Rolling With the Punches: Orlando Flying Under the Radar

Before the season began, the Pride were looked at as a team that was going to struggle with a new head coach combined with the loss of their first-round draft selection. On top of that, on April 1, the 36-year-old Brazilian leader for the Pride, Marta was ruled out for the rest of the season due to an ACL tear in her left knee in just the second match of the 2022 campaign. Since Marc Skinner left for the Women's Super League in England, the Pride have not had a consistent manager, and when Amanda Cromwell received a suspension after 13 games in charge, Orlando had to overcome yet another hurdle.

Orlando was counted out quite a while ago, but due to the resilience of the team, and the willingness to turn this club around, the Pride find themselves in eighth in the NWSL table with 21 points, nine more than the defending champions, Washington Spirit, heading into the end of August. After getting embarrassed by the Thorns 6-0 back in the middle of June, Orlando has strung off seven straight unbeaten including back-to-back wins on the road. Back in the first game of the season, Orlando lost to Gotham 3-0, but since then the two teams have gone in completely different directions.

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The Pride have to work for each result, and while some bounces do go their way, this team that is trying to piece themselves together while fighting for a postseason berth has been one of the most remarkable stories of the NWSL season so far. It may not have the most opportunities of the two teams during a game, but Orlando continues to find ways to get results in so many different ways, executing on the chances that do come its way.

After a win on the road against San Diego, the 29-year-old defender, Megan Montefusco expressed the significance of the win, stating, "This team has been through a lot this year...And to come out here and win like we did tonight. We played football, and we played great soccer tonight. And I’m just so proud of this team. It’s emotional honestly."

Since the club dealt Sydney Leroux to Angel City in the middle of the season, it has been searching to figure out how to score goals and grind out results without its most creative player. In January, Orlando traded both Taylor Kornieck and Emily van Egmond to San Diego Wave, and the mood around the club was far from feeling like a contender. Seb Hines may only be an interim head coach, but he is proving himself as a full-time coach, completely turning around a team that almost everyone saw picking up where they left off in the second half of last season.

All the individuals that finished in the top-five for the team's most goals last season are either not on the team or injured at the moment, but that did not deter Orlando from finding an answer. Six players right now have scored two or more goals this season as the team continues to turn its entire season around since a disappointing Challenge Cup, and a 3-0 loss at home to Gotham to kick off the regular season. The resiliency of this team, having gone through so much turnover, and speculation outside of the team is truly remarkable, and arguably one of the biggest stories of the 2022 NWSL season.

The key part of the Orlando Pride win against Gotham was the inclusion of the newest additions to the team, the young striker from OL Reign, Ally Watt, and defender Haley Hanson from the Houston Dash. Having made just three starts on an OL Reign side with a loaded attack, the 25-year-old forward has already netted more goals in one game than she had during her career with the Reign. Watt has struggled with playing time and being given an opportunity on the pitch, but it is well-known that she was a goal-scoring machine at Texas A&M, netting 19 game-winning goals in her Aggie career.

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Orlando's goal-differential is still -12, which is still second-worst in the NWSL, but that is mostly due to the two blowout losses to the Dash, and the Thorns. It has been a slow process, but the Pride are on their way to improving this number which is going to be crucial if Orlando wants to have a shot at finding a way into one of those last spots in the playoffs. The Pride have not won a single contest this season by more than one goal this season, but with Watt now in the fold, Orlando is bound to net more goals, on top of Erin McLeod making a multitude of world-class saves each game out, putting together a shutout in three out of the last six games. The Pride have only scored 19 goals so far this season, which is the third-lowest in the NWSL, but the trendline says Orlando is on track to score more down the road, netting two or more goals in three out of its last four games.

Hines did not mess around by giving the two newest acquisitions just a few minutes at the end of the contest to get acclimated with the new system of the team doing a phenomenal job of playing spoiler to the teams near the top of the table. Orlando possesses a seven-point gap between it and Racing Louisville in ninth place, and are just two points out of a postseason spot. It could still be in question if the Pride are built to continue to stretch that it is on, but given the additions during the middle of the season, and the fact that two of the teams in front of them are struggling to execute consistent results makes the odds of its first playoff berth since 2017, and second in the NWSL in franchise history.

From the rookie, Mikayla Cluff in the middle of the pitch to the former UCLA Bruin Darian Jenkins crafting up any opportunity for Orlando to execute in front of the net, there have been so many unexpected positives for the Pride this season. Jenkins netted two essential goals for the Pride to complete two epic comebacks against the Spirit at home earlier in the season, and a few weeks ago in a battle at Daytona with Racing Louisville, netting a tap-in to secure a two-goal comeback in Florida. The Pride have been down by two goals and rebounded to get at least a point out of the game three times this season. Viviana Villacorta, Megan Oyster, and Celia Jiménez among others have consistently put in shifts in both the backline and midfield for Orlando this season with all of them having 12 or more starts so far this season.

C/O: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It is quite extraordinary to think how far this Pride team has come since the beginning of the season. A lot of the credit has to go to the Orlando front office, Hines himself, and the players for keeping the right mentality through all of the obstacles the team encountered. With the Pride's next two contests against teams in the playoff picture, trying to maintain this unbeaten run is going to get even tougher. The reality of Orlando rising into the postseason picture is going to become even clearer by the end of its match against the Thorns. A crushing loss last time out has to motivate this team to demonstrate they belong in the same conversation as one of the top-six teams in the NWSL, but not one that is simply a roadblock to potential contenders late in the season.


-Caden

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