SANFORD, Fla. —It was a cool morning on Tuesday as the Orlando Pride began their 2024 NWSL preseason out at Orlando Pride Training Ground at Sylvan Lake Park. A sense of familiarity was around the group, as the majority of the team has returned from last year's squad, mixing in the half-dozen new faces joining the squad.
With that familiarity and camaraderie built into the team, the goal for this year's Pride players is to build upon what they had last season.
"We've said we don't want to have to learn the same lessons again," defender Haley McCutcheon said. "We want to build off of what we did last year. Obviously, there were mistakes made, and we just want to start off the season strong and pick up points right away, knowing that we can win the shield if we really put our minds to it."
The Pride's offseason was spent working to reinforce the already strong team, bringing in young and veteran players alike and building up their depth in key positions in both free agency and the 2024 NWSL Draft. Much like hand-carved mahogany, the Pride roster continues to be finely tuned and adjusted as the coaching staff look for a balance heading into the regular season in March. For Head Coach Seb Hines, that depth also brings competition in the team as to who will earn playing time throughout the season.
"Looking back from last year, the start is important," he said. "We've made that very clear to the players — it starts in preseason, and we want a good start in the regular season and just keep that momentum going and moving forward. So I think there's a lot of excitement with the additions we brought in. It's our second year, ultimately, as well. And so the players know what we expect, and I think everyone should be excited about that."
Over the next few weeks, Orlando players will be put through their paces as they ramp up their workouts, pulling the lever out of off-season mode and into their regular season rhythm.
"We have to really push this preseason to keep our standards high and really come off of where we left off last year," McCutcheon said. "The expectation now is to make playoffs and, again, really push for the shield this year."
Part of that strong-start mentality comes from the bitter taste of how the 2023 season ended. After a slow start to the season, the Pride ramped up and came agonizingly close to making the playoffs, falling just below the playoff line.
For Ally Watt, she remembers how she felt as the whistle blew in the season finale against the Houston Dash. Now, as the calendar turns to 2024, the Pride's moment of triumph approaches, and the players have only one thought in their minds for the new season: bring it on.
"I think it is fueling us," Watt said. "Coming off that field against Houston and realizing that we didn't make playoffs by a single goal, we knew that we had it. It was super close, and the results just didn't go our way. But I think that we're very determined this year — that's all we talk about still to this day — so we're really determined, and I think that's going to fuel us and push us forward."