The Pride are sitting comfortably in fifth place in the NWSL standings going into their Thursday night clash with the Houston Dash. It will be the 10th match of their inaugural season and the de facto midway point. It’s been successful so far; they knocked off current Shield-holders Seattle, have defeated a good Dash team twice already, and are unbeaten at home.
But the last month of the season has been marred by poor results and almost nonexistent offense. It’s a strange circumstance for a team that went out and got one of the world’s best strikers in Alex Morgan, but it may get worse before it gets better. In the midst of a three-game losing streak and scoreless streak, yesterday the Pride announced that they had traded English midfielder Lianne Sanderson to the Western New York Flash. Sanderson was tied with Morgan for the team lead in goals scored and also chipped in an assist during her eight appearances in purple and blue. She was unquestionably one of the offensive sparks.
Now, the Pride are left with a hole to fill in midfield and on the score sheet. In all three years of the NWSL’s existence, no team has made the playoffs with fewer than an average 1.4 goals scored per match. Through nine matches, the Pride are siting at 0.8 goals/match. Even now, with every team nine matches into the 2016 season, the current top four clubs are averaging 1.2 goals/match at minimum. It’s certainly a small sample size, but unless the Pride are the ones to buck the trend, the short history of the league claims that they need more goals.
Morgan has managed to bag two in eight appearances this year — and she will naturally be the focal point of Orlando’s offense for as long as she’s with the team — but the players around her have yet to step up and take some of the offensive responsibilities upon themselves. Morgan can be expected to pull out some magic and score with sheer talent at times, but in order to compete they’ll need more than that.
Part of the deficiency is to be expected; the club has brought in a unit of talented defenders and defensive midfielders but the names on the other side aren’t quite as impressive. Sarah Hagen was the other big-name forward behind Morgan and they took Samantha Witteman and Christina Burkenroad in the first two rounds of the College Draft, but they only have one goal between the three of them in limited playing time.
Coupled with the youth leading the line, consistent starters Kristen Edmonds and Monica Hickmann Alves have been defenders for the majority of their careers, but Tom Sermanni has deployed them in midfield. Both are capable players higher up the pitch, but their end product is lacking. Edmonds, a career fullback, managed to score this fantastic winner against the Dash, giving the Pride their only road victory this season:
But relying on her as a consistent option seems like an unwieldy task for a team that wants to compete this season. Edmonds’ goal is only one of two scored on the road so far, with the other being Steph Catley’s bouncing free kick from the inaugural match. Coincidentally, they’re also the only goals scored by players still with the team not named Morgan or Hagen. Taking a deeper look into the roster, it’s not much of a surprise.
Among all of the players that the Pride have played other than Morgan, exactly zero have recorded double-digit goals in the NWSL for their careers. All but Hagen (9) and Jasmyne Spencer (6) have fewer than five. You can chalk it up to youth for players like Jamia Fields and the recent draft picks, but the majority of the others have no history of producing in the final third.
Spencer, by far the most prolific of the non-striker bunch, has a total of six goals and three assists across nearly 70 NWSL matches. She has all the pace to get behind enemy lines — and she’s done some decent facilitating for Morgan this year, even if it hasn’t shown up in the box score — but until she can consistently put it all together, the Pride need to bring in some firepower. Other teams have keyed on the lack of scoring grit around Morgan, often committing multiple defenders to stop her, and Spencer has been an outlet when the captain doesn’t have enough space. But can she become a second scoring option when she hasn’t been yet for her three years in the NWSL?
Sermanni has dabbled with various 4-4-2 formations, but he’s consistently stuck with the 4-3-3. The 4-4-2 allows both Hagen and Morgan to start, but especially now that Sanderson is gone, there’s no one to link the forward line with the midfield. And with so few strikers on the roster, it leaves no one to bring off the bench.
The 4-3-3 puts far more pressure on the wingers and midfielders to contribute, though, and as we’ve seen, that hasn’t been the case so far. But with the NWSL in the early stages of the league’s secondary transfer window, Orlando has until July 14 to rectify the issue. Sanderson’s exit brought in an international roster spot for two and a half years from the Flash, which insinuates that there are plans to sign someone in the works.
Whether or not that player is a goalkeeper — which has become a significant need since backup Aubrey Bledsoe fractured her leg in training — or an offensive-minded player remains to be seen. The Pride have two open roster spots now and will need to look to fill both needs in the coming weeks if they want to seriously compete.