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NWSL preview: Orlando Pride bet on Marta and youth in 2023

Marta returns to the Orlando Pride as a key leader on a young team. (Ira L. Black – Corbis/Getty Images)

Since joining the NWSL in 2017, the Orlando Pride have had a tenuous foothold on the NWSL standings. Despite initially fielding a splashy lineup featuring players like Alex Morgan, Ashlyn Harris and Marta, Orlando could never quite get the results to match the potential of its assembled roster.

A high coaching turnover rate affected consistency, and the team slid toward the bottom of the table, finishing last in 2019. In the years since, Orlando has had stretches of positive results but has still struggled to compete by the end of a punishing NWSL season.

Recently, Orlando’s philosophy toward roster-building has shown a marked change from the top-heavy investment of the team’s early years. Under new head coach Seb Hines, the Pride have compiled a young core of developing players through the draft and free agency, allowing the club to put roots down before beginning to grow into a playoff contender. The question in 2023 is whether the team can contend this year, or if they’re stuck building for the next version of the future.

2022 review: Getting stuck in

Despite renewed expectations, Orlando’s 2022 season started with middling results, as the occasional attacking fireworks couldn’t quite make up for their struggles on defense. The Pride would gut out a win one weekend, and then give up four or five goals to their next opponent.

The inconsistencies weren’t relegated to on-field performances. Head coach Amanda Cromwell was suspended in June (and later expelled from the league) amid an investigation for possible retaliation, and Hines was given interim control of the team midway through the 2022 season.

Despite adversity, the Pride also proved themselves resilient in the second half of the season. Orlando pulled together a five-game unbeaten streak in June after Cromwell’s suspension, becoming a stuck-in group that was very difficult for opponents to break down. While the Pride didn’t always play the prettiest soccer, they did stop the bleeding that plagued them at the beginning of the season.

But working primarily without the ball has its costs, and at the end of the season, fatigue set in and the club struggled to implement tactics that went further than stopping the opposition. A few multi-goal losses to opponents at the top of the table, like OL Reign and Portland, firmly ended Orlando’s dream of a playoff surge and relegated the club to a 10th-place finish in the 2022 standings.

Last year, Orlando became more of a proof of concept than a fully realized soccer team, defined more by how they could frustrate other teams than the strengths they brought to a match themselves.

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Second-round pick Messiah Bright could end up being the steal of the 2023 NWSL Draft. (Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports)

Offseason moves: Building a new future

After a season of ups and downs, Hines began to further compile the young group the Pride believe can carry the team for years to come. Orlando was reportedly in the running for top free agent Debinha, but even after losing out to the Kansas City Current, the Pride front office continued to look for ways to solidify their core.

Orlando targeted talent in the draft, bringing in Emily Madril (No. 3) to partner with Megan Montefusco in the central defense and picking up underrated playmaking talent in the later rounds. Midfielder Summer Yates (No. 39) can create havoc in an NWSL midfield, and forward Messiah Bright (No. 21) could be the steal of the draft after Orlando grabbed her late in the second round. In free agency, the Pride signed Brazil forward Adriana to add extra firepower to the attack.

The Pride will also benefit from the return of legendary Brazilian playmaker Marta, who missed almost all of the 2022 season with an ACL tear. Marta brings both quality to the attack and veteran experience that will help Orlando’s young group learn the standards of the professional league. She will help make up for the loss of forward Darian Jenkins, who announced her retirement in January.

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Seb Hines begins his first season as Orlando's permanent head coach. (Courtesy of the Orlando Pride)

2023 outlook: Don’t overthink it

Perhaps for the first time, Orlando appears to be building a real foundation for the future, but their success this year will depend on how the coaching staff adapts to the team’s skill set. The midfield is still unbalanced, with more attacking midfielders than players who excel at off-the-ball defensive positioning. Mikayla Cluff is ready for greater midfield responsibilities, but she’s a forward-pushing midfielder, as is rookie Yates. The Pride can’t spend too much time trying to possess through the middle of the pitch if they want to find immediate success.

The good news for Orlando is that they don’t necessarily have to aspire to possession-based soccer when it makes more sense to play direct. With a number of quality options along the frontline, the Pride can play through their forwards while providing a level of defensive coverage they might not have had before.

