For Orlando Pride coach Marc Skinner, the offseason focus is clear — 2019 can’t happen again.
Part of that promise is repeated almost as a hopeful mantra. A season like 2019 simply can’t happen again, right? A World Cup, a pregnancy, a breast cancer diagnosis, a litany of injuries — Skinner admits he wasn’t prepared for this season, although he’s not sure if anyone could have been.
At the end of a 4-16-4 finish — with a league-low 24 goals scored and a league-high 53 goals allowed — Skinner gets the criticism. He understands this year wasn’t good enough by a long shot. He’s the first to point out most of the team’s goals allowed came from individual errors, that even without the injuries his club might have still finished with a losing record.
But as he focuses fully on his second year with the club, the coach is looking to build a foundation of consistency out of a completely unpredictable year.
“We don’t feel sorry for ourselves,” Skinner said. “It’s not that. We’re devastated, and we take every piece of the blame that we can. … But there were circumstances this year that were crazy, that just don’t happen. We couldn’t really bank on anything because every rock was taken away at every juncture.”
The only consistent positive that Skinner can find in this season was in the opportunity for growth it provided for the team’s young core. Seven players made professional debuts and six of those were starts.
The group shouldered the brunt of the season’s work when its international stars were out of commission. Late-round draft picks such as Marisa Viggiano became regulars while young supporting players such as Rachel Hill were thrust into the leadership roles of starters.
This growing experience was often more painful than rewarding. Captain Ashlyn Harris often criticized the team’s “soft” nature, and Skinner said many of the younger players didn’t grow enough through the season, particularly in their mental approach to the game.
Yet despite harsh criticism and blowout results, Skinner said this young unit remained cohesive even in the final stretch of the season.
“If you finish where we finish, usually the coach loses the dressing room,” Skinner said. “Actually, it was the opposite of that, and that was the craziest thing for us. They really wanted to be here. They could see what we were trying to build.”
Skinner gained this respect without going easy on his young core. Sometimes, he admits that he pulled away, leaning on his staff while he worked to swallow his own frustration. At other times, he didn’t stray away from chewing out even the greenest rookies, pressuring them to step up to a higher level of play than they were accustomed.
Those high expectations extended even to Skinner’s highly experienced international players. Throughout the season, he didn’t shy away from benching Camila, a Brazilian national-team player who brings experience but hadn’t regained her full fitness after suffering a major knee injury.
Although being sidelined frustrated her initially, Skinner said Camila doubled down on her training, which was reflected in an increase in minutes during the final stretch of the season. After the last game, she approached the coach, thanking him and promising she would bring her best during the 2020 season.
The young players ate this criticism up as well. Former international replacement player Bridget Callahan said Skinner’s straight-forward approach was her preferred style of coaching, and Hill agreed. Players like Erin Greening — who became a starting outside back as a rookie — said the season had the biggest impact of any year on her game.
“Marc is definitely the best coach I’ve ever had,” Greening said. “He’s so patient with us and he wants us to learn and we feel that. It makes a difference to have a coach that believes in you.”
While his young players were facing a challenging period of growth, however, Skinner also battled to keep the team’s biggest names from losing faith during a dismal season. He saw it in Harris’ eyes when the team ceded six goals to North Carolina at the end of the season, frustration and disappointment brewing into anger.
It was one thing to handle the disappointment of rookies who were excited simply to play league minutes; it was a completely different task to console a World Cup champion or a former FIFA World Player of the Year. But even despite flares of discontent, an air of unity remained even among the most senior international players. Marta’s decision to extend her contract with the Pride reflected that hope for the future.
“I think Marc is an intelligent coach,” Marta said. “He’s come in with some good ideas, but we need time to adapt to them. He’s helping us with the development and every athlete is different, so they react differently to those ideas. I really hope we can come into next season with this winning mentality that he wants.”
After his first full season, Skinner holds an even higher respect for the NWSL. He said the league is particularly challenging on the physical end of the game, with highly fit squads such as North Carolina succeeding through relentless pressure.
The first leg of next year’s improvement will be based on improving the team’s physical fitness. Skinner sees this as a weakness for players like Claire Emslie, who came from less physical play in Europe. It’s an equal concern for American players coming out of college, who have become accustomed to the NCAA’s unlimited substitutions and don’t build the necessary endurance to play a full 90 minutes.
Ultimately, however, Skinner said the greatest impact in the offseason will be the acquisition of talent that won’t get called up to national teams. Without any preseason input on the team’s roster, Skinner was hamstrung by the club’s previous emphasis on players called up for the World Cup.
This year saw three of the team’s top league players — Kristen Edmonds, Sydney Leroux and Toni Pressley — sidelined with injury or pregnancy for most of the season. Their return to full health will also add a boost to the Pride.
“We’ve had the most experienced players and the least experienced players and we had very little in between,” Skinner said. “If you look at the most successful teams, they’re the teams with players who are the most experienced in the league. Those are the players who give you that consistency.”
When he looks to the offseason, Skinner is focused on adding a certain brand of player — high energy and experienced at the league level, capable of building into a high press system while also possessing enough professional minutes to bolster the team’s psyche.
“I don’t think you’ve seen one of my teams play yet,” Skinner said. “Throughout the whole season, I never looked at the way the team played and said, ‘That is my team, that’s how I want my team to look.’”
For Skinner, the offseason is a somewhat lonely time. His partner and 1-year-old daughter both returned to England for a visit following the end of the season, leaving Skinner in Orlando to face the challenge of building toward the next season on his own.
He described the period as a bit depressing. He spends most of his time at the team’s facility in Sanford, scrutinizing the team’s plan for next season. But Skinner doesn’t see this time as a vacation. He plans on using the offseason fully to build for the future — traveling back to Europe to scout, watching college championships in the U.S., planning ahead for his first college draft.
Next year will be different. Skinner is determined to make the playoffs in 2020, and if the team doesn’t, Skinner knows what the expectation will be — both from the club and from himself.
“Nobody will know how much this season hurts,” Skinner said. “No words can do it justice; only actions can get it justice. Not one of those players wants to feel how they feel now. If we can’t get there, then we’ll go back to England and start again. It’s do-or-die now and we all know that.”