Wednesday's NWSL Challenge Cup match was a unique experience for the youngest of the Orlando Pride players.
Eight players of the team's Starting XI are 24 or younger -- some playing in their first match of the season and others getting their first-ever professional starts.
It's exactly what head coach Seb Hines wanted to see out of his young team: Continue to get better by playing.
“The only way that you're going to be able to manage games is by playing games," he said following the team's 4-2 loss to Washington Spirit. "We saw this [game] as an opportunity to play a lot of the players who haven't been playing minutes in the [regular] season. It's a tough environment to come to. And I thought there was some really good performances out there, as well.
"Players who were making their first start in the NWSL and showing what they can do. I think that's important. I think it's another moment for us to learn from. Players who are looking to be playing and knocking on the door come NWSL games, and that's what we want. We want to create a competitive environment, everyone feels valuable. And, again, we did have a young team out there and the only way they're going learn is by putting them out on the field.”
That experience was especially valuable for the two youngest players on the roster, Haley Bugeja and Amanda Allen. Both got their first-ever starts for the Pride, but for Allen, it was the first start in her professional career.
“I thought they did great, I was really proud of their performances," midfielder Kerry Abello said. "I think they're both eager to learn, eager to follow and that's really all you can ask for. They're very talented players and I think they have a really bright future with the Pride.”
Bugeja appeared in just three matches last season after joining the Pride late in the year but had yet to start until this past match. The 19-year-old was named to Goal.com's list of 25 best wonder kids in women's football back in March.
Allen, on the other hand, only signed with the Pride just last month, making her Pride debut last week as a substitute against Racing Louisville. Now the 18-year-old Canadian national team member has her first big pro milestones within just four days of each other.
"To get your start in front of a crowd away from home is not always easy, but again, just throwing them out there and getting that out of the way, getting that experience early will always help them moving forward," Hines said. "I thought Amanda showed signs of what she can do. We'd like to be more direct, taking players on dribbling past them because she's capable of doing it and we fully believe in her ability.
"I think Haley struggled early on I think she struggled with the pace of the game. What she can bring is that she's got terrific technical ability, and I don't think that was on show as much as we would have liked. So that's why we made the change at halftime to bring Summer [Yates] on but again, being so young and getting that experience early on will only help them in their careers moving forward."
Another player that made an impact in just her second professional appearance was centerback Tori Hansen, who scored her first professional goal in the 10th minute of the match.
It came in an unexpected fashion, after a corner from Thais Reiss fell kindly in the box for Hansen, she was able to backheel the ball into the back of the net to start the scoring for the Pride on the night.
"Definitely not [expected]," Hansen said of the goal. "I'm more of a header scorer, so it's nice to get one with my feet and backheel is even better."
Hansen was drafted 25th overall by the Pride in this year's NWSL draft and has been working her way towards getting more minutes with the team, getting back to back starts in the Challenge Cup.
"I've just been grateful to get any minutes that I've been able to get," she said. "I'm just happy to get any minutes that I can get and make a difference when I can and score goals and try to improve on getting shutouts obviously, is a big piece to defending so I'll learn from that and we'll learn from that as a backline and as a team."
Next match: Orlando Pride at Gotham FC
When: Sunday, 5:30 p.m.
Where: Red Bull Arena, Harrison, N.J.
TV: FOX35 PLUS, Paramount+
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