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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.

Clark, Martin Square Off in First Pro WNBA Matchup

Kate Martin #20 of the Las Vegas Aces and Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever look on during the game
Things looked a little different Saturday night as the former Iowa teammates went head-to-head in Las Vegas. (Jeff Bottari/NBAE via Getty Images)

Former Iowa teammates Caitlin Clark and Kate Martin shared the court once again on Saturday, this time as professionals.

It was Martin’s Aces that got the 99-80 win over Clark’s Fever in Las Vegas. The pair's former coaches Lisa Bluder, Jan Jensen, Jenni Fitzgerald, and Raina Harmon were all in attendance to watch their Hawkeyes — Clark, Martin, and former national player of the year Megan Gustafson — take the court.

"It’s super special. It’s cool for our program, cool for Lisa, for Coach Jan, for all of them," Clark said in a pregame press conference. "They’ve known me since I’ve been 13 years old and now I’m 22 getting to live out my dream and they’ve been a huge part of that and helping me get here and helping Megan and Kate to get here too. It’s a great moment for them and I’m sure they’re not complaining about a trip to Vegas."

As for her college teammate, Clark had nothing but good things to say ahead of the showdown. 

"I’m just really happy for her and everything Coach [Becky] Hammon says about her is so true," she said. "Every person that played at Iowa and was around her knows that to be true. She’s the ultimate teammate, ultimate person, ultimate leader."

In the end, Martin stole the show with 12 points and seven rebounds in 22 minutes, while Clark amassed eight points, seven assists, and five rebounds over 29 minutes of playing time. 

"It was weird," Martin admitted after the game. "I'm not going to lie — just looking out on the court and seeing her in a different jersey than me, it was obviously different. But it's really fun. We're both living out our dreams right now."

The Aces next meet the fever on July 2nd at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

Barcelona Beat Lyon to Win Back-to-Back Champions League Titles

Barcelona's Aitana Bonmatí and Alexia Putellas celebrating after beating Lyon at the 2024 Champions League final
Ballon d'Or winners Aitana Bonmatí and Alexia Putellas helped Barcelona to a second-straight UWCL title on Saturday. (Ramsey Cardy - Sportsfile/UEFA via Getty Images)

Barcelona was crowned champion of the Champions League on Saturday with a 2-0 win over Lyon in Bilbao.

Alexia "La Reina" Putellas, who recently re-signed with Barcelona, came off the bench to score the team's second goal. Fellow Ballon d’Or winner Aitana Bonmatí provided the team’s first. After the game, defender Lucy Bronze said Putellas was nicknamed "the queen" for a reason.

"Alexia is the captain of the team and she's the queen of Barcelona for a reason,"  defender Lucy Bronze told DAZN. "She's got the quality to do that in the last minute of the Champions League final when we were up against it at the end and it just sealed the win for us. It was amazing."

The victory marked Barcelona's first win over Lyon in a UWCL final, having previously gone up against the French side at both the 2019 and 2022 Champions League finals. It's also Barcelona's second Champions League title in a row.

"It's hard to win it once, but to do it back-to-back, Lyon showed how difficult it is and this team has finally done that," Bronze said. "I think we go down in history as one of the best teams in Europe."

This season, the team also secured a quadruple for the first time in club history, having already won Liga F, the Copa de la Reina, and the Spanish Supercopa. The win ensures that coach Jonatan Giráldez — who has officially departed the team to join the NWSL's Washington Spirit — leaves Europe a champion.

"It was an incredible game. I am really happy, it's one of the best days of my life for sure," Giráldez told broadcaster DAZN after the game. "We did an amazing job. I am very proud of all of them."

Following the win, Putellas said her team "can't ask for anything else."

"Our objective was to win four out of four," the Spain international told reporters. "We have achieved everything we wanted. Every minute of sacrifice has been worth the effort — and I'd say that not after the game, but before, just entering in the stadium, with all the support we had here, it was worth it."

