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Orlando Pride Preview: New coach Marc Skinner confident team can handle World Cup absences

New Orlando Pride coach Marc Skinner, center, will lean on a spine of players who will remain on the roster all season as select athletes get called up during the World Cup. The group features Haley Kopmeyer, left to right, Carson Pickett, Rachel Hill, Dani Weatherholt, Kristen Edmonds and Toni Pressley. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)

SANFORD, Fla. — New Orlando Pride coach Marc Skinner already has broken the 2019 National Women’s Soccer League season down into phases.

That’s just how he is. He looks. He analyzes down the to final detail. He charts a plan of action.

For Skinner, his first season coaching in the NWSL will be broken down into three parts: the start of the season, when he has most of his roster available; the middle, where a good chunk of the team’s stars will be called up to their national teams; and the remainder of the year.

Skinner, 36, was brought in to make the most of that middle portion. Pride general manager Erik Ustruck said Skinner is the coach who will get the most out of the players still with Pride while the Women’s World Cup is being contested in France.

Pride fans got a small taste of what the team can do without its World Cup-bound players. Skinner said the team that took the pitch against Puerto Rico Sol FC in a preseason friendly will be the “World Cup team.” The Pride won that match 5-0 in Orlando City Stadium.

“We have to be able to ready them appropriately with the right amount of minutes, through the right amount of exposure to different challenges, but that takes a little bit of time, too,” he said. “Those girls have had as much experience as our international players. But if we’ve got them in mind for how we want to play in the next stage, it kind of amalgamates all of them together.

“There’s isn’t anybody treated any differently to anybody else. It’s just about kind of planning, pre-planning and then, when you get closer to it, affecting the individuals.”

For this season to work out, Pride players like goalkeeper Haley Kopmeyer, forward Rachel Hill, veteran midfielders Kristen Edmonds and Dani Weatherholt — the players on the Pride’s roster who are not part of various national team pools — will have to deliver. Many of the players who form the spine of the Pride lineup have been in this position before — Orlando has coped with losing national team players to frequent call-ups for years.

It’s important to remember those international players won’t just be gone for the four league matches the Pride will play while the World Cup is going on in June. Players will leave early to join their national teams, and then it’ll take time to get back into the swing of things with their club teams.

For some, international duty for other players represents a chance to break into the starting XI.

“You know, I’ve done this before, I guess, and I don’t approach it any differently,” Kopmeyer said. “I think opportunities come in all different ways. I’ve been a one on teams. I’ve been a two on teams. I think, no matter what, it’s a really competitive goalkeeping market and every chance you get is an opportunity.

“I approach every training like I’m going to play, no matter what. I approach these upcoming games as an opportunity to keep proving that I’m a top goalkeeper.”

For others, it’s a chance to lead while veterans are away. A player like Hill would likely see significant minutes regardless of whether some of her teammates are called up.

“There’s huge shoes to fill this year and I think I am ready for it,” Hill said. “I do feel a lot more comfortable that coming in in my first year, obviously. It’ll be a big test.”

Skinner’s message throughout preseason training has been about the entire team moving in one direction. The Pride have a style of play they’ll stick to regardless of who is in the lineup.

During the Pride’s media day Skinner said, “We’ve got some of the best players in the world, but their habits need to improve. My job isn’t to be a fan of any of the players in the group. It’s to make sure that they are achieving their potential and make sure that I’m able to coach them in the direction that we need them to head.”

That’s come through in training sessions and so far, players have responded. Skinner — who insists on being called Marc in conversation — was as intense with six-time FIFA Player of the Year Marta as he was with rookie Marisa Viggiano.

Skinner said he has some tough questions to answer about his lineup before players depart for World Cup preparation. The Pride open their fourth season in the NWSL on Sunday at home against the potent Portland Thorns.

The games after the opener aren’t much easier. After facing the Thorns, the Pride travel to North Carolina for a match against the Courage on Wednesday. Orlando then plays Reign FC in Tacoma, Wash., a week after the season opener.

The Pride’s first three matches of the season are against playoff teams from last year.

“It’s going to be a very difficult choice for the weekend, not only for the starting lineup, but also the squad because I think that everybody’s acquitted themselves very well. I just think that I kind of have to look at the stage ahead. If you think about it, it’s Portland and then it’s North Carolina straight away.

“You kind of have limited time, so you’ve got to think a couple of stages ahead to see what the teams might look like in the other games, as well. That’s the hardest part, to piece that together. I think just having of understanding where everybody’s at and then using it right. That’s the real key, I think, to coaching and management and that’s where, hopefully, we’ll get that right.”

Of course, Skinner will need time at the helm. His system calls for organized player rotation in order to control counter-attacks, and the players getting the hang of that will take longer than the few months Skinner’s been in charge to master. Still, he said the early returns have been promising.

Plus, Skinner has maintained roster help is on the way. The Pride have two open international spots ahead of their season opener and Skinner said the club has identified targets overseas who haven’t finished their respective seasons yet.

“I keep saying this, and I’ll say it until I’m blue in the face, it needs to have a little bit of time to do the things that we need them to do,” he said. “From where they’ve been to where they are now, I couldn’t ask for a more monumental growth in the players. Just their attitudes and perspective of what they want to achieve.”

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