Orlando Pride Rise To Play-Off Contention

by Blaise Ogutu (6/9/22).

Above: Orlando Pride players huddle after a game. Photo: ORLPride/Twitter.

Teams in the NWSL this season have been riddled with their own storylines. Whether good, bad or ugly, there is no denying the fact that the league has gotten a lot of attention in recent months.

One team that caught people’s attention is the Orlando Pride. The team currently sits in eighth place, with five points being the only barrier to a play-off berth. The fans and players have been through a lot this season, especially with off-pitch issues plaguing the franchise from earlier this year. 

Let us take it back to December 2021. As part of the expansion draft, Orlando lost arguably the face of the franchise in the form of Alex Morgan to the newly formed San Diego Wave. She was followed by Jodie Taylor who also ended up on the west coast.

Within a similar period, they also traded goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris and defender Ali Krieger to Gotham FC in New Jersey. Two other important cogs in the Pride machinery. Furthermore, in the same two weeks, they traded another goalkeeper, Brittany Isenhour and defender Phoebe McClernon. They weren’t done yet as they waived Konya Plummer and Crystal Thomas. All this before 2022.

The new year came rolling in and more players rolled out of Orlando. In January, Pride lost Taylor Kornieck, Emily Van Egmond, Ali Riley, and Marisa Viggiano in trades to San Diego, Angel City and Houston Dash. Adding salt to injury, these players have turned out to be massive coups for their respective teams. Adding to the list of players shipping out was Mia Fishel, a talented 20-year-old forward who chose to play across the border in a relatively new Liga MX Femenil for Tigres.

Above: Orlando Pride’s Exploria Stadium. Photo: ORLPride/Twitter.

Clearly, something was not being done right down in Florida. The mass exodus left the team with almost no senior players. Compounding the heap of problems, during a Challenge Cup group stage game against the North Carolina Courage, Brazilian superstar Marta pulled up with an injury. Days later, the club confirmed the veteran striker would be out for the season with an ACL injury.

The club was in disarray barely a month before the start of the NWSL regular season. At the start of the season, Orlando only managed two wins in seven games getting eight points out of a possible 21. Another disappointing season was on the cards for the team.

On 7th June, the club announced that head coach Amanda Cromwell and assistant Sam Greene would be placed on administrative leave, effective immediately, pending the conclusion of a joint investigation between the NWSL and NWSL Players Association that explores allegations of workplace misconduct toward NWSL players.

Orlando looked inwards for a replacement and another assistant, Seb Hines was placed on the hot seat on an interim basis. So swift was the move that Hines learned of his new position the same time he heard the news of Cromwell and Greene’s suspensions.

Above: Orlando’s interim head coach, Seb Hines. Photo: ORLPride/Twitter.

Coming off the back of a heavy 5-0 defeat at the hands of the Houston Dash, Hines had to find a way to steer the Orlando ship into safer waters. A tough ask for a coach who only came in two years before. The 34-year-old former defender had to rally his new troop ahead of the game against Chicago Red Stars. Needless to say, Hines lost the game courtesy of a Mallory Pugh tenth-minute strike.

A tough away fixture at the NWSL Shield-chasing Portland Thorns awaited them next and they lost resoundingly 6-0. It was looking bleak. Lucky enough for the struggling team, a two-week international break gave them a chance to regroup.

The regroup however had to be done without another star forward: Sydney Leroux. The striker was traded to Angel City during the break leaving yet another gaping hole that needed to be filled in. Return to action saw Pride host struggling Racing Louisville at the Daytona International Speedway. Seb Hines would register his first point at the helm of the club after his team battled from two goals down to earn a 2-2 draw.

The team would go on a seven-game unbeaten run starting with a win slender 1-0 win over the Houston Dash. After the win against Houston, Orlando won two more games and drew three before finally losing the streak to a Megan Rapinoe-inspired comeback to the OL Reign.

In that seven-game run, Seb Hines improved one aspect the team had been struggling with, defending. The partnership forged between Megan Montefusco and Toni Pressley has proved fruitful in games in which they have had their backs against the wall.

Their attack hasn’t been the best but it has done the job as Hines would have wanted. Julie Doyle and Darian Jenkins all found the back of the net in that run supplied by Meggie Dougherty-Howard and Erika Tymrak from midfield. Hines further strengthened his forward line with the acquisition of Ally Watt from OL Reign who scored on her debut. The winner against Gotham FC.

Above: Ally Watt celebrating her debut goal in Orlando vs NJ/NY Gotham FC. Photo: ORLPride/Twitter.

Few people gave the team a chance to be a play-off prospect. With the off-field issues still raging on, Hines seems to have found the right formula to make the team competitive again. With five games remaining in the regular season, Orlando still remain a wild shot at the playoff positions. They still have Angel City and OL Reign to dislodge in order to get the coveted position.

Whether they do get to the post-season, (something they haven’t achieved since 2017) it is no doubt that Seb Hines has built a solid foundation for a team that was crumbling day by day. Huge credit to needs to go to the players who have also had to endure the rough moments the club has gone through.

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