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Orlando Pride ready for fresh start after offseason of change

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.


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.

Alyssa Naeher’s goalkeeper jersey sells out in less than three hours

uwnt goalie alyssa naeher wears jersey on the field with club team chicago red stars
USWNT star keeper Alyssa Naeher's new replica NWSL jersey was an instant success. (Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time in the NWSL's 12-year history, fans can now buy their own goalkeeper jerseys. And while replica goalkeeper jerseys representing all 14 NWSL teams hit the market on Wednesday, some didn't stick around for long. 

Fans across women's soccer have long vocalized their discontent over the position's lack of availability on social media, often comparing the shortcoming to the widespread availability of men’s goalkeeper jerseys. And as the NWSL has grown, so has demand — and not just from those in the stands. 

"To have goalkeeper kits available for fans in the women’s game as they have been for so long in the men’s game is not only a long-awaited move in the right direction, it’s just good business," said Washington Spirit goalie Aubrey Kingsbury in an team press release. "I can’t wait to see fans representing me, Barnie [Barnhart], and Lyza in the stands at Audi!"

Business does, in fact, appear to be booming. Alyssa Naeher’s Chicago Red Stars kit sold out less than three hours after the league's announcement. Jerseys for other keepers like DiDi Haračić, Abby Smith, Michelle Betos, Katelyn Rowland, and Bella Bixby aren’t currently available via the Official NWSL Shop, though blank goalkeeper jerseys can be customized through some individual team sites. Jerseys start at $110 each.

"This should be the benchmark," said Spirit Chief Operations Officer Theresa McDonnell. "The expectation is that all players’ jerseys are available to fans. Keepers are inspiring leaders and mentors with their own unique fan base who want to represent them... I can’t wait to see them all over the city."

Simone Biles talks Tokyo Olympics fallout in new interview

gymnast simone biles on a balance beam
Biles' candid interview shed light on the gymnast's internal struggle. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Decorated gymnast Simone Biles took to the popular Call Her Daddy podcast this week to open up about her experience at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, revealing she thought she was going to be "banned from America" for her performance.

After Biles botched her vault routine due to a bout of the "twisties," she withdrew from the team final as well as the all-around final in order to focus on her mental health. She later reentered the competition to win bronze in the individual balance beam final.

In her interview with podcast host Alex Cooper, Biles admitted to feeling like she let the entire country down by failing her vault attempt.

"As soon as I landed I was like 'Oh, America hates me. The world is going to hate me. I can only see what they’re saying on Twitter right now,'" she recalled thinking. "I was like, ‘Holy s---, what are they gonna say about me?'"

"I thought I was going to be banned from America," she continued. "That’s what they tell you: Don’t come back if not gold. Gold or bust. Don’t come back."

Widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, Biles has hinted at a desire to join her third Olympic team in Paris, though her participation won't be confirmed until after the gymnastics trials in late June. She holds over 30 medals from the Olympic Games and World Artistic Gymnastics Championships combined, and if qualified, would be a sure favorite heading into this summer’s games.

Caitlin Clark reportedly nearing $20 million+ Nike deal

Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever poses for a portrait at Gainbridge Fieldhouse during her introductory press conference
WNBA-bound Caitlin Clark is said to be closing in on a monumental NIke deal. (Photo by Matt Kryger/NBAE via Getty Images)

Caitlin Clark is reportedly close to cementing a hefty endorsement deal with Nike.

The Athletic was the first to break the news Wednesday evening, commenting that the deal would be worth "eight figures" and include her own signature shoe. On Thursday afternoon, the publication tweeted that the deal would top $20 million, according to lead NBA Insider Shams Charania. Both Under Armour and Adidas are said to have also made sizable offers to the college phenom and expected future WNBA star.

The new agreement comes after Clark's previous Nike partnership ended with the conclusion of the college basketball season. She was one of five NCAA athletes to sign an NIL deal with the brand back in October, 2022. 

Considering Clark's overwhelming popularity and Nike's deep pockets, the signing's purported value doesn't exactly come as a shock. New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu’s deal with the brand is reportedly worth $24 million, while NBA rookie and No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama’s deal is rumored to weigh in at $100 million. And in 2003, LeBron James famously earned $90 million off his own Nike deal. 

Clark’s star power continues to skyrocket, with the NCAA championship averaging 18.9 million viewers and the 2024 WNBA Draft more than doubling its previous viewership record. Following the draft, Fanatics stated that Clark's Indiana Fever jersey — which sold out within an hour — was the top seller for any draft night pick in the company’s history, with droves of unlucky fans now being forced to wait until August to get their hands on some official No. 22 gear.

In Wednesday's Indiana Fever introductory press conference, the unfailingly cool, calm, and collected Clark said that turning pro hasn’t made a huge impact on how she’s conducting her deals.

"If I’m being completely honest, I feel like it doesn’t change a ton from how I lived my life over the course of the last year," she said. "Sponsorships stay the same. The people around me, agents and whatnot, have been able to help me and guide me through the course of the last year. I don’t know if I would be in this moment if it wasn’t for a lot of them."

Star slugger Jocelyn Alo joins Athletes Unlimited AUX league

softball star jocelyn alo rounds the bases at an oklahoma sooners game
Former Oklahoma star Jocelyn Alo has signed with Athletes Unlimited. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Former Oklahoma slugger Jocelyn Alo has signed on with Athletes Unlimited and will compete in the AU Pro Softball AUX this June.

The NCAA record holder in career home runs (122), total bases (761), and slugging percentage (.987), Alo was originally drafted by the league in 2022 but opted instead to join the newly debuted Women’s Professional Fastpitch

Alo currently plays for independent pro softball team Oklahoma City Spark, with team owner Tina Floyd reportedly on board with her recent AUX signing. AUX games are scheduled for June 10-25, while the Spark's season will kick off June 19th. Alo will play for both. 

Among those joining Alo on the AUX roster are former James Madison ace pitcher Odicci Alexander and former Wichita State standout middle infielder Sydney McKinney.

According to Alo, the decision to play in the Athletes Unlimited league was fueled by her desire to propel women's sports forward as well as provide more exposure to a sport that's given her "so many opportunities."

"Not only to challenge myself more, but just for the growth of the game," Alo said, explaining her reasoning to The Oklahoman. "I genuinely believe that professional softball can be a career for girls."

Joining AUX is also one more step in her plan toward representing Team USA at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

"I’m constantly thinking about how can I do these little things right in these four years to prepare me for the biggest stage of softball," she told The Oklahoman. "I definitely want to play in the Olympics, for sure."

Alo further expressed enthusiasm in the hope that the rise of other women’s sports, like women’s basketball and the NWSL, will push softball’s professional viability even higher.

"We’re seeing the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) get their stuff going, I see the WNBA starting to get hot," she continued. "I feel like the softball community is like, 'All right, it’s our turn and it’s our turn to just demand more.'"

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