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The Orlando Pride off-season has been anything but conventional. The team made the most out of a third-round pick, while trading away popular mainstays like Steph Catley and Jasmyne Spencer to add additional pieces. The team also bypassed the Boston Breakers dispersal draft to bring Sydney Leroux to town—all while they once again dealt away their 2019 draft picks. We spoke with Coach Tom Sermanni shortly after the Leroux trade was announced to catch up on all the goings-on with Orlando.

Backline: Tom, you started your offseason by heading overseas to the UK. Can you talk a little bit about what your intent was when you went over there?

Tom Sermanni: It was a couple of things. We don’t always get a chance to see live other leagues in the world and see what’s happening, what the standards are like—what the quality of the soccer is like, and what the style of the soccer is like. So part of it was an observation on the game in England, and the second thing was to look at players. Look and see if some player caught the eye or may be below the radar. A little bit of scouting involved in it, and a little bit of information-gathering.

BS: How would you compare the style of play in the FA WSL to the NWSL?

TS: I think our league is far more robust, physical, quick, and competitive. The English league, I was quite impressed with the style of soccer some of the teams try to play. The tempo was different and slower than the tempo that we play at. The only kind of exception I saw to that was when I saw Chelsea against Rosengård in the Champions League, and that was a real proper NWSL-type game. The teams, the organization is good. The players are much more aware of their job, much more disciplined, and generally the standard, I think across the board in the women’s game, continues to increase. I think the edge we’ve got here is there’s such a competitiveness in our league that you don’t get in other leagues at this stage.

BS: So in the trip to the UK, were you seriously considering a specific player there, or was it more a matter of gathering a list of names to consider in the future?

TS: Yeah, it’s probably more of that. I thought it would be a long shot to go there and get somebody and have them back for this season. Simply because contractually, those players are tied up to at least the end of the season, which is in June, and you’re not going to get them out of their contracts early in most occasions. Secondly, the kind of player we are looking at and want to bring here are obviously the better players, so they are in even more demand. It was more gathering information, and also having a look at players that become available and [we] could be interested in.

BS: You ended up traveling down to Australia for quite a bit of time to the W-league. Can you talk a little bit about the time you spent down there?

TS: Part of it was to see my wife, because my wife is living and working down in Australia. And again, it was also partly to look around the league and see what’s out there, what players are coming through, because in reality, I’ve been away from Australia now for six years. So you lose touch with the base of knowledge I naturally had there when I was the coach. It was good just to go back there to see some of the players that may be coming through the system, but weren’t around when I was there. I think it was great to catch up with our players. You know if you’re a player and you’re playing away, halfway around the world, it’s always handy to see a friendly face. So it was good to catch up with our [Orlando] players, as well. And again, part of it was to see how the league is going, what the standards are like.

BS: You obviously had a hand in the formation of the W-league. How would you describe the play now versus when it first started?

TS: I think there’s been significant progress made in a lot of areas. I think the playing level has gotten better. I think part of that is because of the relationship between the NWSL and the W-League. There’s probably 20 to 25 NWSL players down there, and what’s happening, over the last three or four years is that the teams down there, like all teams, learn from their mistakes. Teams down there have got their scouting of the NWSL players to a very good level now, so they’ve got some consistency and continuity bringing those players down there, and those have helped raise the standards in the league.

Coming from what I see now, one of the big advantages was to give the domestic players a chance to play in a national competition, and we’re seeing more and more young players getting opportunities to play at a senior level, and that’s continuing to develop the league. Basically, when we started, apart from national team players that were under contract, players weren’t getting paid to play in the league. There’s now a salary cap. There’s now a minimum wage. The minimum wage at the moment is 10,000 AUD [Ed. note: roughly $7,930], and that’s going up next year—which is great when you consider the number of younger players in there, and the fact that you only play 14 games. They’ve got a players’ agreement in there now [Ed. note: Tom is referring to the CBA struck between the players’ union and the league ahead of the 2017-2018 season] which is a huge step forward.

A third thing which is interesting is the number of double-headers with the men’s teams. The women’s game is on first, and literally as soon as the final whistle goes in the women’s game, the men’s teams are on to do the warm-up, get ready, and start their game. When we started the league, if we wanted a double-header, the A-league teams wanted the game to finish two hours before the A-league game started, so there was no point in a double-header. Now, it’s two games back-to-back. That’s a huge step forward, and also means that W-league teams are playing in very good stadiums almost every week.

There’s still a ways, resources are tight, there’s not a lot of money in the league, but when you step back to look to where we started it, and those days ten years ago, they’ve stepped on quite significantly.

BS: Would you say that the W-League style is similar to the NWSL, or is it its own style?

TS: No, it’s a bit more of its own style. It’s not quite as direct. It’s not as fast. Teams will tend to play a little bit more build-up kind of play. So the style is a little bit different.

BS: Let’s change gears and touch a little bit on the draft. You drafted Nadia Gomes. She’s has a lot of pace, is able to play a couple of different spots on the pitch. Are you keen to put her in the back, or are you wanting to see how she is in camp before you make any kind of decision?

TS: We don’t have any preconceptions about where we see her play, to be honest. We just like the qualities that we saw. We thought Nadia would go a lot earlier than when she did, so we didn’t have much hope of getting her. That was a pleasant surprise that she was still there. I think she’s got, from what we’ve seen in her video, the type of qualities that will fit in well with our team and also fit in well with the NWSL. And that is that flexibility, we feel she’ll end up playing several positions. We feel she’s got the pace and ability to cope in this league. That’s very important in the next competition, and she’s got the added advantage of being left-sided. She’s got a lot of promise and a lot of things we liked about her.

