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Orlando Pride set NWSL championship expectations

The Orlando Pride are fired up for the start of the 2018 NWSL season. The team reached the league semifinals last year and hopes to win the championship this season. (Red Huber/Staff Photographer)

ORLANDO – Last season, in the midst of a rough start for the Orlando Pride that included one win in the club’s first seven matches, CEO Alex Leitão decided it was time to make his expectations known.

He personally visited a training session at the Seminole Soccer Complex and addressed the players.

His message was clear: The women’s side of Orlando City SC was created to win championships.

“Alex comes in, that’s the first thing he says: ‘This is not a charity. We’re not here because we think we have to have you here. We want you here. We want to be successful. We want to win championships. We want the best players in the world to play for this city,’” Orlando Pride goalkeeper and team captain Ashlyn Harris recalled.

The message was heard. The Pride went on a nine-match unbeaten streak and ended the regular season in third place, securing a playoff berth in the club’s second season. The Pride lost on the road to the eventual champion Portland Thorns 4-1 in the NWSL playoff semifinals, but it was still a solid turnaround for a club that spent most of 2017 at or near the bottom of the NWSL table and hadn’t made a postseason appearance.

A new campaign kicks off Saturday. The Pride open their season at home against Utah Royals FC and the high expectations for the year aren’t just coming from ownership.

New players are in place and with the way the club finished last season, there is a “win-now” vibe that’s permeating the group. Harris said rather than pressure, there’s excitement about what the team is capable of accomplishing during its third NWSL season.

“We’ve got to win,” Harris said. “They’re not putting all this money and all this effort in to be average. It’s not going to happen.”

Harris said the talent and competitive level among players on the roster helped the Pride embrace championship expectations.

“If we don’t win this year, we’re really doing something wrong,” she said. “It’s such an exciting time and we have such great players. Now, what you’re seeing is the identity take shape.”

Leitão said the Pride responded to his message last season and now he’s looking for improvement in 2018.

“I think the team and the club and the community and the fans, especially, deserve that,” he said.

“This is truly a soccer community with a lot of passionate fans. We’ve been in that pressure and I like that. I like to be in that position. I think we have a very experienced coach who, as well, likes to be in that position and we brought in a lot of experienced players and good players who come here to succeed.”

Starting over during a new season

Coach Tom Sermanni said despite how well his team played to earn a playoff spot last season, the Orlando Pride have more or less hit the reset button to start the season.

One reason is the club has brought in a host of new players. Experienced starters like striker Sydney Leroux, center back Shelina Zadorsky, left back Carson Pickett, right back Poliana and midfielder Christine Nairn all have signed on to play for Orlando.

“You tend to think — I’ve found this out as I’ve gotten older — how your team finished last year is kind of how you’re going to start the following year,” he said. “That’s never the case. You tend to think players remember stuff from last year and it’s not the case.

“In a lot of ways, every time, when you get back together, it’s like starting over again. And we’re starting over, like most of the teams in this league, with a preseason that’s been very short. That’s why you’re not quite sure exactly how match-fit a team’s going to be at the weekend, how cohesive we’re going to be.”

Marta, a Brazilian superstar who joined the club last season and led the team in goals and assists, said the club has come together during preseason training.

It’s been a tough task. Nine players, including Marta, missed a good portion of the preseason because of international-team duties. When they finally got on the same pitch, there was a buzz and sharp focus. The players knew they had no time to waste.

“We’re very excited,” she said through a translator. “The preparation, it’s been done in the right way. Now we cannot wait just to step on the field and play in front of our fans.”

The club is still missing its Australian players — Emily van Egmond and Alanna Kennedy — who are participating in regional World Cup qualifying matches and the members of the team who came back late in preseason only got about two weeks of preseason training.

“We have a week and a half to put it all together and figure it out,” Harris said as national-team players reported to Orlando. “That’s the fun part of this. A lot of us internationals just got in town… it’s been so much fun.”

Sermanni said it’ll likely be around May when the team starts to fully jell.

Orlando emerges as  a top destination

While it may take time to get on the same page, Sermanni and the Orlando City SC front office had no trouble attracting top players and getting them to fall in love with Orlando.

Nairn, who played for Seattle Reign FC last season, said she was a bit shocked when she was traded, but the feeling wore off quickly when she realized her landing place.

Pride players said there’s a strong commitment from ownership that has made Orlando an attractive destination.

Part of that fueled by the club’s affiliation with men’s side, Orlando City. The Pride play in Orlando City Stadium and last season drew an average announced home attendance of 6,186, which was second-highest in the league.

“Orlando has been such a staple in this league,” she said. “Everyone wants to come to this team. The girls, the coaching staff, the facilities — everything is just top-notch. Everyone, whether they want to admit it or not, wants to come to Orlando.”

Morgan said ownership has been committed to growing its women’s club from the beginning.

“I feel like they’ve done really well just transition the women’s club in such a short time to such a high level,” Morgan said.

“They had big plans from the very beginning for Orlando City Soccer Club to be a global brand so, you know, I’m hoping that vision is still shared amongst the club and I’m looking forward to this club [continuing] to improve on the things that needed to be improved from last year.”

jculver@orlandosentinel.com

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