Orlando’s ceiling will depend on the team’s ability to move the ball quickly and to absorb pressure. Madril and Montefusco will have to build chemistry quickly, with the hope that players like Ally Watt and Julia Doyle will be able to pounce on quick-trigger opportunities on the other end.

Ultimately, the Pride could be written off as a work in progress for the future. But many great clubs in the NWSL’s history have found ways to turn positive play into results by not overcomplicating the task at hand, and a little confidence for a team in transition could go a very long way.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

KC Current GM Camille Ashton Resigns

KC Current GM Camille Ashton
Former KC Current GM Camille Ashton left the undefeated organization early this week. (Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)

Kansas City Current general manager Camille Ashton has resigned, the club announced Wednesday.

The staffing shakeup comes as somewhat of a surprise after the Current started off the season undefeated under new head coach Vlatko Andonovski, sitting second in the NWSL standings through 10 games.

No further details were given about her departure, other than that the club "wishes her the best in her future endeavors."

"I am thankful for my time in Kansas City," Ashton said in a team statement. "It was important to me to dedicate my time and efforts to ensure a successful 2024 season by building the championship-caliber roster that's currently near the top of the table. I am proud of what we have accomplished here. I look forward to the next step in my personal and professional journey."

Ashton, who played in the league from 2014-17, helped rebuild the Current roster, including picking up then-free agent Debinha in 2023 — the biggest free agency signing of that offseason. This past offseason, she brought in international players Temwa Chawinga and Bia Zaneratto

But the club has also encountered some rough patches throughout Ashton's tenure. Following her daughter's dismissal from the Current last year, mother of 2023 draft pick Mykiaa Minniss also accused the club of mistreatment during the preseason. While both the league and NWSL Players Association looked into the comments, no formal reprimand or consequences were publicly issued.

Players like Lynn Williams, Alex Loera, and Cece Kizer voiced concerns over what they described as unexpected trades, with Kizer adding that there was "no conversation this could happen." Williams, meanwhile, was informed of her trade moments prior to its execution while she was in New Zealand with the USWNT.

"There could be a lot of debate about that on its own, but at the end of the day, that’s the mechanism that we work with right now in the league," Ashton told reporters earlier this year when quested about the Current's player trade procedures.

While the club made an NWSL championship appearance in 2022 — the year Ashton came on as general manager — the 2023 season kicked off with the team firing head coach Matt Potter just three games into the season and hours before a road game. 

At the time, the club cited "issues around his leadership and employment responsibilities" as the reasoning, though players were reportedly confused with the decision making.

Last October, the Current hired former UWSNT coach Vlatko Andonovski as head coach, in addition to giving him the title of "sporting director." Whether or not that role overlapped with Ashton’s responsibilities as general manager was cause for some speculation.

NWSL Honors UWSNT Great Lauren Holiday With Impact Award

Lauren Holiday at nwsl impact award event
USWNT legend Lauren Holiday has long been involved with social activism off the pitch. (NWSL)

The NWSL announced today that the annual civically focused Nationwide Community Impact Award would now be known as the Lauren Holiday Award in honor of the National Soccer Hall of Famer.

Since 2021, the award has recognized one NWSL player each season for their character and contributions to community service off the pitch, according to a league release. The winner of the newly retitled award receives $30,000 toward a charitable organization of their choice.

"The NWSL is proud to honor Lauren Holiday as the namesake of this award recognizing exemplary athletes and their commitment to service and activism," said NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman. "Lauren’s influential work in the community and her outstanding character both on and off the field epitomize the values we look to uphold and celebrate in the NWSL every day. 

"I can think of no one more deserving of this recognition than Lauren and look forward to seeing the continued positive impact this program has on our clubs and communities with her example guiding our efforts."

In a statement, Holiday said that throughout her career she has always "believed in the power of giving back and creating positive change." A two-time Olympic gold medalist, World Cup winner, and former NWSL MVP, Holiday founded the Jrue & Lauren Holiday Social Impact Fund alongside husband and fellow professional athlete JRue Holiday.

The fund contributes to programs that combat systemic racism and socioeconomic inequality. Holiday has also long been an advocate for legislation to help close the racial inequality gap in maternal health.

