During the off-season and preseason, it looked like the Orlando Pride would be one of the contenders to win the NWSL Championship. Last season they made the postseason before getting beaten by the Portland Thorns FC 4-1 in the semifinal. Orlando responded by adding international players and the roster looked to be largely improved over the 2017 Pride. However, the influx of international players, combined with injuries to key players, proved to be a problem for Orlando.
The season never played out the way it was planned, and Orlando recorded back-to-back wins just once — against Sky Blue FC and the Washington Spirit, the two worst teams in the league. Coincidently, the last time that the Pride have had the same starting XI in consecutive games was in these two matches.
The Pride dropped crucial points in the final run of games to Sky Blue and the Houston Dash, which was ultimately enough to keep them from postseason contention. Prior to the Sky Blue draw, Sermanni changed the goalkeeper — due to Harris on international duty, — two of the back three, and swapped three other players. In fact, the only players to consistently make the starting XI have been Shelina Zadorsky and Ashlyn Harris, with Dani Weatherholt starting almost every game to end the season.
“There hasn’t been a turning point where we’ve been able to turn it around, unfortunately,” Alex Morgan said after the Pride lost to Chicago on Sunday and were officially eliminated from the playoffs. “I think just dropping points against Jersey, against Houston; these are teams we should have picked up points against, should have won. Coming out lethargic after a weather delay, or whatever it may be, in the past, it all added up and frustrations have definitely boiled over.”
The season did not come down to any one game. Instead, it was the consistent underperforming throughout the year that led to the team not living up to expectations and one of the key parts of that is that there has been a lack of consistency in who was out on the field.
Apart from the back-to-back wins, the only other time that Sermanni brought out the same starting XI in consecutive matches was at the beginning of the season when the Pride lost to Portland and beat Houston, albeit there were few options as the Brazilians and Australians were out on international duty.
“On the field, I think it’s building those relationships with each other,” said Ali Krieger. “Maybe we didn’t have the same lineup every game, which might have caused some problems with building relationships. And then some injures so you have to switch out, or you’re resting people at times during the season. I don’t know if that’s an issue but I think the consistency of switching some lineups and personnel, that’s always tough to build that relationship that you need to build with the players around you.”
As Krieger mentions, a big part of the constant shuffling of players is due to injuries, as well as international call ups. The most productive player on the Pride this season has been Sydney Leroux, however, since the last time that the Pride have won, Leroux has just a single start because of an illness and a concussion.
This is not just an isolated situation, as many key players have missed time this season. Alex Morgan started in the season opener but sustained a concussion and was forced to miss the following game. Krieger suffered an MCL injury this season and missed the next four matches — prior to the injury the former USWNT starter held the league-best active minutes played streak (3,227) and played in every minute since she signed for Orlando. Then, of course, there was Camila who played in her first game in July, and never truly looked like the same player as she was before her knee injury last season.
Perhaps what affected the Pride even more than the injuries have been the international call-ups. Ten players have been called up to their respective national teams this season, with Rachel Hill making the U.S. U-23 roster, to move the total up to 11. This particularly hurt the team at the start of the season when the Brazilians and Australians were out.
Alanna Kennedy, Marta, Monica, Poliana, and Emily van Egmond all missed at least three of the first four games in the beginning of the season. Of those first four games, the Pride’s only win was 1-0 against Houston. Even so, the quality on the field was lacking in this match and it was sloppy, filled with turnovers, and the lone goal came from a set piece. In particular, Marta, who missed just a single game in 2017, only played in 17 this season — she will most likely get her 18th appearance against Sky Blue — because of both injuries and international duty.
While injuries and international call-ups have played a big part in this changing of the starting XI, Sermanni is also to blame, especially how the team shape has differed from week to week. In the last month the Pride have played in three-back, four-back, and five-back formations and this has led to many cohesion issues.
Because of the constant lineup changes, the Pride have struggled to even hold shape. Just about every game, players were left to beat multiple defenders by themselves as a direct result of having no other options. On the attack, players would look to cross the ball into the box, but there was no one there. Marta is able to get by with taking on multiple players, but the team cannot rely on her to do everything. Players need some level of consistency to build relationships with each other which, in turn, leads to results.
The pivotal quote to emphasize this came from Chioma Ubogagu after the Pride drew against Sky Blue. With just four games left in the season, Chi said, “We need to start to build our chemistry with whoever is up top and build relationships and knowing what each other likes to do on and off the ball.”
Sermanni also spoke about the constant change. He took responsibility and claimed that if a team doesn’t win the blame should reside with the coach. He knows that next season there are things that will need to be done differently but he also said that he had no choice but to make so many changes because the players were simply not performing.
“It is more than fair to say [there’s been a lack of energy],” said Sermanni. “I don’t know how to explain it. We’ve tried multiple things in training weeks this year. Whether it’s a confidence thing I don’t know, that’s probably part of it. But there just seems to be a reluctance to do stuff. To be frank, apart from Dani Weatherholt, and probably Marta, I can’t turn around and say any other player had played to the expectations that we’ve had.”
On what changes the team needs to make to be better in 2019, the coach said, “Change in personnel, change in training, change in philosophy — that’s perhaps what we need to do.”
The change in personnel might be a big one for 2019. Next year is the World Cup and so, with the current roster, Sermanni will have to make even more changes for the weeks that players are out. Perhaps trading some international players is what the team will need to do to keep a consistent lineup and allow players to build chemistry with each other.
“Whether we feel that we have too many star players, I don’t know,” Sermanni said. “Whether we need more what I’d call ‘blue collar players’ on the team, I don’t know. Whether we’ve got the wrong combination of players, that’s just not working together, I don’t know.”