The Orlando Pride have consistently impressed off the field since joining the NWSL on October 20th last year as the second expansion team in league history. Saturday night, they will try and carry that on to the field in their inaugural home game at the Citrus Bowl. They will do so in front of an NWSL record crowd; as of Friday morning the Pride were only around 1100 tickets shy of breaking the record set by Portland last year (21,144).
Lining up at right back for Orlando will be Canadian international Josée Bélanger, who is no stranger to such large crowds. As a member of the host national women’s team at the Women’s World Cup last summer, Bélanger played in front of large, enthusiastic crowds throughout Canada’s run in the tournament. “I think it’s just great for women’s soccer to have this many people coming out to cheer for us, so obviously we want the crowd to be out there and really feeling that they’re a part of it,” said Bélanger by phone earlier today.
“I think every time we get that kind of crowd, it just creates that energy on the field, that momentum, it brings like a different energy to keep us going. I think it’s good; it’s our fans, so hopefully we can give them a good show and they come again to support us and really feel a part of it.”
Bélanger nearly retired from the game several years ago after missing out on the 2011
World Cup and 2012 Olympic with a severe ankle injury. In 2013, with a bit of convincing from Canada head coach John Herdman, she decided to continue on with the sport. She played in eleven games for the national team in 2014, was a fixture of the World Cup squad in 2015 and has already played in eight games this year.
Along the way, after time with Laval Comets, she spent the 2015 season in Sweden with FC Rosengård, nabbing Player of the Game awards twice in their UEFA Women’s Champions League run. This year, she decided to come play in the United States for a number of reasons, “For me, I was concerned about progressing towards the Olympics. I wanted to find a league that has a good physical level. I think at the international level that’s what is really important, so like the speed of the game, the speed of decisions, etc.
“So I thought that here in the US would be a good environment for me to continue to grow as a player, but also obviously because I am closer to Canada as we continue our preparations, so less time, less traveling.”
Bélanger also cites the opportunity to be a part of a big league like NWSL, helping to continue to grow the sport as well as the chance to inspire little kids who come to watch the games – she has coached youth soccer in the past as well.
Based on early evidence, there are few places better than Orlando to do all of this. Pride players have commented time and again on the level of support of the organization, something Bélanger confirms. Then, there is the fanbase, “That was pretty crazy to see the fans coming to greet us at the airport when we were going to Portland, and also when we were coming back from Portland even if we arrived late at night.
“So it’s incredible to feel that support that we have around us from the fans but also from the club, the owners, even from the men’s side. It’s like a big family and it’s great that we can feel that support around us.”
That front office and fan support is key to the medium to long-term growth of a team. In the near-term, expansion team success is all about the quality of player on the squad and how quickly twenty players, who were elsewhere last year, can be melded into a cohesive squad. “Well, I think through our first game in Portland we can say that we showed a pretty organized team, considering that was the first time that we played all together,” said Bélanger of the team’s road opener last week.
“It’s going in the right direction, but for sure this season it’s still early, and then we’ve gotta get those partnerships more strong, but I think we’ve been showing good things in the first game.”
Describing the challenge of pulling a group of players like this into a team over a short period of time, she said, “I think we’re all different players that come from different environments, we all have our views of how to play. I think it’s just to bring everything on the same page I think is the biggest challenge, because we all have different success with different ways to play, so I think it’s just to bring that common way so that we’re more familiar and we are more automatic on the field.”
Tomorrow night is the next step in the process of building a team. When Orlando takes the field, they will see a quality Houston Dash squad that has taken until their third season in the league to reach this point through commitment and patient roster building. The Pride start with more pieces and more overall support, even if this season is difficult at times, the future looks bright.
The game within the game
One of the intriguing match-ups on the night is that between Canada’s two current starting fullbacks, Bélanger and Allysha Chapman of the Houston Dash. With Chapman on the left side of the Dash defense and Bélanger on the right, the two will see quite a bit of one another.
Each spoke about the other today. Said Chapman of Bélanger, “She’s a very attacking fullback, so I know that we’ll be getting into some tackles this game and that should be fun.
“There will be no mercy on both sides, I’m sure,” Chapman said with a laugh. “I’m excited to play against Josée, she presents a good challenge and I know I’ll probably find myself against some 2 v 1’s in certain situations, but I’m up for the challenge.”
For her part, Bélanger said, “First of all, she’s really fast but also I think it’s that she’s a fighter, she’s gonna fight no matter what until the end for her team. She hates losing, so I guess that’s part of her desire is to give everything on the field. She’s physical, she’s fast and she’s gonna work hard for the entire game. For sure physicality is going to be a key for her, I think she can join the attack also, I think we’re going to have to be aware when she gives that overload on the wing. She has a left foot too.”
Playing the Dash
Asked about what the Pride see in the Dash that causes concern, Bélanger indicated Orlando was more focused on their own style of play than on what the Dash might do. “They have key players, so that’s for sure things we need to be careful of. But, I think at some point it’s how we want to play. So tomorrow for now it’s about us, how we’re building our team and then the way that we want to play, and then obviously we are taking care of those key players that can hurt us. We’re a new team, and we’re still building those partnerships on the field and the way that we want to play. Houston, they are a good team, but our priority now is to focus on us.”
Transition to fullback
Canada only began to experiment with Bélanger as a fullback at around the time of the World Cup last year. Prior to that, she has generally been a forward. Coming off of Olympic Qualifying, however, the French-Canadian is firmly entrenched as a starter at right back for Canada, which has carried over to how the Pride are using her.
In talking about what she likes about playing at the back, Bélanger says many of the same things that other forwards converted to fullbacks have said in the past – such as Ella Masar for the Dash last year. “I can receive the ball facing forward with time and space, more often than that I can either dribble or pass and join with an overlap and I can become again like a winger. So, I get to defend so that nothing can get through but also I have the possibility to join in the attack at the same time, so I think it’s the best of the two world.”
She impressed in her performances for Canada at Olympic Qualifying at the spot. As she continues to grow into the role with Orlando, it gives the Pride one of the best one-two punches at fullback in the league along with Steph Catley.