The inaugural season for the Orlando Pride didn’t go according to plan. Attempting to piggyback on the club’s MLS team slogan of Defy Expectations, the Pride had a stated objective of reaching the playoffs in its first year in existence. Getting a big name talent was only one piece of the plan; Orlando City diligently strives to treat the Pride as equals to its first team. The team started out respectable enough, with big name signings, but with the departure of national team players for the Olympics in Rio, the lack of depth on the roster was exposed. The expansion team failed to win another match after mid-July, and finished in ninth place on the table, just above Boston. It was apparent at the end of the expansion team’s inaugural season that there was much to be done going into 2017 to improve the squad. Head coach Tom Sermanni and the Orlando front office have diligently worked on deals this off-season, even though the team has very few assets to barter with in the drag left by the export of resources in order to secure the famous Alex Morgan trade. Betting heavily on these off-season transactions, the Pride traded away Sam Witteman to North Carolina Courage and currently dealt away the remaining 2018 draft picks. Subsequently, Orlando is “all in” for the historic fifth NWSL season, and their second.
The team began the off-season by trading for Ali Krieger to shore up the defense, sending the Washington Spirit what amounted to a pack of gum. Seriously, before the trade, most fans would not have known about NWSL’s distribution rank order or the fact that Orlando was second on the list and the Spirit moved up to take that spot. On the day the trade took place Washington had nothing to show for getting rid of its team captain. But the biggest movement, and perhaps the most challenging, was Alex Morgan’s decision to head to France for the first part of the NWSL season; she isn’t expected to be back until June. Orlando tried to make the most of the transactions it managed to complete, but is it going to be enough to rise up the standings, and push into the playoffs in year two? How will the team line up during the season?
Let’s break down the Pride in its sophomore season. But, keep in mind, as of this writing, the final roster hasn’t been announced.
Going into the 2017 season, goalkeeping looks to be stable. Ashlyn Harris will once again command the defense in front of her. She’ll be looking to improve her 1.33 goals against per game with the Pride’s revamped defensive line. Backup keeper, Aubrey Bledsoe looks like she’s made a full recovery from breaking a leg which prematurely ended her season last year. If the back line can relieve some of the pressure that allowed 112 shots on goal last year, it will be a better year for the Harris who is motivated to prove for club and country that she is the best keeper. Keeping herself fit and injury-free should be a priority as last year the rough style of coaching from Marcos Machado (who coached women for the first time last season) was rough on both keepers. The Pride decided to make a change both keepers seem to have benefited from with new Pride Goalkeeper coach, Lloyd Yaxley, who used to coach Harris when she was a member of the Washington Spirit.
The focus of the off-season was a major upgrade to the defensive line which had been ravaged by a combination of international duty absences, injuries, and overall lack of cohesiveness. Added to the Pride were U.S. women’s national team player, Ali Krieger, and Brazilian international Camila. Australian international Alanna Kennedy also joined the team, reuniting with fellow Matildas Steph Catley and Laura Alleway.
These additions join returning players like Cami Levin, Toni Pressley, and Monica. Sermanni appears hopeful the back line will become a strength with so many talented players available since the lack of international tournaments outside of the Euro minimize player absences. He’s also spoken of the benefit of having players with ties together translating on the pitch. The Pride appear to have found the solution to its porous defense.
Last season, Coach Sermanni tinkered with the three-back formation but determined he didn’t have the players to execute it properly. This preseason the Pride have spent an extensive amount of time with a three back system. The key to a successful three back formation requires tall, strong players who are great in 1v1 situations and can stay compact. With so many skilled defenders, Sermanni will need to shift some players into the midfield to have as much talent out on the pitch while supplementing the lack of depth in the midfield roster. Look for Krieger to anchor the line as Kennedy and Alleway flank her left and right sides respectively. The versatility of Catley and Camila will allow them to play out wide, while still able to track back and defend if need be.
On paper, the midfield appears to be an area of concern, with less than a handful of players officially on the roster. Fan-favorite Kaylyn Kyle was released once the Canadian Federation chose not to maintain her allocated status. Breakout-player Kristen Edmonds returns having been able to translate last season’s strong performance into a couple of national team camp call-ups. Maddy Evans spent the off-season playing in the W-league with the Brisbane Roar, and it seems the time on the pitch there has developed her game. Her overall physical conditioning, passing, and defensive play in the preseason have illustrated what spending extra hours on the pitch can do. Dani Weatherholt’s development in the off-season, including her time with the U-23 team, has impressed the coaches during preseason. Weatherholt continues to prove that she is the fittest player on the roster, winning the beep test this year reaching level 53 which, combined with her improved focus on her hold up play, should get her more minutes than the 786 from last season.
Orlando looked to reinforced the midfield by drafting Nickolette Driesse in the fourth round of the draft. While Evans and Weatherholt are more defensive-minded, Driesse will look to go forward more to create scoring opportunities with the team’s forwards. But the lack of depth in the midfield could quickly be cause for alarm if the team fails to stay healthy. The team may continue to look to add depth as the season goes by.
The competition for playing time in the midfield is going to be a challenge as Sermanni adds defenders into that portion of the pitch. Someone on the roster will need to step up as the play-maker who can get the ball forward to the strikers. Driesse displayed the type of passing skill Sermanni is hoping will translate to the pro game, but as an unproven rookie that’s still a question mark going into the season.
