July 10th of last year may not seem like forever ago, but for Orlando Pride fans it probably feels like that right now.
That’s the date of the last Pride victory, a Week 12 home victory against the then-not-so-great Boston Breakers of 2016. Orlando’s current 11-match winless streak is tied for second all-time now with Seattle, and is only two matches away from meeting the 2013 Washington Spirit’s 13-match run of futility. However, based on a recent Orlando Sentinel story, Tom Sermanni is still pretty upbeat and not overly concerned whether he’ll be in the hot seat anytime soon.
But I believe the Pride’s inability to win is a problem that goes deeper than the tired excuse of new players getting comfortable in a different system or anything to do with Marta. Coach Sermanni has made some poor early decisions in his starting XI, a few of his in-game adjustments have been head scratching, and miscues and lack of execution have resulted what I would call a must-win situation in their Week Four match on the road at Children’s Mercy Victory Field against FC Kansas City, a team also looking for answers to their current woes.
Heading into the first match against Portland, I was fairly confident I had a grasp on how the Pride wanted to play and who would be where on the pitch. I’d seen them off and on in the preseason, both in practices and in scrimmages. Perhaps spending so much of the preseason in a three-back line can now be attributed to not having all of the starting defenders in camp at one time for most of the run up to Opening Weekend. Steph Catley arrived later in the preseason after wrapping up her duties in Australia, and Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris departed for national team commitments mid-way through. So, going four in the back on the road in Providence Park seemed like a wise move since most of the players are more familiar in that formation, and at that point, a lot of fans and critics in the league were saying that the Pride had one of the stronger back lines. On paper, at least.
And yet, Jamia Fields got the start at right back against Portland? And got a nod again when Orlando hosted Washington just a week later? Perhaps when the Pride were practicing behind closed doors, Fields, a forward who never played defender professionally before, was given time there; but then why not give her minutes at right back in a preseason match to learn the position better under game conditions. In the games we saw her on the backline, her play didn’t pass the eye test and her game stats left a lot to be desired. Yet, Sermanni only made the back line adjustment when Fields was forced off the pitch late in the first half of the home opener versus the Spirit. Having Catley, Kennedy, Alleway and Krieger in the back four is simply placing the team’s best players in those positions where they belong. Which also begs the question, why aren’t the Pride fielding their best XI in the starting XI?
Going into the season, I felt Jasmyne Spencer was best suited to come off the bench to inject energy in the second half and use her speed to go 1v1 at a tiring defense. However, she’s been in the starting XI all three matches with lackluster results. The Pride attack has looked better once Spencer is subbed out for Danica Evans. I don’t fault Spencer, but I think Tom is being a bit too loyal to his players with too little to show for it. The season is early enough to make a change as players adjust to their roles.
Another aspect of the Pride’s puzzling starting formations is the use of the 4-3-3. It’s easy to second guess after the fact, but Orlando’s biggest issue isn’t creating goals. The right answer is the midfield play for Orlando. The “right” midfield should be able to cover the back line while being able to distribute the ball forward and creating positive goal scoring opportunities. Evan’s goal to draw the Spirit was the result of a sequence of six passes. In the Week 3 match against the Courage, Orlando’s attack was isolated for the majority of the game with only a couple of players consistently moving into the attacking third.
With a strong midfield in mind, Dani Weatherholt has to be a starting player every week. Once she was subbed out in the first game in the 63′, the Thorns were able to take advantage of Weatherholt’s absence–namely her ability to spin away from trouble and distribute the ball forward–and score quickly in the 67′. She’s looked more comfortable as the holding mid than Monica, the other player Sermanni has gone to play in that position.
On the pitch, the Pride have had too many miscues and poor execution. Last season Orlando yielded just two scores from the spot. But we’re only heading into Week 4 this weekend, and so far the Pride have been penalized in two out of the first three matches with first-half penalty kicks due to errors made by both Australian centerbacks, Kennedy against Portland and Alleway in North Carolina, who should know better than to defend with their arm stretched out inside the box. Ashlyn Harris, who was critical of her teammates after the loss to North Carolina last week, has given opponents second chance opportunities with her weak clearances that the other teams have been able to capitalize upon.
Even though the season is just in its fourth week, the Pride have to realize that the match against the Blues is must-win. The NWSL season isn’t long enough (even with 24 games this season) to fall this far back from the playoff pack. Orlando has already dropped points at home, and have just one road win ever, in Week 6 against the Houston Dash last year. Sermanni needs to throw everything into this match to get the win, start Orlando’s best starting XI, make the right adjustments, and somehow get his players to perform at the level of which they are capable instead of the underachieving we’ve seen so far. The club ownership has given Tom all the resources to succeed, bringing in top talent like Marta and Krieger, but haven’t demonstrated much patience to wait for results, and Sermanni may not think so now, but his seat is hot. Orlando hosts the NWSL championship and are expected to contend for a playoff spot. Four points in four games will go a long way toward building the team’s confidence as they return home to face the Courage in Orlando on Mother’s Day.