"This award is a testament to the important work that athletes are doing to strengthen and uplift their communities every day and I am deeply humbled to take on its namesake," Holiday said. "I hope it inspires others to continue their efforts in making a lasting impact on the lives of those around them."

Waylaid Seattle Rookie Nika Mühl Makes WNBA Debut

seattle storm's nika muhl guarding indiana fever's caitlin clark
Mühl spent her first few pro minutes repeating her college assignment: guarding Caitlin Clark.(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Seattle rookie Nika Mühl made her long awaited WNBA debut in last night’s 85-83 win over Indiana after missing the first four games of the season due to visa issues. 

A Croatian national, Mühl had been waiting on P-1 visa approval in order to work legally in the US. While the paperwork came through Friday, she had to travel to Canada in order to get her status changed.

The former UConn star poked fun at the delay ahead of the game, walking into Climate Pledge Arena wearing a t-shirt displaying her approved visa.

Mühl checked into the game on Monday in the third period to a standing ovation, immediately diving over the baseline to save a loose ball. She spent her first few minutes of the game the same way she completed her career at UConn: guarding Caitlin Clark

Mühl, who had two rebounds in two and a half minutes, held Clark to five points, a rebound, and a turnover when the two were matched up. 

"I threw her in the fire," Storm coach Noelle Quinn said with a smile after the game. "It’s tough to come into the game at that rate and think that you’re going to stop the player, but I like… her physicality, her poise, her confidence. She took an open shot and I thought that was a great look for her. We’ll continue to put her in the mix in practice, and she’ll have opportunities to show what she can do on the defensive end to start."

An instant fan favorite, the UConn star donned the No. 1 jersey — in part because her usual No. 10 was retired by Seattle after Sue Bird, who wore it for her entire WNBA career, retired last year. Mühl's new number was chosen by none other than Bird herself. 

"I actually FaceTimed Sue and asked her what number I should wear. She took a day to think about it and came back to me with an answer of No. 1," Muhl said in a WNBA video posted to social media. "When I asked her why No. 1, she basically said 'This is a new beginning, but you’re not starting from scratch.' I loved that whole analogy and story, so Sue actually picked it and I love it."

WNBA Confirms Toronto Expansion Team for 2026

Fans at a game between the Chicago Sky and the Minnesota Lynx in Toronto
Canadian fans asked and the WNBA delivered: Toronto's getting a team. (Jordan Jones/NBAE via Getty Images)

The WNBA is officially expanding to Toronto, with the league announcing its 14th franchise early Thursday. 

Kilmer Sports Ventures has been awarded the team, said WNBA commissioner Cathy Englebert at a press conference attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and others. 

"Growing internationally, I’ve been trying to think through next steps on a global platform," Engelbert told the Associated Press ahead of the official announcement. "It helps us reach new audiences and bring in new partners. The thing I love about going to another country is that the young girls and boys get to see professional basketball for women is important, too."

The CBC was the first to report on the expansion franchise back on May 10th. 

With the Golden State Valkyries set to begin play next year, the Toronto franchise will begin play in 2026. The goal, per the WNBA, is to then add two more franchises by 2028 for a total of 16. 

Toronto will play at Coca-Cola Coliseum, which holds 8,700 seats. On occasion, the team will play games in Scotiabank Arena. The WNBA has previously hosted sold-out preseason games at Scotiabank Arena and Edmonton’s Rogers Place. There are also plans to play games in Vancouver and Montreal, according to majority owner Larry Tanenbaum. 

This will be the first WNBA franchise outside of the United States, and joins PWHL Toronto as just the second professional women’s sports team in the city.

"Our Toronto sports franchises are thriving but, we have been missing one critical piece — women’s professional sports," Tanenbaum told the AP. "The world is finally taking notice of something that’s been there all along — the immense talent, passion and competition in women’s sports. 

"I saw an opportunity and knew we were in the right place at the right time to bring Canada’s first WNBA team to Toronto. And now we have, making sports history."

Similar to Golden State, the Toronto franchise paid a $50 million expansion fee. They’ve also committed to building a dedicated practice facility, but will train at the University of Toronto’s Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport in the meantime. 

"Women’s sports is good business," Tanenbaum said. "Just look around — it’s not a moment, but a movement and it’s just the beginning."

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