2020 Will Be A Make Or Break Year For Marc Skinner And The Orlando Pride
Updated: Jun 1
It's pretty clear that 2019 didn't exactly go to plan for Marc Skinner and the Orlando Pride. The charismatic Brummie probably underestimated the size of the task at hand when he succeeded Tom Sermanni. For those who don't know, a Brummie is a colloquialism used to describe people from the city of Birmingham here in England. Don't say I never teach you anything useful. Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, Skinner inheriting a bigger job than he was probably expecting. He took over a squad that was littered with world class international talent, and not much in the way of depth. Which particularly hurt the Pride during the summer months when the Pride lost the likes of Alex Morgan, Ashlyn Harris and Marta to the 2019 FIFA World Cup in France. In total the Pride had 9 players away during the tournament, including Claire Emslie who joined just before the tournament began. That makes embedding a new style and new philosophy very difficult as the players left for pre-tournament camps just weeks into the NWSL season. Imagine being in your own place of work, and you have a change in management. It often takes a while to get used to the way your new boss wants things doing. Now imagine a third of your colleagues decide to bugger off to France for 6 weeks at the same time. It's going to take a little longer isn't it? Soccer is no different. It takes time to bed in a philosophy, and if I'm being brutally honest he neither had the time or the talent to lay the ground work he probably wanted to during the summer months.
Skinner was renowned for making his team's hard to beat during his time in charge of Birmingham City. His record with the Midlands club is nothing to be sniffed at, in the 2017-18 season he led the Blues to 5th placed finish (of 10 teams) and to the FA Cup final. Whilst you might say 5th of 10 isn't that impressive, you have to consider the teams who finished above them. Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Reading - all of whom had much bigger budgets. It's clear that he is good at getting the best out of what he's got. They also finished ahead of the likes of Liverpool and Bristol City that year. Skinner will know his squad needs to improve this season though, especially in the depth charts as we face yet another summer of international football with the Olympics in Tokyo. The Pride will be missing some key figures again, so it will be vitally important for the depth players to step up. Players like Marissa Viggiano and Taylor Kornieck will get their chance to shine in the summer. I still think additional roster moves will still be made, however but I'll come to that later.
With just under two months to go until the start of the season Skinner has thus far made some promising moves in the transfer window. Skinner has been able to bring the likes of Ali Riley, Erin McLeod and Emily Sonnett who bring experience and genuine defensive quality to the side. Skinner will need to add to the team's forward ranks however. With Alex Morgan on maternity leave, the Pride are left with only Sydney LeRoux and Caitlin Farrell as out and out strikers. Abby Elinsky has operated their in the past, as has Claire Emslie but I believe both are more suited to wide attacking roles. Marta has the ability to operate as a false 9, but again I feel her strengths lie elsewhere. Marta was the club's top scorer with 6, and only 3 players scored more than 1 goal in 2019. That simply isn't enough, and coach Skinner will be aware of that. There have also been some noteable outgoings.
The Pride have moved on the likes of Danica Evans, Dani Weatherholt and Rachel Hill. All three being deemed surplus to requirements in Orlando. All three players, whilst popular amongst supporters, have not been good enough. And whilst that may rankle some, I believe it shows strong leadership on Skinner's part. Meanwhile we have sadly lost the hugely likeable Joanna Boyles to retirement, and we certainly wish her the best of luck in her future endeavours. The youngster has suffered horribly with injuries and has subsequently been forced to call time on her career in medical grounds.
Arguably one of the trickiest challenges for Skinner is going to be this; because the Pride's inadequacies were so clear and obvious in 2019, questions will be asked if those inadequacies aren't addressed correctly. Whilst I don't harbor expectations of the Pride making the play-offs this season, they need to at least have a go at it. To at least flirt with them, and not just stand awkwardly at the end of the bar giving them a drunken sailors grin. That's my slightly strange analogy of what last season's 'attempt' to make the play-offs looked like. Why did I have to liken it to a bar scenario you ask? What can I say, I'm English.
Last season felt like a transitional year from minute one. The Pride never even looked like they wanted to make the play-offs. Granted, it was always going to be a difficult year for this club, but no one would have been expecting what eventually transpired.
In my, not so humble, opinion coach Skinners' number one target this season is to unite the team. The Pride has adopted the policy of trying to attract big name stars, in an ill fated attempt to win big and win now. The gambit hasn't paid off, in fact it's failed spectacularly. The Pride were devoid of leadership on the field during the World Cup. And if we are being brutally honest, they only had a handful in the first place. The likes of Ashlyn Harris, Ali Krieger and Marta did their part. But with Alex Morgan and Sydney LeRoux missing for such large portions of the season, instilling a culture of togetherness and leadership in a team so young was always going to be hard, if not impossible. The acquisitions of McLeod, Riley and Sonnett are certainly moves designed to address these issues.
With pre-season fast approaching the club will need to act fairly quickly if they want to get new recruits in before training camp starts. Skinner will be under no illusions as to how important it is for his new signings to acclimatise to their surroundings quickly. Creating unity within the dressing room is a vital cornerstone of making any team hard to beat. You have to be willing to go to war for your team mates. Skinners' legacy at Birmingham City was all about being defensively solid and creating a base for the team to build attacks from. It's a very basic but oft forgotten fundamental of the sport. It has to be the bedrock of your style of play. Don't concede goals, and you don't lose games. Otherwise you simply cannot hope to win games of football. Simple, right? Maybe not. But if the Pride do not make themselves harder to beat, and do not cut out the silly mistakes they were often guilty of making in the defensive third last season then it will be another long season. That being said there have certainly been a number of key defensive acquisitions this off-season, so the team should have a stronger base to build from, and hopefully bring some long overdue success to Exploria Stadium. If not, and I hate to end on a negative. I'm just being pragmatic, Skinner could end up paying with his job rather than being hailed a hero.