When the news came on Monday that Houston and Randy Waldrum had parted ways, it felt like a logical move. The calls for his dismissal had grown louder (including a long Twitter rant from yours truly last week), and it was increasingly hard to see a path forward for the team under Waldrum.
The question now is whether any of the other NWSL stragglers might soon find themselves in the same position. And the name that tends to dominate those conversations is Tom Sermanni. Like Houston, Orlando is an expansion team. And like Waldrum, Sermanni is a highly regarded coach who will probably get some cushion. That said, it’s hard to imagine Orlando giving him the same kind of extended leash that was handed to Waldrum. They did not sign Marta in order to have her languish at the bottom of the league all season.
At the moment, Orlando sit in 8th place with six points from seven games. That is not good, but in a league with this sort of parity, it also means they’re only a couple strong results away from being back in the thick of the playoff race. So while you never want to ignore the table, the question is less about results per se and more: “are they making progress?”
And on that front, my answer is a (tentative) yes. Orlando haven’t fixed their problems, but they do seem to be moving in the right direction.
In order to make that case, I want to first diagnose what I see as Orlando three main weaknesses, in order to clarify how they’re trying to resolve these problems.
The midfield (or lack thereof)
This is, by far, the biggest problem for Orlando – something that was readily apparent before the season started, and which remains just as clear today. The Pride have plenty of useful players in the midfield–who can pass the ball reasonably well, who are somewhat mobile, with some decent defensive skill. But there aren’t really any standouts.
At times, Camila has looked like an exception—willing to take on defenders, and demonstrating some flashes of brilliance. But she is also prone to mistakes and doesn’t really have the cool, calm sort of ball control needed to keep the engine humming. And Kristen Edmonds was excellent in 2016 but was probably playing at her peak then, so it is no surprise to see her drift back into merely being a solid contributor. Combine these with Maddy Evans, Dani Weatherholt, and Monica, and you have a nice set of complementary parts but no one to tie it all together.
This isn’t necessary a death knell. It’s possible to cobble together a workable midfield from less, but it takes some real doing. And it’s a problem Orlando hasn’t solved yet.
On the whole, finishing tends to even out. Create enough chances, and the goals will follow. It can be frustrating to watch a team unable to convert, but over the long haul, if you’re giving your strikers opportunities, the results will follow. But Orlando are really putting that maxim to the test this year. We don’t have the sort of advanced statistics necessary to really compare teams, but my gut tells me that Orlando has one of the worst Goals vs. Expected Goals ratios in the league. The chances have been there; the finishing has not.
It’s possible that’s simply bad luck. But it’s also possible that it’s a problem of roster construction. After all, look at the teamsheet and you’ll find a group of forwards with immense skill and physical ability, who nevertheless haven’t been able to really make it stick at this level. Chioma Ubogagu, Jasmyne Spencer, Jamia Fields, Danica Evans … this is a Who’s Who of talented players who haven’t quite been able to put it all together yet.
You can’t help but wonder, therefore, whether Orlando might be in much better position if Alex Morgan hadn’t spent the last two months in France. Turn just a couple of those frustrating misses into goals, and Orlando could easily be sitting on 10 or 11 points and the season would feel a lot different.
Going into the year, the backline was supposed to be Orlando’s greatest strength. Filled with top level internationals like Steph Catley, Alanna Kennedy, Ali Krieger, and Laura Alleway, this was expected to be the foundation stone upon which the team could build. But so far, it’s looked anything but solid. Orlando has yet to produce a clean sheet and has conceded 11 goals. Only Houston and Washington have let in more.
Stalwart defenders like Krieger and Alleway have looked shaky at times. Kennedy sometimes appears stuck in second gear. And even Catley—one of the world’s best fullbacks—has been below her normal level. In fact, their best defender so far has probably been Toni Pressley—who wasn’t even penciled in as a starter two months ago.
Addressing the weaknesses, or: Why on earth are they playing a 4-3-3?
These problems are real – especially the first two – and they are why I never really bought the idea that Orlando was a playoff challenger going into the season.
Still, every team in the league has weaknesses. The question is how they manage them. And this is where the questions about Sermanni really come to a head. Because he seems to be, somewhat inexplicably, committed to playing an attacking 4-3-3.
The exact composition has shifted a lot, but the preferred midfield trio seems to be Monica, Edmonds, and Camila. In the attack, things have been even more fluid, with the only constant presence being Marta. But their talisman has been shifted all across the frontline, playing everything from inside forward to winger to central striker to a traditional Number 10 role. You get the sense, actually, that Sermanni is just giving everything a try, hoping to figure out which role will give Marta the greatest chance to influence games and to figure out which players serve as the most useful complements to their new star.
But this can feel at times like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. No matter how you set up Marta, there are structural limits to what they can get out of a 4-3-3, with this sort of personnel. Given the intrinsic weakness of the midfield, it feels borderline malpractice to set them up with a numerical deficiency like this. Time after time, Orlando has struggled to keep a grip on the game, while teams with four and five players in the midfield have swarmed them defensively and run right through them in the attack.