BS: Let’s talk a little bit about Boston. The club didn’t spend a lot of time on Breaker players for the dispersal draft. At what point did you make the decision to trade away your spots in that draft?

TS: I think it was about five minutes before the deadline (laughter). No, no. It just came about with some other pieces. With having to pick eighth and 11th, we weren’t quite sure what players we were going to get, and where players were going to get picked. We had been negotiating to bring Syd Leroux here, and that was one of the pieces we wanted to finalize. So trading those spots from Boston gave us that ability to make that trade, and we felt that was more important for us and the team we’re putting together. We’re really happy with the core of the team that we’ve got, and we just wanted to add a couple of players. So it made sense to get a deal done that we wanted to get done as opposed to go through the luxury of the Boston players we may have wanted.

BS: Let’s talk a little bit more on Sydney Leroux. How do you think she improves the squad overall?

TS: She’s a quality player first and foremost. What I think she brings to the team is that extra physical presence that I think we lacked a wee bit. We find is that it is a very physical league, and I think a lot of time last year, we felt we were playing in games, and we were the better side, and played the better soccer—but some of those times, we were muscled out a bit, and so I think what Syd brings is a physical presence that compliments what we’ve got vying for those positions. I think she’s coming into the prime of her career. I think she’s got an extra incentive now with having a little one. She’s now no longer an allocated national team player, so she’s got an added incentive of trying to get back to the national team.

Her and Alex have played a long time together and have a great relationship and partnership both on the field and off the field, and then you put Marta into that mix, and you’ve got a really highly potent strike force. I think just her personality around the team, around the squad, and in the town and in the community is another big attribute.

BS: You mention allocated players. Going back to the January camp for the national team, were you surprised that Ali Krieger didn’t get called, or do you have a comment on that?

TS: I mean, I’m disappointed for Ali because she had an outstanding season for us last year. Arguably our most consistent player, played every minute of every game, so I’m disappointed for Ali.

I don’t like to make comments on selections because I know what it’s like as a coach. You have to pick players, and sometimes you pick players, and sometimes you don’t. It’s not appropriate for me to comment on players other coaches select, whether that’s on the national team or whether it’s players Rory starts in Chicago or Laura at [Utah] or wherever.

So from our perspective, we’re obviously disappointed for Ali, but she’s a great professional, a great player for our team, and you never know, things can change in soccer. I’m confident that she’ll have another stellar season, and perhaps another opportunity in the national team.

BS: Now, is there any concern in the club from an allocation status perspective—that with fewer allocated players, you might be running up against the salary cap?

TS: Yes (laughter). I mean, it’s a really difficult job, you know, getting below the salary cap when suddenly this happens. The minimum wage goes up—as it should—and then we had a successful year last year, so you have to try and reward players, particularly ones that are on lower contracts, and then suddenly you get hit with this. I don’t know about other clubs, so I can only speak for our club, but it’s very hard to manage under the salary cap.

I think another thing the salary cap potentially does is put the league at a disadvantage, because it’s hard to compete out there in this market for the quality players. The women’s game is different than the men’s game, because we are competing with the best leagues in the world and trying to get the best players in the world here. Trying to do that with the salary cap is a challenge.

BS: Is there anything that you can share about the players not under contract—Alanna Kennedy and Chioma Ubogagu?

TS: We’re very close to concluding contracts with them, and we’re confident both of them will be with the team at the start of the season [Ed. note: the club confirmed that Carson Pickett, who Orlando acquired from Seattle in January, is under contract].

BS: Let’s talk a little bit about Rachel Hill. How do you think she’s developed over in the W-League? With the addition of Syd, tactically, where would you say Rachel will be playing? Perhaps in the midfield, taking up the role Camila did for the team last year?

TS: I think she’s a different player to Camila. I think Rachel will be someone who can play in a wider role. I think she can play anywhere across that front line, and she can probably play in a slightly more defensive position in a wide area. I don’t see her as a center-of-the-park type of player in midfield. Camila is a little bit different because apart from center back and goalkeeper, Camila can play anywhere. She’s a different type of player from Rachel. I think we just want to see her continue to develop. Like any squad, the aim of the squad is to continually get stronger and stronger, which means there’s more competition in the squad, better quality in the squad, and obviously with the signings, we’ve done that.

BS: So with the players you have and the pieces you’ve added, do you anticipate a tactical change in formation or do you feel you can keep the shape that you had?

TS: We have completely open thoughts on that. As a coach, I don’t say, “we play 4-3-3,” and set the players in that system, or “we play 4-4-2.” What we want to do is take the strengths that we’ve got and have flexibility about whether we play a 4-4-2, or three center backs, or whatever. So we really have an open mind, and probably find is that something organically will happen that will decide how we play, and it could be during the season.

BS: Going into the season, obviously, you made the playoffs last year, and the plan is always going to be to at least equal the result that you did for the season. As part of the goals for the season, will you perhaps include finally beating Portland?

TS: (Laughter) That’s a great point! That’s something we want to do. We kind of want to get that monkey off our backs. I think all of our games with Portland have been tight games. When I look back at that very first inaugural game [in 2016], where we lost 2-1 to Portland, it was a game I felt we probably should have won, to be honest, but what we haven’t been able to do to Portland is actually get in front—we’ve always been chasing the game, and hopefully that will change because I think they’re the only team we haven’t had a positive result against [Ed. note: Orlando took a point from Portland at home last year]. So the answer is yes, we do want to beat them.

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We wish Coach Sermanni the best of luck as his team comes together. Orlando added Brazilian defender Poliana to the team this week, and as Sermanni continues looking to improve his side, keep an eye out for further offseason moves from the team.

Image courtesy of Leanne Keator