An Assessment Of The Pride's Off-Season So Far & How The Team Is Shaping Up Ahead Of The New Season
With the recent news that Sydney LeRoux has committed her future to the club, and with the recent acquisitions the Pride have made... I would argue the Pride are in their strongest ever position, at least in terms of roster development and depth. There. I said it. That might sound like quite a drastic assessment of the situation, but I genuinely believe that assessment is a fair one. This squad needed a real shake-up, and it's had that over the last year or so.
The club's recruitment, that began in 2020, has been nothing short of excellent. Obviously, the club will have been disappointed to lose out on the likes of Emily Sonnett for this season. And there was always going to be a huge amount of risk, with regards to the Pride loaning so many players out to big European clubs. But maybe that has turned out to be a blessing in disguise? I realise that might sound as a crazy as offering out Darth Vader in a fist fight. But there is method to the madness.
Players like Alanna Kennedy and Shelina Zadorsky are obviously top quality. However, in addition to being national team players who are often absent... It just hasn't worked out. I would include Emily Van Egmond and Claire Emslie in that assertion also. Top quality players, on their own, does not a good team make. Again, that might sound crazy... But hear me out.
For every Marta you need a Jade Moore; someone who will do the less glamorous things well. Sometimes, as well, a gutsy youngster like Jordyn Listro is a better fit for the team than an experienced pro. It's all about fitting the right pieces into the jigsaw. Sorry, the analogies aren't going to get any better. Sometimes, I write with all the prose of a dad just wanting to drop that killer joke at his kids' birthday party. You should probably all know that by now.
The Pride have taken the Real Madrid-esque 'Galactico' approach before. And it's yielded miserable results. Often a team needs to be greater than the sum of its parts. You need the grit and determination, to compliment the glitz and the glitter provided by the likes of Alex Morgan and co. Again, this is in no way a slight towards the aforementioned players. Sometimes, in football, things just don't work out. During this off-season the Pride have balanced talent with enthusiasm and experience. There is finally balance, depth and quality throughout the squad. And I couldn't be more excited.
Still don't believe me? Take a look:
Figure 1 I believe this to be the Pride's strongest XI at present. Feel free to disagree with me. I won't fight you. I'm no good in a fight.
See what I mean? Veterans such as the likes of Erin McLeod and Sydney LeRoux don't even make the cut. Nor do the likes of Gunny Jónsdóttir and Meggie Dougherty-Howard. The squad isn't just name heavy either, and the front office has worked to shed the sentimentality culture within this club. This squad has all the markings of a team built to do one thing. Win; and win well. That's literally the only way to build a winning culture in this sport.
Culture. It's been a buzz word for a long time. I think the shedding of this culture of sentimentality is something that has needed to happen for a long time. Whilst it's great to have your favourite players on the team, those players have to work for the club. There has to be a chemistry and symmetry amongst the squad, otherwise it's just not possible to win. It's not. For too long, this club felt like a social club for some players. And that's just my perception. It's not a perception without merit, however. No more.
The Pride's failure to compete at the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup (who could forget bar-gate?), came off the back of an off-season where then GM Erik Ustruck, and head coach Marc Skinner spoke ad nauseam to refreshing the culture in the locker room. That work started last winter, and appears to be finally bearing fruit in 2021. Whilst, I realise it might be premature to saddle the team with any particular expectations, there is a palpable feeling among the supporter base that this team holds potential. And it does.
On paper, this is a well balanced squad with a great blend of experience and youth. With one or two more additions, this squad can challenge for silverware. I genuinely believe that. A large facet of their ability to challenge for honours this season will be the squad's ability to adapt to Marc Skinner's philosophy and system... Which brings me to my next point...
What is that system going to be? At this stage of the pre-season, it's difficult to make any confident assertions. The Pride has played 4 games in the last 12 months, and has a completely different roster to the one that ended the season in 2019. Of that 2019 roster only 7 are still in Orlando. As such, the 2020 NWSL Fall Series is our only really sample. Even the closing game, against the North Carolina Courage, only featured 10 current Pride members in its matchday squad of 18. So there's been a lot of changes... The understatement of the year. Footnote here, Ally Haran would make 11 but is only currently listed as a non-roster invitee for pre-season.
