmal in 2019 (the team gave up 53 goals and only recorded 1 clean sheet in 24 games). Rebuilding that backline was an obvious focus in the offseason, but now the Pride roster is heavy with defenders – Krieger, Sonnett, Riley, Zadorsky, Plummer – and those are only the National Teamers. What about Pickett? Is there a place for her on the field? And Pressley is back after undergoing treatment for breast cancer last season. We know she’ll be raring to go. This could result in Sonnett stepping more into the role of a defensive mid a la Julie Ertz and Riley playing as more of a winger. If nothing else, at least it gives Skinner options. Is the bigger problem now going to be a lack of offensive prowess? It’s definitely a concern considering the -29 goal differential recorded in the 2019 campaign.
Coming off last season, the team was still searching for an identity; finding that during a pandemic is challenging. They didn’t have the mental fortitude to spring back when scored on early last year, and they didn’t have the endurance to play focused football for 90 minutes. Their compressed pre-season may have hindered the push for what Skinner promised would be the mentality they need this year.
Predicted Finish: out in the semifinals
The obvious prediction here is last place. But… I have faith the team can avoid repeating the disaster that was last season and NOT be the only team sent home from Utah early. Now, I’m going to give the Pride a lot more credit than they’ve earned here, but if they can get into the knockout rounds, anything can happen. I see this team pulling off an upset and making it to the semis before being sent home, and I see this happening based on sheer will and a “you shouldn’t have counted us out” attitude. They’ve had more time to buy into Skinner’s system (albeit mostly over Zoom). According to National Teamer Ali Krieger, they’re excited, they’re having fun, and they’re ready to go. Adding defenders Emily Sonnett and Ali Riley not only brings experience to the backline, but it brings an electrifying energy to the team. If the defense can hold out against some of the top NWSL teams, the confidence gained will go a long way. Beyond that, the “what do we have to lose?” factor will come into play here, freeing players up mentally to “just play” and maybe even steal points from some teams no one expects them to. Riley is back in the States. Leroux and Pressley are back and healthy. This isn’t your 2019 Orlando Pride. This team is hungry to win.
Something Random: An apparent trip to a bar resulted in an Orlando player catching COVID, and exposing her teammates to the virus. Subsequently, multiple players and staff received asymptomatic positive results. Orlando has withdrawn from the tournament.