And losing the battle in the middle of the pitch has knock-on effects everywhere else. Indeed, if you want an explanation for Orlando’s defensive woes, this is the first place to look. I tweeted a couple examples of the problem last week:
Why has Orlando's defense been having so many problems this year? It's really inexplicable! pic.twitter.com/odFOqLapik
— Charles Olney (@olneyce) May 22, 2017
Truly baffling what could be leading to all this pressure on the Orlando backline pic.twitter.com/6h3ihxgV5q
— Charles Olney (@olneyce) May 22, 2017
Defense is a team effort. The pocket of space between the back four and the midfield is arguably the single most important zone on the pitch. Good attackers make their living by moving in and out of that space. If the defense stays put, you are free to operate at will. If they come out, it creates holes into which your teammates can move. Good defensive teams are good because they manage this space well. And with Orlando’s 4-3-3, they simply haven’t been able to do that this year.
Sky Blue 2 – 1 Orlando: Another frustrating result
We saw all this playing out again this week, as Orlando suffered another frustrating defeat away at Sky Blue. Watch Sky Blue’s first goal, for example, and it’s clear that it stems from a lack of numbers in the midfield. A poor touch sends the ball loose and neither Edmonds nor Camila have the requisite skill or strength to recover it. Then, once the ball is lost, there’s no support behind them, and Sky Blue has numbers in transition. Just a few seconds later, the ball is in the net and Orlando’s lead is gone.
Or: watch from 37:00 to about 38:15, and you’ll see Orlando’s defenders calmly passing the ball back and forth with their keeper while Sky Blue sits and watches. It’s almost a caricature of soccer (as in the classic Simpsons episode). Literally nothing happens because Orlando’s midfielders runners … well … aren’t, and there’s nowhere for the ball to go. It’s a stagnant offense and Sky Blue is justifiably willing to let them pass it horizontally.
So there are still real problems here.
Signs of life, or: Maybe the 4-3-3 can work after all?
However, for all that the 4-3-3 feels like an error, there are ways to compensate.
Your best hope is to develop a support structure that links together the midfield with the attacking trio. For example, as I wrote when discussing Houston a few weeks ago, the 4-3-3 is a very close cousin of the 4-2-3-1, when your wingers drop into the midfield without the ball, the transition can be almost seamless. Alternatively, if your central striker is a good playmaker, she can drop into the midfield and create a de facto 4-4-2 diamond. This is something that you see a lot from Christine Sinclair, who lets her flanking strikers pinch in as she drops back to receive the ball, giving her excellent angles to distribute the ball sideways to the overlapping fullbacks.
The problem for Orlando has been a lack of clarity on how they’re trying to compensate. But increasingly it seems that the most effective setup is to deploy Marta centrally, allowing her the freedom to roam in the empty expanses of the middle of the pitch. Rather than looking to work a bunch of clever midfield triangles, Orlando seems to be moving toward a version of the 4-3-3 that more closely resembles a coiled spring. Hold the ball patiently at the back, work it to the sides, and then pounce when the opportunity arises.
It’s by no means ticking along perfectly yet, but this is a viable model for the Pride. And it represents a somewhat clever inversion of the conventional wisdom. As I said, when I looked at this team in the first month of the season, it seemed crazy to stick with a midfield three when this was already a point of weakness. It was doubling down on a problem.
But in a certain sense, it actually makes a lot of sense. Orlando simply isn’t going to win a pitched midfield battle, no matter how they set themselves up. So rather than tilting at windmills, they’re looking to capitalize on their great comparative advantage: Marta. Yes, she’s not (quite) as good as she was five or six years ago. But she is still one of the best players in the world and is particularly good at holding the ball under pressure, wriggling out from double and triple teams, splitting defenses, and picking out open teammates on the run.
In this iteration of Orlando’s 4-3-3, she’s finally been given the freedom to play that role to the hilt. The goal is now quite simple: get Marta the ball 40-50 yards out, force the defense to converge on her, and let the rest of the attack build out from there. This setup lets the midfield hang further back, and provide a bit more defensive cover while trusting the fullbacks to shoulder more of the burden in linking play going forward.
And if you go back to that section I mentioned above, from the 38th minute, where Orlando shuffled the ball around aimlessly with no outlets, you can see precisely how this is all supposed to work. Because yes, that minute was terrible, but look what happens right after. At 38:19, Krieger plays a long ball forward, which draws Freeman out from the Sky Blue backline. When the ball falls in behind her, Freeman’s step forward creates space for Marta to move into. She takes the ball, evades a tackle, and crashes into the box. A nice recovery from Killion snuffs out the attack before she can shoot, but the movement here is a good sign.
Sermanni has a plan – it’s worth giving him time to see it out
Orlando remains very much a work in progress. And the glimmers of hope I have discussed here are just that: glimmers. Things may very well not work out. Orlando has a lot of talent on their roster, but so does every team in the league. Even if they play reasonably well going forward, they could easily still end up finishing 7th or 8th. But the crucial difference between Orlando and Houston is that the Pride can tell a coherent story about how they are improving and what success will look like.
Ultimately, it wasn’t the results per se that necessitated Waldrum’s dismissal. It was the realization that the team was at best just treading water. For whatever reason, Waldrum wasn’t able to acknowledge and/or address the clear shortcomings of his team. The same does not appear to be true for Sermanni. His approach won’t succeed. But he does have an approach. And in my opinion, he deserves the time to see it through.