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How the Pride became a playoff contender in a rebuilding year

The Orlando Pride celebrate Ally Watt's goal in a win over Gotham FC on Aug. 20. (Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports)

At the Orlando Pride these days, everyone is working for each other. That’s how midfielder Erika Tymrak describes the atmosphere during another rebuilding year that’s featured many unexpected hurdles along the way.

Over the last couple of months, the Pride have focused on creating a competitive environment and nurturing culture that’s inclusive of everybody. The approach has translated into results on the field, with Orlando taking a seven-game unbeaten streak into Friday’s match with OL Reign after starting the season 2-2-5.

“I’ve won two championships in this league and I’ve learned on both of those teams that everyone has to be committed and understanding of their role and everyone has to be working for each other,” said Tymrak, a 10-year NWSL veteran. “Whether you’re a 90-minute player or a sub, someone who’s not getting playing time, rookie, veteran, you have to be committed.”

She credits interim coach Seb Hines for fostering an an environment where everyone wants to play their best for each other. Hines is filling in for head coach Amanda Cromwell and assistant coach Sam Greene, who were placed on administrative leave in June due to an ongoing investigation by the NWSL and NWSL Players Association into allegations of workplace misconduct.

“He’s been really direct about how he wants us to play, what his expectations are, what his standards are, what our standards should be as players,” Tymrak said of Hines. “As an athlete, I think it’s sometimes tough to live in that gray area where you’re not really sure. The more black and white you can make it, the easier it is to understand, especially for younger players and rookies.

“Having that clarity and directness and confidence in us and how he wants us to play has been huge.”

The players are enjoying each other’s company in a way that general manager Ian Fleming has never seen during his year and a half with the club.

“I think the team is responding really well to just a much more pleasant place to be right now than it has been for some time,” he said. “It’s energizing. I think everyone’s feeling really good about the direction that we’re heading.”

Hines has worked the team so hard in training over the last seven weeks that games feel like the easy days and the players hardly have to think about what they’re doing on the field. Since the beginning of July, the Pride have tied or beaten three teams in the top four of the standings — the Houston Dash, Kansas City Current and San Diego Wave — and risen to eighth place with six regular-season games remaining.

One of the youngest teams in the league a year after being the oldest team, weighted by minutes played, the Pride (5-5-6) are sitting in the bottom half of the standings for a fifth straight season, but they’re also on track to finish in their best position in five years. The top six teams make the NWSL playoffs beginning in October.

Coming into 2022, the Pride knew it would be a challenging year. In preseason, the club returned 15 players from the 2021 season after trading away longtime club staples Alex Morgan, Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris.

Since then, they’ve lost four key veterans — Marta, Sydney Leroux, Amy Turner and Angharad James — to a season-ending injury, a trade, a contract buyout and a contract termination.

Orlando bought out Turner’s contract 10 days after Cromwell and Greene were put on leave, and both Pride teammates and NWSL players were quick to show support for the defender. A month later, James joined Turner, her fiancée, in signing with Tottenham.

Sydney Leroux, who was traded to Angel City FC shortly after Turner’s departure, told the media upon her arrival in Los Angeles, “It’s not a secret that things are going on in Orlando, that things need to be looked at and taken care of. I had five years there and Orlando will always hold a special place in my heart.”

The club has focused on rebuilding its trust with players through transparent discussions and providing support on and off the field, Fleming explained. The Pride are also committed to giving their players the physical and psychological medical care they need. When Tymrak was asked what has stood out most about her experience with the Pride this year, she cited the coaching and medical staff as well as the benefits of having ice baths, chiropractic care, physiotherapy, sports psychologist and other resources are all available under one roof.

“I know that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but I’ve been at clubs where it’s not like that,” she said. “It makes such a difference because at the end of the day, the athlete just wants to step on the field and perform. And if they’re given every opportunity to do that, they’re going to be more successful.”

Tymrak, who played for FC Kansas City from 2013-17 and returned to the NWSL with the Utah Royals from 2018-19, came out of retirement to join the Pride for the 2021 season after a random phone call from Leroux. The nine-year NWSL veteran encouraged Tymrak to come train with Orlando during the offseason.

The offseason turned into a year and a half of the longtime friends playing together before Leroux was traded to Angel City.

“It was tough,” Tymrak said of Leroux leaving. “But I’m really happy for her and I think it’ll be good for her being closer to home. Sometimes you’re at a club for a while and there’s nothing wrong, but you just outgrow it. Syd’s one of those types of people who wants to be challenged, and sometimes being in the same environment can get stagnant.”

Fleming felt it was best at this point in Leroux’s career to put her in a position where she felt like she was competing for championships now. A member of the Pride since 2018, Leroux never had a winning season or made a playoff appearance in Orlando.

Fleming said the circumstances surrounding Turner and James’ unexpected departures were similar.

“I was trying to do the best job we can to put our players in a place to succeed, and for those players, in particular, to help them get to a place that was better for them where they can continue their careers,” he said. “For me, it was allowing [Turner] to go back home in an environment, to find an environment in which she can thrive and continue to play at the highest level.”

The gaps in the roster have created opportunities for younger players to take on bigger roles. For example, 23-year-old midfielder Viviana Villacorta has been consistently playing full matches since the beginning of July, just as Orlando began its unbeaten streak, and 22-year-old defender Kerry Abello has become a regular starter.

“They’ve thrived in that environment,” Fleming said. “We’re seeing the payoff from that right now. We’re seeing the growth and development of young players … in a way that I think will help them in the early stages of their career, but also help our club moving forward.”

Following the departures of multiple veterans this season, Orlando recently acquired Ally Watt from OL Reign and Haley Hanson from the Houston Dash before the transfer window closed this week. When it comes to trades, the Pride have targeted experienced NWSL players in the prime of their careers who have been on winning teams and are willing to take on a leadership role on a rebuilding team.

The Pride have seen that vision materialize in the last seven weeks, as the players have bought into the mission, competed for each other and gotten a taste of success.

“I think Seb has done such a good job with this group. He’s created this environment that’s super competitive,” Tymrak said. “Every time we go to practice, everyone’s so excited to compete.

“I think that is a really special environment.”

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