2023 Orlando Pride Season Preview: Seb Hines leads a young, motivated roster into his first full season as manager

I’ve been covering the Orlando Pride since its inaugural season in 2016. The hype of the team has always been centered on the veteran stars on the roster from Alex Morgan and Steph Catley to Marta and Sydney Leroux. Unfortunately, those big names haven’t provided much of a consistent winner over the years, with Orlando’s best season coming under Tom Sermanni in 2017, the club’s sophomore season. In fact, since 2018 the Pride have seen misfortune, instability, and double-digit losses as almost near certainties.

Since 2019, the Pride have employed five head coaches (permanent or interim) and four different lead front office personnel, and set the record for most goals allowed in a season – plus, were the only team to withdraw from the 2020 Challenge Cup due to positive COVID tests. Honestly, it’s been the worst kind of thrill ride.

With the club entering its seventh season in the National Women’s Soccer League, as with the beginning of every new campaign, there is a renewed sense of hope with the fanbase that the Pride have figured things out in the off-season and the team will be better than they were before.

But let’s keep it real; we all have been here before. So why is this year different?

The league has also been somewhat tumultuous, but as Orlando enters the second year under the Wilf family ownership, there have been real positive changes coming to the organization.

It starts with the appointment of Seb Hines as the head coach from his mostly-successful stint as the interim last year, taking midseason when Amanda Cromwell was suspended and ultimately terminated. The 2022 season had its share of ups and downs, but the calming presence of Hines solidified him as the obvious choice to lead the Pride in what the organization hopes to be a reversal of fortunes and back into the NWSL playoffs.

The organization also parted ways with former GM Ian Fleming and hired Haley Carter for the elevated position of Vice President of Soccer Operations and General Manager. With both positions locked in for what appears to be the beginning of a more stable regime, the Pride staff was fleshed out with the appointments of Giles Barnes, Yolanda Thomas, and Paul Crichton as assistant coaches. Orlando also welcomed Director of Medical & Performance Cory Price and Kelly Turney, the head athletic trainer, while Christi Edson, Head of Strength & Conditioning and Sport Science, continued with the Pride. The long-term investment from the Wilfs was in full effect this off-season.

Looking back at 2022, Orlando finished the season tenth in the standings, posting a 5W-7D-10L record — managing 22 points on the season, six points fewer than the previous year. A spotty defense and anemic offensive outputs helped dragged the Pride to a -23 goal differential across the 22 game season. These type of results were also found in the NWSL Challenge Cup, where the Pride finished last (0W-2D-4L) in their group with the North Carolina Courage, Washington Spirit, and NJ/NY Gotham FC. It was a rough year for a team who hasn’t made the playoffs since 2017.

As part of the roster rebuild this off-season, Thais Reiss, Parker Roberts, and Chelsee Washington were let go (although Reiss did make it back to preseason camp as a non-roster invitee). Free agent players Meggie Dougherty Howard and Toni Pressley also left the team, while Darian Jenkins retired and Erin McLeod and Gunny Jónsdóttir left the league to Iceland. Courtney Petersen was the final departure when the defender was traded to the Houston Dash.

The Pride did manage to bring in some reinforcements though by signing Brazilian international Adriana and goalkeeper Carly Nelson; as well as draft picks Emily Madril, Messiah Bright, and Summer Yates. The team also drafted Tori Hansen and Kristen Scott. Starting the season on the road in Portland when the Thorns are going to be celebrating their NWSL championship win seems like a tall task for the squad.

