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New Pride coach Marc Skinner softens blow of call-ups by staying in contact with players

Orlando Pride coach Marc Skinner has helped players called up to their national teams stay connected to the club. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel)

SANFORD, Fla. — A Women’s World Cup year is a double-edged sword for the Orlando Pride and the National Women’s Soccer League.

On one hand, the Pride’s national-team stars want to be there for their club. On the other, they want to give full attention to an elite international soccer competition that comes around only once every four years.

It’s tough, and American superstar Alex Morgan vented her frustration about the league schedule.

But the Pride’s veteran national-team stars are still excited about the 2019 NWSL season.

“I think that this year is going to be a huge one and it’s all about the balance between club and country because, obviously, you have quite a bit of games in the first part of season that we’re going to be missing,” Morgan said. “So the hope is that we can get back and get integrated and have an all-around successful year for both club and country.”

Morgan, Ashlyn Harris, Ali Krieger, Chioma Ubogagu, Alanna Kennedy, Emily van Egmond, Shelina Zadorsky and Marta all are players who have been recently called up to their respective national teams. Most are sure bets to go to France.

All are starters for coach Marc Skinner’s Pride.

“I want to give my attention fully to both teams, so I think we’re really forced to have to choose the national team until after the World Cup because we’re here for such limited games,” Morgan said shortly before the Pride’s season opener Sunday against the Portland Thorns.

Harris, Morgan and Krieger all have received recent call-ups to the U.S. women’s national team, with Krieger getting her first cap in nearly two years. Morgan has 100 goals for the U.S. and Harris has been a regular member of the U.S. goalkeeper pool. Ubogagu is working to be a part of England’s team and has also been called up for recent matches. Van Egmond and Kennedy are consistent starters for Australia’s national team. Marta is a Brazilian legend.

“It’s hard,” Marta said through a translator. “It’s complicated. A little different. Here, we have different people from very different country and we’re different with different cultures and different teams. The main thing is just whenever we’re with the national team, we stay focused on the national team and whenever we’re here, we’re focused on the Pride.”

The World Cup starts June 7 in France and the Pride have four matches scheduled while World Cup games will be played. Orlando’s players called up for the World Cup will miss more time in the lead-up to the competition when they report to national-team training camps.

Harris said the World Cup experience is going be “incredible,” but is also excited for a new campaign with Orlando’s NWSL side.

“I love Marc,” she said. “[A few days after I] him, I’m like, ‘Holy smokes, this guy’s for real.’ He’s going to bring so much enthusiasm and leadership and organization. He’s like, ‘This is how I want to play, and this is how we’re going to do it.’ The why and the where and … it’s just, it all makes sense.”

Her excitement comes from the energy and enthusiasm Skinner brings to training, she said. The new coach has been clear about the direction he wants to take the Pride, and Harris said he’s worked to build relationships with players.

“You can see everyone so happy to show up to work, you know?” Harris said. “I love that because it is such a joy to be with these players, and I don’t want to ever take that for granted. You know, when you enjoy your work and your job, you enjoy your life more and I just think last year was a really, really hard year for a lot of people.

“We put so much energy into being successful and we were coming up short. That’s like … really hard to put so much work in and so much time. I was just lying there at night, restless nights like, ‘What am I not doing? Am I not giving enough? Am I not leading? What am I doing wrong?’ Trying to figure out pieces. Now I’m just laying down like it’s the first day of school again. You know, it’s like, ‘Yeah! I get to get up and go to practice!’ It’s a good feeling.”

Kennedy added being in the NWSL will help prepare players for the World Cup.

Like the Pride’s other veterans, she’s confident in the direction Skinner is leading the team.

“I love his ambition,” she said. “I love his direction and that he has a real identity for the team, which is something that I think has lacked a little bit in the past. Just for us to know our specific playing style. What’s expected of us.

“I just love that he mentioned he wants to be brave, he wants to be bold. That kind of stuff, that’s how you become a champion. Those are the traits you have to have to be a champion. You have to take risks. I’m really excited.”

Skinner said he kept close contact with players called up to their national teams during preseason training.

“It’s a matter of getting them ready on the field, but also, we do a lot of work off the field,” he said. “You can never stop learning. If we just wait to use this limited time we have on the field with them, you wouldn’t be prepared.

“It’s not ideal, but that would be an excuse. You’ve got to work with everybody to get them up to speed quickly. So, if I have to spend every hour of this day and the next day and the next day to get these players ready for what we want them to do, that’s my job.”

After an extended absence from preseason training, the Pride’s national-team players didn’t return to training until the middle of the week leading up to Orlando’s season opener against Portland.

Skinner helped put those players at ease and soften the blow of their lengthy absences by keeping them updated on his development plans for the Pride.

“I always stay in touch with my players,” Skinner said. “If they ever need anything, I’m at the end of the phone anyway.”

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