When it comes to soccer in the City Beautiful, expectations are always high. The 2016 season will open with the goal to make the playoffs for both Orlando City and the Orlando Pride. As Phil Rawlins stated in late a December club release, following the resignation of Armando Carneiro:
"Our focus in the next few weeks will be on the upcoming drafts, finalizing our rosters and putting together a successful preseason that will properly prepare all three teams to kick off their 2016 campaigns. Our goal for the coming year is nothing less than reaching playoffs with both the Lions and Pride, and we are keenly focused on achieving that goal for our fans and our Club."
We already know how difficult it is for a team to make the playoffs in year one, but Head Coach Tom Sermanni is optimistic that he and his staff can put together a team that can carry them into the postseason. Let's examine what history tells us about this expectation.
Orlando City's Expansion Year
Prior to the start of last season, the buzz to #FillTheBowl excited casual fans and supporters alike, and even though we came away with a point after Kaká equalized late in the match, the team took the first third of the season to come together and gel as a side. Our starting XI was a revolving door, as international call-ups and injuries took their toll. Then the summer came and the Lions went into a winless slump which proved to be too much of a challenge to overcome.
There were growing pains in Orlando City's first season, and by studying the Pride roster, a similar comparison can be made. A group of players coming together for the first time never having played together. Key absences due to national team commitments. Hopefully, the Pride won't be hit by the injury bug the way the Lions were, otherwise it may be too much for a new team to overcome. In the NWSL, the top four teams make the playoffs; will the experience of the men's side be able to help a women's expansion side? The answer is already one we can examine, in the form of the Houston Dash.
Houston Dash, An Expansion Team Example
The Orlando Pride enters the 2016 season as the second expansion team in the brief history of the NWSL. No previous women's league in the U.S. has been able to make it to a fourth season. The league began to grow from the eight teams it began with when the Houston Dash entered league play in 2014. The Dash finished the season in last place and ended the season with five wins, three draws, and 16 loses to go with a minus-21 goal differential.
The team's five-win preseason was no indication of how the Dash would perform, due mostly to playing matches with collegiate soccer teams highlighting the different level of play between the professional and amateur sides. Even with the growth and stability of a season in 2015, the Dash did not qualify for the playoffs partly due to Carli Lloyd, the star team's star player, and other key national team players being absent during the season for the Women's World Cup.
The Summer Olympics
An extra challenge the Pride will face this season will be the disruption of the Summer Olympic Games held in Rio during the month of August. The Pride will be absent several key players like Alex Morgan, who may also be expected to take part in Olympic qualifying in February, as well as the SheBelieves Cup in March. Fatigue or injury could play a part in the Pride's season and supporters may have to cheer on a starting XI supplemented with amateur players. We already witnessed how a lack of depth can hurt our team, and it's likely the Pride may experience that as well.
I'm going to be supporting the Pride from the opening of the preseason to the final whistle of the last match. However, if history is any indication, Sermanni and the Pride will have their work cut out to make it into the playoffs. Let me know in the comments below on what you expect of the Pride in year one.