Orlando Pride defender Phoebe McClernon stands out at centerback in first NWSL season

·4 min read

As the only Orlando Pride defender to start the first five matches of 2021, first-year centerback Phoebe McClernon is quickly becoming a consistent staple of the team’s backline.

For coach Marc Skinner, McClernon’s early success is a welcome payoff from an investment made last year.

After being selected in the second round of the 2020 draft, McClernon didn’t play a single minute for the Pride in 2020, going to Sweden on loan to play as many minutes as possible after the Pride’s withdrawal from the Challenge Cup.

Yet despite only seeing her play in training and on film, Skinner still chose to protect her along with 11 other players in the 2020 expansion draft. Even then, Skinner said he knew McClernon could succeed in the NWSL.

“She’s super competitive,” Skinner said. “She knows who she is. She’s authentic. When you have that, when you step into an arena where you have to make decisions, you are able to kind of sit in your own head with that. ... I’ve seen so many brilliant players not be able to take the pressure on, and she can take the pressure.”

Even in her first match of the year against Louisville, McClernon showed a tangible eagerness to handle the ball while attacking high presses.

For the Pride, this is a welcome change from past seasons of defensive timidity. For McClernon, it’s just a natural way of playing.

“I think I always like to have the ball at my feet,” McClernon said. “I’m a little bit of a control freak. I’m also fairly proficient with the ball at my feet and I’m happy to take on players.”

Like many rookies, McClernon faced a challenging introduction to the league in her NWSL debut. Louisville exploited spacing between McClernon and fellow rookie Konya Plummer, leaving the rookies to scramble after CeCe Kizer as she sprinted to slot home the opening goal in the 12th minute of the match.

But McClernon’s positioning and pacing has improved incrementally from game to game. After the four games of the Challenge Cup, the defender said she’s become more vocal on the pitch.

“The more I talk, the more I’m communicating with everybody across the back line, the more confidence I have,” McClernon said. “That gives us a little more freedom when we know that we’re all covering for each other and we’re all in the right positions and organized.”

Communication is particularly natural between McClernon and outside back Courtney Petersen, who was previously her teammate at the University of Virginia.

The pair played side-by-side as a centerback and left back for the first time at the professional level on Sunday against Washington. McClernon said the duo fits well together — Petersen thrives in an attacking role while McClernon feels comfortable filling in to cover for her.

“I love playing with Court,” McClernon said. “She’s just one of those players that’s never gonna give up on the ball; she’s never gonna stop working hard. She has a cast on her arm; the girl can play through pretty much anything.”

The Challenge Cup gave McClernon a chance to grow into the league. With her confidence now bolstered, Skinner said he feels secure with the rookie in the centerback position, holding down the heart of the backline.

But the coach feels McClernon still has plenty to learn. Although some of this instruction will come from Skinner, he said the most important information will be passed on from veteran teammates such as Ali Krieger and Ali Riley, who have been invaluable in molding young defenders.

“Now I challenge her to be the best young center half in this league,” Skinner said. “That has to come through consistency of message, consistency of decision-making and working alongside the people around you. You can’t just be the best defender on your own.”

After waiting over a year to make her NWSL debut, McClernon said she was hit with a wave of emotion when she stepped out onto the pitch at Exploria Stadium for the first regular-season game last weekend.

The past year was filled with uncertainty for the defender — she went to Sweden still unsigned by the Pride, taking a risk while traveling to a completely foreign country with the hopes of earning a spot on the roster.

On Sunday, the defender said she was struck by how quickly she achieved the goals she set ahead of that loan period last year.

“It was all just really surreal,” McClernon said. “I didn’t really get my rookie season last year because of COVID and everything. So to come back, get the start in our regular-season home opener and also have an assist was really just a lot of validation for me.”

This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Julia Poe at jpoe@orlandosentinel.com.

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