2023 Orlando Pride Roster (as of Mar. 20, 2023):

GOALKEEPERS (3): Kaylie Collins, Anna Moorhouse (INTL-ENG), Carly Nelson  
DEFENDERS (7): Kerry Abello, Caitlin Cosme, Celia Jiménez Delgado, Carrie Lawrence (SEI), Emily Madril, Megan Montefusco, Kylie Strom  
MIDFIELDERS (4): Mikayla Cluff, Jordyn Listro, Haley McCutcheon (née Hanson), Viviana Villacorta  
FORWARDS (9): Messiah Bright, Haley Bugeja (INTL-MLT), Julie Doyle, Adriana Leal da Silva (INTL-BRA), Leah Pruitt, Erika Tymrak, Marta Vieira da Silva, Ally Watt, Summer Yates 

INTL: Denotes International Player   
SEI: Season-Ending Injury

There are areas of the roster I have questions on. Moorhouse seems to be the starting goalkeeper, but I’m not convinced newcomer Carly Nelson isn’t the better option from my limited observation. I liked Nelson’s distribution better and Hines is going to want a keeper that can play with the ball at her feet. Even though there are seven defenders on the roster, the back line is going to be thin as Lawrence is already out for the year with an ACL injury. First round pick Emily Madril is a day-one starter, but her center back partner is going to determine how that line holds up.

Even though there are only four listed midfielders, Orlando has both offensive and defensive options here. Mikayla Cluff is going to be vital, as she goes so does the midfield. She will be asked to connect the back line with the attack and hold her own defensively. Villacorta, who is return from ankle surgery, should be ready to contribute as she works herself back to full fitness.

The spotlight is going to be on the attack this season with Marta returning from a season-ending injury suffered in the Challenge Cup, and the high-profile signing of Adriana. As exciting as having a Brazilian edge on offense, this is also a World Cup year, so both of them are expected to miss some time with their national team. The attack will also be one of the faster lines Orlando has had, with Ally Watt and Messiah Bright being able to pressure the opponent’s defense which should allow more opportunities for set pieces as well.

Projected Starting XI

Based on the roster, I think we’re going to see the Pride in a 4-2-3-1 with the ball which will shift to a 4-3-3 as the other team looks to get up the pitch. If everyone is healthy and available, this is what I feel the first team selection will look like. I really want Bugeja, who turns 19 in May, to get more playing time as she has tremendous potential to be a breakout player. Last season’s top scorer tallied a whopping three goals, so to have any level of success, the second-lowest-scoring attack in the NWSL last season is going to need to find a way to get the ball passed opposing goalkeepers.

The back line is a concern, especially for aerial duels. The tallest defenders currently are listed at 5’8″, so the team should have spent some time figuring out how to best defend set pieces the side will be going against which leads me to my key player.

Key Player

Seb Hines was a center back, and his first draft pick as head coach was a center back. Upgrading the back line was the top priority, and as a rookie starting for the team Emily Madril is the one to watch. She’s going to set the defense up and she also likes to dribble into the midfield to get the ball into the attack. She may lead the rookie class in minutes played. As I stated, aerial duels are one of my concerns, but Madril may be able to showcase her hops to alleviate those worries. I think it’s a safe bet to buy that new Orlando home kit with Madril on the back.

Orlando makes the playoffs if…

… everything goes right. There’s just a lot that has to go the Pride’s way to finish in the top six. I don’t encourage anyone to bet on the NWSL, and the Pride will be a dark horse at best. It’s good to feel optimistic about the general direction of the team, but it’s a long-term project. Patience is going to be needed.

Orlando will miss the playoffs if…

… everything goes as most people expect. I do think there a chance Orlando will surprise a lot of teams and “experts” who follow the league, but the roster still needs to boost up their talent. Unless more is added to this group, the Pride will extend the playoff drought.

Luis’s expectations

I really tried not to drink the Kool-aid too much for the Pride after taking in all the changes and improvements in the off-season, but all the other teams in the league also improved. I expect the team to be better at home, so the Pride should give the fans at Exploria more reasons to come back. The best time to showcase what the team is capable of is going to be during the Challenge Cup and they should advance further this time around. In league play, I’ll be looking for an improvement from the tenth-place finish, a couple of spots to eighth due to some sort of tiebreaker. Anything better than this and Seb Hines should be considered for coach of the year.

For more Orlando soccer news, follow the Soccer Journal on Twitter: @OSJSoccer


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