SANFORD, Fla. — It’s always easy to spot Bridget Callahan among her Orlando Pride teammates during training each morning.
Bright-eyed with her hair piled high on top of her head in a bun, Callahan starts teasing her teammates from the second she arrives at Seminole Soccer Complex. She bobs between veterans and rookies alike with a friendly, frenetic energy, nudging one in the backside with her cleat, wrapping her arms around another from behind.
During what coach Marc Skinner has described as an “absolutely topsy-turvy” year, Callahan has offered a calming stability to the Pride, rising as a young leader to keep the team positive after frustrating finishes.
“Bridget is a leader for players who don’t feel like they don’t have a voice,” Skinner said. “She can take the hardships and the positives and she balances both. She’s the key to connecting younger players to the older players and that’s such a vital role that can’t be underestimated. She’s a huge part of what we’re doing here.”
Although Callahan felt confident in her career at UCF, she never let herself dream too much about the prospect of becoming a professional athlete. She joined the Pride in 2018 as a national team replacement player, but she saw only one minute of playing time. After going undrafted, she was “shocked” to receive the call to come in for preseason, then sign with the Pride.
Now, despite appearing in only seven of the team’s games, Callahan’s presence has been an unexpected necessity for the Pride during a season riddled with absences and injuries. Her energy can often come across as goofy — Callahan has described herself as “a goober” — but it underlies an effort to provide consistency for her club.
“It’s been a rough season and it’s not how we anticipated it,” Callahan said. “I’ve always been positive as a person, so I feel like if I strayed away from that it would be straying away from my character. In times like this when sport is going bad and your season isn’t going quite well, you just have to stay together as a team. I try to be that light if I can.”
To the amusement — and sometimes awe — of her teammates, Callahan’s good spirits are relentlessly consistent. She takes over the team’s social media with glee, shouting the team slogan ‘SKOPURP’ into pregame cameras.
Even after splitting open her forehead during a match against the Chicago Red Stars, Callahan was already making jokes in the team group chat by the time she was on the road to the hospital for stitches. She posted a picture of the bloody injury on Instagram later in the week with the hashtag #chicksdigscars.
As her roommate for over a year now, Danica Evans often talks through the disappointment of the 4-15-2 season with Callahan in private. But no matter how frustrated the pair might feel, Evans said Callahan leaves any negative energy at home, easily shouldering the responsibility of cheering her teammates up.
“She just goes through life as a happy person,” Evans said. “It gives us a sense of hope. She brings this bright light to us in situations where it’s down and it’s not always the best. She is the one person we can count on day in and day out to put a smile on anyone’s face.”
Although Callahan’s biggest impact has come off the pitch this season, Skinner doesn’t ignore her ability on it. She scored nine goals during her UCF career, leading the team as a senior to a 13-2-3 finish and a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament.
For Callahan, the biggest challenge has been adjusting from the pace of play in NCAA soccer, where players can be subbed in and out to obscure a lack of endurance.
“She’s a really good footballer,” Skinner said. “All I need now from Bridget is the consistency to know that she can run for the allotted time that you need. In this league, if you don’t have physicality, you can’t compete. If she can add that to the game with her football IQ, she’ll be an asset not only to Orlando but to the league.”
Building her physicality is a major focus for Callahan as she approaches the offseason. Working alongside national team players has taught her exactly how to live as a professional athlete. When her teammates include attackers like Marta and defenders like Ali Krieger, she said, it takes a different level of speed, endurance and physicality to keep up, even in practice.
To bridge that gap, Callahan has learned to make small adjustments to her lifestyle — sleeping more, partying less and seeking every way to improve her performance.
“Consistency is definitely the biggest change from the NCAA to professional soccer,” Callahan said. “You have to perform every day. Consistency comes from growing up in terms of taking care of your body. Everyone here knows how to play soccer, so it’s all the other little things that you can change.”
The team cohesiveness that Callahan provides, Skinner said, is an important aspect of the culture that he is looking to build.
Throughout a season that has been challenging at every level of the club, Skinner said working with players like Callahan has kept him energized.
“You can be honest with her, you can be truthful,” Skinner said. “She says it as she sees it. She’s her own self and that’s the most beautiful thing about Bridget. She brings herself to the training field and herself off the field. She doesn’t pretend to be anyone else.”