Pride players huddle together after a preseason scrimmage. (Courtesy of Orlando Pride)

Orlando Pride head coach Amanda Cromwell remembers the word midfielder Gunny Jónsdóttir used to describe the team’s unusually young roster the first week of preseason training camp.

Willing.

The oldest team in the league last year, weighted by minutes, will be one of the youngest in the NWSL in 2022 after an offseason of significant turnover. After trading away franchise linchpins like Ali Krieger, Ashlyn Harris and Alex Morgan, and acquiring a flurry of 2023 college draft picks, the Pride have just 15 players returning from last season. Of the 30-player squad, 13 are aged 24 or younger.

Cromwell describes Orlando as having an underdog mentality with a championship mindset.

“Everyone’s just willing right now,” she said. “Willing to get stuff done, willing to work hard … and getting a team to work for each other is there. Those are key components to some success down the road.”

The coach, who is also new to the league after leaving her head coaching position at UCLA, is content with the team being underestimated. Pride general manager Ian Fleming said they have had many discussions with veteran leaders like Marta, Sydney Leroux and Erin McLeod about building trust after the upheaval during the offseason.

“I think everyone’s just been so open and willing to grow together,” McLeod said. “It’s one thing to give a lot of information, and it’s another to receive it and I have to credit the players for doing both. … Most importantly, we see each other as equals on the field.”

Leroux, a five-year Pride veteran, said she’s never been a part of “something so drastic.”

“It’s exciting,” she said. “It’s something different and something new.”

The adjustments could be what the team needs to return to the playoffs, after finishing in the bottom three of the NWSL standings every year since 2017.

Youth movement

Throughout the first month of preseason, the Pride’s younger players have exhibited confidence and an eagerness to learn. Cromwell noticed from day one of preseason, when the team started watching video, that the rookies weren’t afraid to speak up when the coaching staff asked for feedback and questions.

Defender Megan Montefusco (née Oyster) said the inexperienced players are asking the veterans a lot of “really good questions” on the field, as well.

“The players are very open to absorbing everything we’re offering,” Cromwell said.

Orlando signed five NWSL rookies this season, including 2022 draft selections Caitlin Cosme (No. 10), Julie Doyle (No. 11) and Jada Talley (No. 31), as well as 2021 draftees Kerry Abello and three-time MAC Hermann Trophy finalist Mikayla Cluff, both of whom elected to complete their eligibility in the NCAA in 2021. The Pride’s top draft pick this season, UCLA forward Mia Fishel, opted to play with Tigres in Liga MX Femenil after being selected No. 5 in December’s NWSL Draft.

After over a month of observing the new players in preseason, Cromwell singled out Cluff for her play. The BYU midfielder led the NCAA in points last season with 51, adding to her five-year total of 53 goals and 39 assists.

“We did have expectations for her coming in as one of the best players to come out of college last year,” said Cromwell.

The coach is eager to see how Cluff fits into the attack with Leroux and Marta, but also notes that the four-time All-American has a “bite” defensively.

“She’s very fit as well,” Cromwell said. “Those players that can work on both sides of the ball are fun to have on your squad because they affect in and out of possession.”

Courtney Petersen, Parker Roberts and Carrie Lawrence, all 24 years old, have also stood out in preseason. Cromwell notes that Roberts has “been doing great things in the six.”

Abi Kim, who signed with the Pride from ACF Fiorentina prior to the start of last season, has made significant progress in the last month. The forward has never played outside back, but she’s shown so far in preseason that she can hold her own in that position.

Predicting there might be a point in the season where the young players “hit a wall,” Cromwell plans to give them stretches of days off, when they can get away and rejuvenate. She compares Orlando’s energy to that of the Washington Spirit’s young trio — Ashley Sanchez (age 22), 2021 NWSL Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch (26) and Rookie of the Year Trinity Rodman (19), who helped lead the Spirit to their first NWSL championship in November.

“I think players that are young can come in and have an impact,” Cromwell said.

Attacking mindset

On the field, the Pride plan to play a possession-minded and creative style of attack. The glue will be Marta, the Brazilian superstar forward whose energy Cromwell and Fleming describe as infectious. Recently named team captain, Marta embodies a childlike love for the game and the identity Cromwell wants for the team.

“I’ve always prided myself on teams that are confident on the ball, fun to watch, and play with freedom,” Cromwell said. “Any team that has Marta, quite honestly, should look to build through her and build through the midfield.”

Lately, the Pride have been working on being patient in the attack. They have many players who can be dangerous on the counter-attack, and Cromwell encourages them to take advantage when the transition lanes are open, but also build through the midfield as much as they can.

Orlando’s key to recruiting has been identifying players who want to play a dictating, possession-style game and have good composure, fitness, vision and the ability to contribute to strong team defense. Cromwell emphasizes versatility, appreciating defenders who can dribble out of the back and make assists and forwards who can contribute on the backline if needed.

Toward the end of each practice, the Pride coaches drill different defensive systems, including defending from the front and getting numbers behind the ball. Following a run through their set plays, the players bring donuts and coffee for each other in recovery sessions. Their shared desire to win a championship has made the new team close through the first month and a half of preseason.

“We’re so bought into that,” said Montefusco, who joined the Pride in January in a trade with the Houston Dash. “It’s exciting because you can feel it out on the pitch. We’re all fighting for each other.”

Said Cromwell: “To me, the best teams in the world are the ones that fight for each other and have each other’s back.”

Winning mentality

To a championship-driven team like Orlando, the Challenge Cup beginning next week isn’t just a preseason tournament.

“I’m always competitive, so I always want to win something, some sort of championship,” Cromwell said. “I don’t care what it is — ping pong, tech ball, whatever it might be — so we’re going to have that as a goal.”

The Challenge Cup will live up to its name immediately for the Pride, putting the young team to the test against the reigning NWSL champion Spirit in their first game on March 19. Cromwell plans to use the tournament as an opportunity to answer remaining questions she has about players and to make necessary adjustments in preparation for the regular season.

And, after three straight losing seasons, the club is eager to flip the script.

“I want to win,” said Montefusco. “That’s just in me and I think this whole team really wants to win.”

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.