2024 Laureus World Sportswoman of the Year Aitana Bonmatí said that the crowd support made it "feel like Camp Nou."

"I am on cloud nine right now," she said. "It is an historic day which we will remember forever."

Sun’s Alyssa Thomas Ejected After Flagrant 2 on Sky Rookie Angel Reese

Angel Reese said there were "no hard feelings" stemming from Alyssa Thomas's flagrant foul. (Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Angel Reese might have gotten knocked down on Saturday, but she got right back up again. 

Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas was ejected from the Sun’s 86-82 win over Chicago following a flagrant foul 2 on Reese — the first of her career. While the two were battling for a rebound, Reese took a clothesline hold around the neck courtesy of Thomas before hitting the ground.

After the game, Reese told reporters that there were "no hard feelings" and she appreciated Thomas for playing her hard beneath the basket.

"I know she purposely probably didn’t do it towards me," Reese said. "But just being able to come out there and just be strong and stand on two feet, it was going to be a tough game and that’s what I’m built for. And my teammates had my back throughout the whole game. So I was prepared for it."

She also didn’t buy into the idea that it was a "Welcome to the WNBA" moment, but thanked Thomas "sending a message" because it helped her get back up and "keep pushing."

"It’s not just because I’m a rookie. I’m a player. I’m a basketball player. They don’t give a damn if I’m a rookie. I mean, I want them to come at me every day. I want them to come at everybody," she added. "I mean, they’re not supposed to be nice to me. I hope y’all know that. They’re not supposed to be nice to me or lay down because I’m Angel Reese or because I’m a rookie."

Reese finished the game with 13 points, five rebounds, and two assists over 33 minutes.

Barcelona to Face Lyon in Champions League Rematch This Weekend

UEFA Women's Champions League Final"Barcelona FC - Olympique Lyonnais"
Saturday's game will be the third UWCL final meeting for Barcelona and Lyon, having previously gone up against each other in 2019 and 2022. (ANP via Getty Images)

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off in Bilbao on Saturday, with a couple of familiar foes set to face off for the trophy.

Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, making its 11th final appearance since 2010, will go head to head with a Barcelona side making its fourth final appearance in a row.

This will be the third time these two teams meet in the UWCL title game, having previously appeared in the 2019 and 2022 finals. Lyon won both of those prior games against Barcelona, alongside a total of eight Champions League trophies. That’s double that of any other club, with Eintracht Frankfurt coming in a distant second with four. 

Should Barcelona win, this would be the team's third title — breaking a tie for the third in the UWCL total titles race. 

But as these teams return to the UWCL final, it also marks the end of an era for both clubs. The game will be the last for both club managers, as Barcelona’s Jonatan Giráldez and Lyon’s Sonia Bompastor depart for new jobs after the season's end.

Giráldez is set to leave for the NWSL's Washington Spirit, while Bompastor will take over for incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes at Chelsea. Both coaches have earned one UWCL trophy during their tenures, while Bompastor also brought two Champions League trophies to Lyon as a player. She was the first coach to win a UWCL trophy as both a coach and player.

This season, Barcelona is looking for its first quadruple, having won a fifth Liga F title alongside the Copa de La Reina, and the Spanish Supercopa. 

"We hope he can go out with the four trophies because we know how competitive and ambitious he is," Barcelona midfielder Patri Guijarro told ESPN. "It has been a winning era with him in charge and for him to go out with all four trophies would be historic and incredible."

But Lyon's Damaris Egurrola is excited about her team's chances of overcoming Barcelona once again — and to do it in front of family and friends.

"Lyon have something special," she told Forbes ahead of the weekend's final. "We have a great team and we have the players with enough talent to win any match."

The game will be a homecoming for Egurrola, who began her professional career with Athletic Bilbao.

"I’ve been thinking of this day and night," she said. "I’ve been dreaming of playing this match. Having the opportunity to play in San Mames is amazing. This is where it all started for me."

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off Saturday, May 25th at 12 PM ET and is free to stream on DAZN.

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