In terms other than attendance and interest generated, it would be difficult to call last season a successful debut. The Orlando Pride are clearly not satisfied with their place in the final table of the 2016 NWSL season. Finishing in ninth place (out of 10 teams) is not that unusual for an expansion side, but the Pride expect a much better finish this year, with their goal clearly set at a top-four finish.
Such high expectations make sense. One would assume that all teams would have that as the minimum goal for the season. Likely, the Pride had the same goal last year. So, what went wrong and what changes should the fans expect to see to avoid another bottom of the table finish?
Typically, at this point, a deep and detailed analysis of advanced metrics would produce a lengthy, if not convoluted, list of areas for improvement, full of heat charts and possession percentages. While those analytics certainly have their place in helping to determine trends and prognostications, the truth is that most of the advanced metrics are not yet being charted for the NWSL.
Fortunately, for the Pride, they also are not that necessary.
A simple examination of the most basic of stats gives a very clear picture of where the team needs the most improvement. They give up too many goals. That’s a problem for any team, but when you are also the club with the Goalkeeper of the Year, it really stands out that, as a team, you simply give up too many scoring chances.
The Pride finished the season with a goal differential of -10. Their 30 goals allowed ranked second-worst only behind the Boston Breakers’ 47. Probably not coincidentally, the Breakers were the only team to finish behind Orlando in the final table.
Starting 15 games, Ashlyn Harris got the bulk of the work between the posts with Kaitlyn Savage and Aubrey Bledsoe dividing up the remaining five games, four to one respectively. The trio faced 112 shots on goal, making the save 74% of the time.
While it is reasonable to hope for or even expect a save percentage to be closer to 80%, the jarring stat in that line is the 112 shots faced. That is seven more shots in need of a save than the next highest team and 17.3 more than the average of the rest of the league.
At that rate, it does not matter how great a keeper Ashlyn Harris is, there is simply too much of a reliance on that position to give the team a chance to win consistently.
Contributing further to the reliance on their keeper is the fact the Pride offense only contributed 20 goals for the season, the third-lowest output among the 10 teams in the league. With such little offensive production compared to the scoring chances they were conceding, it shows a significant lack of offensive pressure.
Further support is added to that argument when you consider the Pride only earned 81 corner kicks, slightly more than four per game. By comparison, the Western New York Flash earned a whopping 117 corners on the way to a league-leading 40 goals.
Those 35 extra corners may not have been the exact reason the Flash doubled the Pride’s goal scoring output, but it does reinforce the fact that the Pride simply are not putting sufficient pressure on the opposition to move themselves into contention.
So, when you have the best goalkeeper in the league, but allow far too many shots and do not generate enough offense, what should be the expected change made to see improvement?
The first thing that pops to mind would be to improve the back line, right? Well, that is certainly reasonable and an issue clearly addressed with the addition of Ali Krieger and Alanna Kennedy.
Krieger, simply put, is world class. Her arrival into the Pride lineup immediately elevates the performance expectations of the back line. She not only contributes with her outstanding athleticism, but her leadership cannot be understated. It can, however, be complimented. And that is exactly what the addition of Kennedy does.
Kennedy adds a stabilizing force to the center of the back line with her controlled demeanor on the ball undoubtedly becoming infectious across the line. The experience Kennedy brings not only from her time in the NWSL, most recently with last season’s champions, the Western New York Flash, but also internationally, makes her acquisition seem like a real coup for the Pride.
The addition of these two extremely talented defenders really addresses the issues from last year and should solidify the defense for the Pride.
Offensively, Alex Morgan will be expected to have a significant impact in that area once she returns from France but the Pride are certainly not lacking in talent up top in her absence. (For more on Morgan and the expectations of her return please see here.)
Sarah Hagen and Jasmyne Spencer lead a more cohesive group forward into the season as the club has a full season under its belt now. Throughout training and the preseason so far, a very clear message of camaraderie and unity has been permeating around the club.
Even the most talented clubs in the world need time to gel and find their way as units. When removed from the microscope of expectation, much of the struggles to score last season can be seen for what it was — an expansion team simply coming together.
That is not to say that the club rested on its laurels and simply expected to improve. The addition of former Arsenal forward Chioma Ubogagu should pay significant dividends, both in the absence of Morgan and following her return.
The expectation of a top of the table finish and a playoff run may seem lofty, but with the addition of another forward with international experience, a solidified defense, the defending Goalkeeper of the Year and a growing commitment to each other and the club, it sure seems the expectations are warranted.