Orlando Pride head coach Marc Skinner talks the biggest game in the NWSL. He has always had a lofty vision for his team, and he’s not afraid of getting fired for his principles. His team is also currently sitting in last place.
Recently, he spoke with the BBC and made comments about the United States Women’s National Team’s equal pay dispute that have received significant backlash.
“I’m not going to go into the equal pay row because I think that I’d still love to see the women do something the men haven’t done, and that is to continue to love football not just for the money but for the love of the game,” Skinner told the BBC. “I think that’s the purity of women’s football, I really do.”
When I ask him if he would like to clarify his comments, he takes a stance that’s more supportive of the players.
Skinner says that he’s “absolutely, 100 percent, for equal pay.” He continues: “The women’s national team has been the best team in the world. They are world champions. They’ve absolutely been dominant in their sport. They absolutely deserve equal pay. That’s so important for me to get across, because they’re the best athletes in the world, there’s absolutely no doubt.”
He also wants to clarify what he meant by the “purity” of the women’s game, since his initial quotes didn’t go over well with players and fans. In the NWSL, the minimum salary is $16,538 and the maximum for a non-allocated player is $46,200. Skinner’s comments suggested he didn’t understand some of his players’ financial struggles, despite his partner — former England defender Laura Bassett — having endured them herself.
Skinner says that he was referring to “the connection to the fans, how important the fans are ... the fact that they spend time connecting to people and actually having conversations,” in the women’s game, rather than money. At the top level of the men’s game in England, direct interactions between players and fans are almost non-existent.
This is Skinner’s first season as an NWSL coach, following a three-year stint as manager of Birmingham City in England. Last season, in the FA WSL, Skinner guided Birmingham to a fourth-place finish, just behind the much better funded top three of Arsenal, Manchester City, and Chelsea. With Skinner doing so well without England national team players or international stars at his disposal, many wondered what he could do with superstars like Alex Morgan and Marta. But those players have missed big chunks of the season, and Skinner has struggled to get the most out of his squad without them.
At Orlando, Skinner has been tasked with implementing a style of play and establishing his own culture. The Pride struggled last season under coach Tom Sermanni, and goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris called out her teammates for their lack of passion after the club opened this season with a shutout loss.
“We have so many world-class players, and they need structure to succeed and grow as a team,” Skinner says. “I think we need to change the culture and mentality. We’ve got the talent, but that alone is not good enough really. You need to adapt and think, ‘I want to change.’ There is growth in this club and we can all feel that.”
Despite losing more games than anyone else in the league, Skinner has been eager to talk up his own philosophy, and opine on what he doesn’t like about the NWSL as a whole. In the same BBC interview, Skinner said he is trying “to create art rather than football. I want to create something nobody’s done before.” In July, following a loss to the Portland Thorns, Skinner said that NWSL is competitive because of players’ physical prowess, and that it’s not a tactically-oriented league.
Skinner admits his previous quotes sounded arrogant, and walks his words back.
“I want to try and make something beautiful, something to remember my career by, and of course challenge players and teams,” Skinner says. “I look at Paul Riley and Mark Parsons — they’ve built successful teams and a different way of playing. I’m sure that’s their art. I don’t want to come across as arrogant, I don’t think I’m better than anyone else.”
Skinner is referring to the coaches of the last two NWSL champions, the North Carolina Courage and the Portland Thorns, respectively. Both teams thrive by counter-attacking quickly after winning the ball, and catching opposing defenses off guard. Both teams play a a lot of high-risk, high-reward passes that create scoring chances in a way that is not always aesthetically pleasing to people who enjoy the possession style of soccer played by teams like Lyon’s women and Manchester City’s men.
Skinner picks three names when asked who most inspires what he’s trying to build in Orlando.
“Marcelo Bielsa and what he did with the [Chile men’s national team], what he did with the rotation of positions and the ability to understand where his best players could rotate into space. I think he builds around two players he understands,” Skinner says. “And of course I love Pep Guardiola. A big one for me is [current Utah Royals coach] Laura Harvey, a coach at Birmingham a long time ago — the way she interacts and talks with players — she was a big influence on me.”
So far, Skinner has yet to translate those influences into a Bielsa-like level of execution. The Pride ended Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Washington Spirit having completed just 61 percent of their passes, a figure that would be considered poor even for direct, low-percentage passing teams like North Carolina. Skinner has struggled to find the right group of players in midfield, and the Pride’s inability to string together passing combinations through the center of the pitch — perhaps the most important foundational element of the style he wants to implement — is alarming.
If Orlando remains committed to Skinner’s long-term vision and keeps him in charge this offseason — and Skinner is very confident he’s sticking around — he and general manager Erik Ustruck appear likely to turn over a large portion of the current roster.
“We have identified players we want to bring in from NWSL, from the draft, and from abroad,” Skinner says. “It’s going to be hard but the offseason is hard. What I know now is we have to be extremely fit, and have the athletic prowess to compete, and then we have to add the tactical and technical elements. There’s a window for opportunity for a team to be successful with that, plus recruitment.”
Despite rough start in Orlando — from his team’s poor play to his abrasive quotes — Skinner is convinced that the Pride are on the right track.
“I am building a wonderful culture,” he says, “with a wonderful group of people who will make sure they represent what Orlando Pride is all about.”