During that game against the Courage, the Pride utilised a fluid 4-3-3 formation. A formation that could shift into a 4-5-1 during defensive transitions. This is something I believe would suit the line-up in figure 1, incredibly well. The formation and line-up is incredibly fluid; the players can interchange easily. Case and point; I have Ali Krieger listed at right-back but, truthfully, Krieger and Ali Riley can swap. The only real deficiency in the team is at left-back, there isn't natural competition for Courtney Petersen. Though Phoebe McClernon and Ali Krieger can both operate there, neither are natural left-backs. This is something I'd expect the Pride to address in the coming weeks.
This line-up has a strong defensive spine, reinforced by one of the best goalkeepers in the league. The likes of Krieger, Riley and Toni Pressley provide experience and quality alongside the youthful enthusiasm of the likes of Carrie Lawrence and Courtney Petersen. Defensive solidity has to be the cornerstone of any successful team, particularly in the NWSL.
No team has ever finished atop the standings having conceded more than 25 goals. Guess what the Pride have never done? Conceded less than 25 goals in a season. The closest they came, was with the 30 goals they shipped on the way to their 3rd place finish in 2017. Allowing goals on a regular basis has been an almost ever present issue for this club. In 2019, Marc Skinner's team allowed 57 goals. You don't need me to tell you that's 2.35 goals a game. Yeah, I needed a calculator to figure that out. Sue me.
In midfield you have a solid spine with Jade Moore and Erika Tymrak at the base, which would allow the likes of Marisa Viggiano, Marta and Taylor Kornieck to roam around when in possession. They can move the ball between themselves, whilst switching positions with a relative degree of autonomy. Something that, I believe, will benefit star striker Alex Morgan immensely. Her supporting cast with the USWNT play in a similar manner. The likes of Lindsey Horan and Tobin Heath aren't static in their movements are they? The team also has depth. Solid depth. As you'll see in figure 2 (below).
Figure 2 shows the depth the Pride have in reserve.
Now, this graphic does include all 4 of the Pride's draft picks. Kerry Abello, Mikayla Colohan, Kaylie Collins and Viviana Villacorta will all be given the time to impress (all 4 players are set to see out their College seasons). Of the 4, you have to say Collin's position is probably the most ambivalent. The most unclear. Whilst Collins has talent, the Pride are already stacked with quality between the sticks; the likes of Harris, McLeod and Brittany Wilson are all vying for the same position. That's a nice problem to have, though.
Assuming both Colohan and Villacorta sign on, the Pride will have 9 midfielders; many of whom can operate anywhere across the middle. Listro and Chelsee Washington both impressed during the 2020 NWSL Fall Series, and the experience held by the likes of Moore and Tymrak ensures the team has the perfect blend of youth and experience in that department.
It feels weird to have players like Sydney LeRoux or Phoebe McClernon on the proverbial 'second-string roster'. LeRoux is a decorated World Cup winning forward, with 35 goals in 77 games for the USWNT. And even McClernon is a defender with great experience of the Damallsvenskan with Växjö DFF. Both players would fit in with most NWSL squads right now. Therein lies the jewel to the Pride's crown. Their strength in depth. The Pride has always had a roster loaded with talent, but they've never gotten the balance right.
The Pride's roster has always been top heavy with international talent, which often left the team short during international breaks. The Pride still have international talent, sure. There's now solid league experience in reserve, as well as all of that youthful exuberance. The Pride are also aided, exponentially, by the increasing likelihood that the Tokyo Olympics are likely to be pushed back again. The Pride won't be missing many of their star players for as long as they would if the Olympics were still going ahead... And when they do, the team will be well placed to deal with their absence.
The Pride have recruited intelligently, recently. I would argue that this has been the Pride's best off-season to date. So far. There are plenty of reasons to get excited about this season.
*Line-up graphics courtesy of chosen11.com.