The issues with the Pride last season were two-fold: they couldn’t keep goals out of their net, and they couldn’t get goals into the opponent’s. Alex Morgan who isn’t going to be with the team until the summer, took 44 shots last season, 20 on goal, and converted four for goals. Proving how anemic the Orlando attack was in 2016, the team’s leading scorer last season was midfielder Kristen Edmonds with six goals. Sermanni played Edmonds in multiple positions on the pitch, finally settling for the midfield where her strength from free kicks allowed her to find the back of the net even when the Pride struggled to provide service to the forwards. The Pride are bringing back Jasmyne Spencer, Christina Burkenroad, and Jamia Fields. Spencer returns after a loan to Canberra United in the off-season. She is at full health after suffering a lower leg injury during the W-league season. Look for her to contribute this season with at least four goals like she did last season. I expect the Pride will be searching for the combination of strikers who can provide goals, with Spencer I believe her role would be better suited off the bench and run at tired defenders late in the match. Burkenroad has looked a step faster than her rookie season, and if she can maintain her fitness her role will expand from the seven appearances she made last year. The expectation for Fields is to contribute more.
Additionally, the Pride acted on their search for more goal scorers by drafting Danica Evans (Colorado Buffalos) in the third round. Evans scored 11 goals in her senior season and notched six assists. The team also acquired the rights to Rachel Hill from Portland after the draft; however, the UConn Huskies star will not join the team until after she finishes with school this summer. The most under the radar move of the Pride off-season has been the trade of Chioma Ubogagu from the Houston Dash for a 2018 third round pick. Her addition to the roster went through with very little fanfare; however, Ubogagu has put some time in the gym which added more muscle to her frame and has scored in each of the preseason matches so far. Her addition to the squad should help make up for the absence of Morgan, and she could become a mainstay on Sermanni’s starting XI come gameday. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict Ubogagu scores double digit goals.
THE MARTA FACTOR
On April 7th, the Orlando Pride made the biggest signing in NWSL history bringing to the City Beautiful five-time Women’s World Player of the Year, Marta. How will her signing affect the Pride in 2017? I’ve always felt the Pride would be a better team who could fight into the playoff picture this year. Marta has yet to even practice with her new teammates, so right away there are questions on team chemistry and where she’ll be slotted into the formation, coming onto the team listed as a forward. But as Coach Sermanni stated in a team video from Twitter, “It’s really a question about just making the best use of her as we possibly can, and using her skills the best way we can.”
Last year, one of the challenges for the Pride was creating service opportunities for Alex Morgan and the other forwards on top. Because of this, I feel Marta would be better suited in the midfield as the central attack behind two forwards. She would be the creative playmaker that runs the offense, and Marta is able to create her own shot. The defensive players would have to play closer to her, so there could be more room for the forwards to work, as well as the outside wingers. But if they can manage this? Orlando has some serious post-season potential this year.
With the U.S. women’s national team prominently playing with a three-back formation, some have wondered if any coaches in the league would attempt to use it this year. In each of the four preseason matches Orlando has played so far, the team began with a three-back line either in a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 formation. A three back system has to stay compact to be successful. However, there were times when the Pride would shift to a more conventional four-back system and either utilize a lone striker or have a pair of forwards on top. Expect the Pride to play compact in the back while working the ball out wide before putting pressure around the 18. The test will be when an opponent high presses the Pride, and we can see how the revamped defense handles when there’s a turnover in the defensive third. The backline will need to stay compact and have the wingers come back to help on defense when called upon giving Orlando a five-person line at times then when the danger is taken care of shift forward to keep numbers in the midfield. So far in preseason, the team has been able to pull it off against college teams. Ball distribution from the back from Harris or Kennedy will allow the fast pace style of play Sermanni wants the team to execute.
Look for the Pride to improve from its ninth-place finish last year. The team has chosen to once again gamble the future and focus on the now by trading all its picks for the 2018 draft. The front office doesn’t shy away from making deals, and for Coach Sermanni there is added pressure to get results. However, that being said, I still don’t feel like Coach Sermanni will be in the hot seat even with the front office approach. I expect that to change for year three based on this year’s results. The relationships he’s been able to create with players make Orlando an attractive option. Players want to play for him again, just look at the willingness of the Australians to come to Florida to be reunited with the former Matildas gaffer. The ownership ties to Brazil also opens the door to those national team players. More players from the inaugural roster will be let go to make room for upgrades and a better quality squad. Out of respect to the players, I’m not going to speculate on any possible cuts. With a bit of luck, this team can avoid the injury bug since there are still depth issues. More obviously in the midfield, but an injury in the back line could cause a formation change if the three back line can’t be maintained. The home crowd in the new stadium should create an advantage in Orlando, and with lessons learned from last season – such as an extra travel day to west coast matches and better management of vegan players dietary needs affecting performance – should improve results. Personally, I’m going to be optimistic and predict a fourth place finish and sneaking into the playoffs in year two. Here’s my crack at the opening day starting XI.
That’s how I see the Pride heading into the second season. Leave a comment to share your thoughts.
2017 Orlando Pride Roster
GOALKEEPERS (2): Aubrey Bledsoe, Ashlyn Harris (FED-USA)
DEFENDERS (8): Laura Alleway (INTL-AUS), Mackenzie Berryhill (SEI), Steph Catley (INTL-AUS), Monica Hickmann Alves (INTL-BRA), Alanna Kennedy (INTL-AUS), Ali Krieger (FED-USA), Cami Levin, Toni Pressley
MIDFIELDERS (5): Nickolette Driesse, Kristen Edmonds, Maddy Evans, Camila Martins Pereira (INTL-BRA), Dani Weatherholt,
FORWARDS (7): Christina Burkenroad, Danica Evans, Jamia Fields, Alex Morgan (FED-USA, OOM), Jasmyne Spencer, Chioma Ubogagu, Marta Vieira da Silva (INTL-BRA, OOM)