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Orlando Pride GM Erik Ustruck working behind scenes to rebuild team

Left to Right, Pride General Manager Erik Ustruck and the new head coach Marc Skinner during a press conference on Pride Media Day, on Thursday, March 14, 2019. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel)

SANFORD, Fla. — The Orlando Pride’s rebuild is about more than implementing a new system on the pitch.

Erik Ustruck, who is in his first season as the Pride’s general manager, wants the club to be a destination for players around the world. He is pushing to build a winning culture that will ll last years.

There’s a lot to get done. 

First and foremost, fixing the winless Pride’s current on-the-field issues isn’t as simple as adding new players, though Ustruck is hopeful he can sign new players soon.

Players brought in midseason don’t count for a full cap hit, which makes things easier, despite Ustruck’s limited cap space. Ustruck said he’s spent the past three or four weeks working on a loan deal to bring in a player who isn’t currently competing in NWSL.

“I had the approval from her club to bring her over at the beginning of April, end of March,” Ustruck told Pro Soccer USA. “So now we’re nearing the middle of May, closing in to the end of the transfer window, so I’m starting to get a little bit nervous. But I still feel confident that we can get it over the line. It’s just a matter of language and working through the two federations, trying to get on the same page.”

The league’s transfer window closes May 23. 

Ustruck added he’s trying to move some assets domestically and work trades. He said he’s got “three or four things” out there that he’s working on. The club is looking to strengthen the spine of the team – centerbacks, center midfielders and strikers.

“I wouldn’t say that we’re panicking at all,” Ustruck said. “I would say that there’s a lot of things on the table right now. I have a lot of options. I just need to make sure that they’re the right options.”

Still, there are past issues in play. Ustruck said the club previously had focused on the “short-term solution” instead of building for the future. He added when he first took the job in January, he was “handcuffed.” This is Ustruck’s first season working in NWSL’s rules after he spent time with Orlando’s Major League Soccer side.

“I had to offload quite a few players to free up some cap space,” Ustruck said about the Pride.

The 2019 salary cap for each team is $421,500. Rosters need a minimum of 20 players and the minimum salary is $16,538. Right now the team has a “minuscule” amount of cap space, but enough to where one player could be moved and “a couple players” could be brought in, Ustruck said. 

“There’s some contractual issues where you look at the salary cap — even though it has increased, but they also increased the minimum roster spots — so you’re trying to play with both,” Ustruck said. “I was forced to sign 11 players of my 21 currently signed at minimum deals.”

After a pause, Ustruck continued, “11 of 21 at senior minimum deals. That doesn’t allow me to go out and find players that are going to be able to solve immediate problems or immediate issues. You’re looking at the salary cap, there’s a lot of players that were back-loaded in their contracts. There was a ‘win-now’ mentality that was built over the last three years. Unfortunately, when I came in, I kind of had to deal with the ramifications of that.”

Plus, there are myriad complications involved with bringing in a new player. 

“If it was that easy, I could tell you right now, I’d be sitting in the No. 1 spot in the league table,” Ustruck said. “I would be spending, probably, more than any other club in the world. But, at the end of the day, you have to work within the league guidelines and the confines of the league salary structure. 

“It makes things complicated, but it’s almost more regarding when you’re able to pull something off.”

An example of the Pride’s limited assets would be the team’s lack of draft picks. The Pride only had third and fourth round draft picks when Ustruck joined the club. He said he wants to place more emphasis on the draft in order to build for the future. That’s just one of a series of long-term goals he has planned for the Pride. Ustruck said he has full support of the Orlando City SC front office.

Ustruck said he believes the team can still win this season, but 2018 isn’t the only campaign on his mind.

“I think looking to the next two, three, four years, I think that’s what the focus is right now,” Ustruck said.

The Pride (0-5-1, 1 point) lost to the Portland Thorns Saturday, extending their winless run to open the season to six matches.

“Right now, I think we’re finding out a lot about our current team and our current situation,” Ustruck said.

Ustruck said first-year Pride coach Marc Skinner’s system requires a sharp understanding of movement off the ball and the ability to make decisions on the fly. Skinner implements and enforces the system, but much of it comes down to players making the right decisions on the pitch.

Ustruck and Skinner have had lengthy conversations regarding the team and how to strengthen the roster.

“What you can see pretty easily is that there are certain players, there are some players on the team that don’t recognize that and struggle to grasp that concept,” Ustruck said. “I would say the mental side of the game is very important within this system.”

He added, “I think it’s pretty apparent there is a dropoff between some of the players. Some of them just don’t understand how to conceptually grasp these ideas that have been implemented.”

The players who aren’t getting it are being coached up, Ustruck said.

“My confidence has never wavered,” Ustruck said. “I’ve always been very confident in Marc. I’ve got full belief in him. I know the players have full belief in him. I think, what we’re going through right now, obviously we expect to win every game. We haven’t. Once you kind of get over that initial shock and understand that this process is going to take time.

“Players are forced to learn a completely new system. Something they’ve never done in the past. Something that I’ve never seen a coach try to implement. It’s pretty crazy because there’s full buy-in from all the players.”

Ustruck said working within the NWSL’s rules has been difficult at times. Without going into specifics, he said the league has a long way to go in order to be successful and sustainable, but he’s starting to see progress.

“Yeah, it gets very frustrating,” Ustruck said with a smile. “And I take it out on the league every now and then. I think every time they see my name pop up in their inbox, they’re like, ‘Oh my god. What’s going to happen now? What are we going to deal with now?’

“I always apologize every time.”

There have been fan frustrations that go beyond what’s happened so far this season. In particular, many fans have voiced issues with what they think is a lack of marketing for Orlando’s NWSL side.

Ustruck said to answer that issue, he’s had lengthy meetings with Orlando City SC’s senior vice president of marketing and branding Pedro Araujo and club vice president of marketing Kevin Coulthart. They’ve come up with an “elaborate” plan specifically for the Pride.

He noted in the past, before he was named general manager, the team “could have done more” to market the Pride.

“I sat with our marketing department before the season,” Ustruck said. “I sat with our corporate-partners department. I sat with our content department, our communications and we discussed what is our plan of action this year. What can do differently? What can we do better than what we’ve done in the past?

“In the past, yeah, we liked to market when it’s convenient, but now there’s a full marketing plan.”

Sticking to the overarching plan will also breed on-field success, Ustruck said.

“We hear you,” Ustruck said to Pride supporters. “We see everything you guys write. We read everything that’s online on social media and we’re working toward a bigger goal. I think the frustration seems to be that we’re not successful right off the bat. Obviously, everybody wants to be successful.”

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