From bottom of the pile to Pride of place

The Orlando Pride have been challenging preconceptions. Unbeaten in the NWSL and shocking league favourites, the side have had a miraculous turnaround, as Jessy Parker Humphreys writes.

There was a time when the Orlando Pride had become a bit of a joke.

Back in 2019, they finished bottom of the NWSL, losing 16 of their games and conceding 53 goals in the process, 17 more than anyone else. Being ruled out of 2020’s Challenge Cup due to a COVID-19 outbreak, supposedly caused by younger players going clubbing, only cemented the impression that they were more interested in living it up in Florida than playing football.

But the balance of power in the NWSL can shift fast. Unlike in the WSL, a combination of the draft system, salary cap and national team allocations means that the inequalities between the best and the worst teams are much smaller. The side who conceded the second most goals in that 2019 NWSL season were the Houston Dash, who surprised everyone by winning the 2020 Challenge Cup.

On paper, at least, it was clear that the Pride had more than enough stars to compete with Marta, Alex Morgan and Ashlyn Harris all forming part of their roster. Yet the opening four games of the season have gone beyond what almost anyone could have expected.

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Orlando Pride are the only unbeaten side, top of the NWSL table, following a shock start to the season that has seen them defeat both the North Carolina Courage and the Portland Thorns. Those results were particularly unexpected; Portland Thorns had looked like early favourites given their run to the NWSL Challenge Cup final whilst it was the first time the Courage had lost a home match since June 2018.

After the Courage loss, their manager Paul Riley sounded more than a little bit miffed when he said “[Pride have] changed their philosophy completely from two years ago, when they were trying to play out from the back all the time…They’re direct and can play directly over our midfield.” The quote could be spotted on the wall of tweets that sit behind the platter of doughnut’s the Pride get when they win. Food for thought, indeed.

Riley’s comments are not necessarily wrong, but it would be harsh to categorise the Orlando Pride as a long ball team. They do make more long passes than any other side in the NWSL with 48.69 long passes per 90, but it is not as simple as expecting their goalkeeper will just punt the ball long every time. Instead they are happy to be patient and wait to work the ball into the correct situation before looking to play direct.

Defensively they focus on staying in shape and are happy to let opposition teams have the ball, allowing on average 14.82 passes per defensive action, the second most in the league. When they do lose the ball, their midfield duo drop back quickly to support their defence creating a very deep block which is predominantly focused on defending the six yard box. This does mean that they often allow unopposed crosses in which is how Simone Charley equalised for the Portland Thorns against them recently.

But beyond tactics, the Pride are also benefiting from having all three of their attacking talents playing together for the first time since 2018. Whether due to international commitments or to pregnancy, Marta, Morgan, and Sydney LeRoux had not played a regular season game together for 33 months.

Alex Morgan, in particular, has shone. She leads the NWSL in both goals scored and expected goals, and some of her finishes have been exceptional. Her time at Tottenham will ultimately be seen as an unlikely footnote to her career but it is hard to imagine she would have come into this season in such fine form were it not for those couple of months in North London. LeRoux, meanwhile, is essential to the way the Pride want to transition from defence to attack, playing more like a wing back than forward at times as she shuttles from the backline up to the opposition penalty area.

The Pride’s defensive numbers in particular flatter them slightly right now; only Gotham FC have a greater difference between their expected and actual goals conceded. Both their attacking and defensive underlying numbers suggest they are more likely to end up as a mid-table side than hold onto their position at the top of the league.

Yet regardless of where the Orlando Pride ends up this season, they have certainly shown that they intend to be taken seriously in the league. If they were a joke, they’re the ones who are laughing now.

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