When the Orlando Pride were announced in the team’s introductory press conference by the fountain of Lake Eola which is the basis for the team logo, Tom Sermanni was named the first head coach in team history. Since being appointed as gaffer he’s gone on to a 25-26-14 overall record. His tactical vision was able to turn a struggling squad year one into a playoff contender by year two. Granted, the front office was able to sign Marta–one of the greatest players in the game–and her inclusion sparked a potent attack, along with the return of Alex Morgan from an overseas stint in France.
Fast forward to year three of the club’s existence: the path to the playoffs is a bit bumpier, and the offense averaging 1.38 goals per game down from 1.89 the team produced last season. The impatient fan base has started to wonder if Sermanni, who earned a contract extension last season, is the right person to lead the team. Concerns have been raised about tactics, substitutions, and motivation of players down the final stretch of the season.
Recent poor home showings against last place Sky Blue FC and the Portland Thorns have turned the final four matches of the season into must win affairs. But while these performances weren’t great, it is a little too easy to put the blame for disappointing results on the coach. American fan culture tends to focus on national team players and big name internationals, with some super fans who focus most of their attention on a specific player rather than her team. In this ecosystem, complaints about coaches are common, but few ever put the blame on the players.
Addressing this idea, Sermanni commented, “I know that we’ve got a whole lot of perceived star players, but to be honest, the second half was abysmal in every regard. I’m lost…Our lack of willingness to actually just simply defend is just so poor. And then we go in their malaise where nobody seems to be able to get the team, pick them up and get us back in the game. To be honest, for most of that second-half performance, I apologize to the crowd for coming and keep supporting us because our team on the field didn’t deserve that support in the second half. It was extremely poor.”
Yes, the gaffer is ultimately responsible for results, but we shouldn’t let that absolve players from accountability for mental mistakes and loss of focus. When the players follow the direction of Sermanni and stick with the plan, the team is successful. As team captain Ashlyn Harris said after the Thorns match: “I think the first half we were really committed to the game plan and our commitment to go forward and our commitment to defend was some of the best that I’d ever seen. Unfortunate part about the game is, if you don’t produce and you don’t put chances away, this is what happens. We had them by the throat probably the first 10 minutes and we just didn’t capitalize and as we let the game wear on and wear on and wear on, the momentum clearly shifts. We had one lack of concentration and it cost us the game. We just mentally crumbled.”
The major problem for the Pride this campaign has been lack of consistency more than any true structural issue. In Sermanni’s words, “I would love to be able to say it’s this, or it’s this, or it’s this, it’s either individual lapses where we suddenly get caught out, it’s ball watching when we’ve got the ball and then suddenly we get caught on the counter attacks, or we’re dominating games and we’re just not ruthless enough to put chances away.”
He continued his message a different match, “Déjà I’m saying similar things every week. We started out terrific first 15, 20 minutes, probably searching into the first 30 minutes. I thought we dictated the game, the tempo was good, our attacking was good, movement was good. But then we don’t score. You dominate and dominate in games and you don’t score.”
Frustration and pressure continue to mount for the Pride, and Sermanni has to bear some responsibility. The question is why the players are unable to consistently meet expectations. With calls for his dismissal floating out there right alongside #InTomWeTrust, there’s clearly a lot of theories. But it’s too simplistic to put it all back on the coach. He’s not on the pitch kicking the ball around or defending the opposing team’s striker. He comes up with the game plan and picks the best players to execute this for 90 minutes. But at the end of the day, the players themselves have to go out and earn the results.