The Orlando Pride finally got their first home win of the NWSL season in Friday night’s 1-0 victory over the Houston Dash. The win was also the first under Seb Hines’ watch, as the interim manager got the club its second consecutive result.
While it would be easy to pick holes or downplay the match as a success or reason for celebration, that would be an injustice to the difficulties that Hines and his team have had to endure. Sure, Houston was down several players who were on international duty. But the Pride aren’t exactly at full strength themselves. The team’s leader, Gunny Jonsdottir, is with Iceland for the European Championship, superstar Marta is out for the season, and Angharad James and Leah Pruitt were also out. You have to play the team that’s in front of you and the Pride have been in Houston’s position many times in the past without anyone feeling sorry for them.
One could point at the own goal being fortunate, but those are the kinds of things that can happen with sustained pressure and set pieces. Carrie Lawrence sent a good secondary ball into the area and Kylie Strom did well to time her run and get under it, getting a head to it to keep it alive. Had it gone where she wanted it, instead of off of Ally Prisock, Mikayla Cluff probably would have scored anyway.
The Pride were simply the better side throughout the match. While there were still issues with too many misplaced passes, some rushed attacks that broke down, and a lack of precision in front of goal, Orlando nearly doubled Houston’s shot total and tripled the Dash’s number of shots on target. The Pride’s five shots on target in the first half may have all been right at Jane Campbell — one of the league’s top goalkeepers — but that’s an improvement over the off-target chances the team has wasted in previous games.
But besides all that, Hines led his team to three points vs. Houston and four points out of a possible six in the last two games under conditions that would give any coach pause. The former center back took control of the team a month ago on June 7, when Head Coach Amanda Cromwell and key assistant Sam Greene were placed on administrative leave. While a joint investigation into whether the two violated league policy on player treatment got underway, the thought was that Hines would serve as interim coach with the help of the rest of the Pride’s coaching staff working with him.
That hasn’t been the case. Assistant and Player Development Coach Michelle Akers and Goalkeeping Coach Aline Villares Reis haven’t been around. While neither was placed on administrative leave with Cromwell and Greene, both are officially taking paid time off. As the soccer season is a highly unusual time for coaches to take paid time off, these are highly unusual times.
“The environment, what is going on with our coaches (Cromwell and Greene) is very personal to them as well,” Pride General Manager Ian Fleming said. “Any personal time that they need off right now is time that they’re going to get.”
Without Akers and Reis, Hines has made do. He brought in former Orlando City forward Giles Barnes, who lives in the area, as an interim assistant. OCSC broadcaster and former USL-era Orlando City goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo has helped replace Reis’ absence to lend a hand as well.
“Giles came in at the beginning of last week, and the reception to him has been great, and to his credit, he has jumped in sort of headfirst and is doing a wonderful job as an interim assistant right now,” Fleming said. “He’s got a really good head on his shoulders for the game, has taken to the group really quickly, understands the landscape of the league actually much more than I ever would have anticipated, coming into this environment, and he’s been a really positive influence so far.
“Miguel Gallardo is out working with the goalkeepers right now. He’s doing so on a voluntary basis, but the feedback so far on Miguel as well has been really great. So, it’s something that everyone is working extremely hard through right now. Certainly not an easy situation for anyone, but I really feel like everyone is doing an incredibly admirable job right now.”
The recent results, including the win Friday and last weekend’s 2-2 comeback draw against Racing Louisville, show the team is willing to work hard for Hines, who is a fledgling coach. The past four matches have been his first in charge. Things are rarely easy for any first-time coach, but Hines has handled more adversity than most. His squad is young and in the early stages of a rebuild. Orlando has jettisoned veteran defender Amy Turner and star forward Sydney Leroux since he took over. His best midfielder is away on international duty and arguably his second-best midfielder, Angharad James, has been excused for personal reasons the past couple of matches.
Through it all, Hines has remained relaxed while wearing his ever-present smile. Under his watch, young midfielder Viviana Villacorta continues to develop her game — she was one of the best players on the field for either side on Friday.
“Seb has stepped up to the plate in a really, really great way. The response to Seb so far has been wonderful,” Fleming said.
How long Hines has to step up for as the Pride’s interim coach is still anyone’s guess. Despite the NWSL now having had ample time to interview every Pride player, coach, and staff member, as well as any other human even remotely linked to Cromwell, nothing continues to happen and it’s logical to think nothing will change until after the season. All one has to do is read between the lines of the past month.
Cromwell has gone from coaching to not coaching, and Leroux, one of the team’s star players — who was not shipped off in the rebuild as other aging veterans were — suddenly picked up a knock but was immediately available for her new team the moment she was traded. The NWSL front office doesn’t seem authoritative in the best of times, and with a recent, less-than-stellar history of coaching improprieties around the league, it won’t be quick to side with Cromwell against a star player, even if no evidence of wrongdoing is found. That’s bad optics, because — unfairly or not — Cromwell has already been convicted in the court of public opinion to some degree and lumped in with previous coaches around the league.
Neither NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman or Orlando City President of Business Operations Jarrod Dillon had any comment about the investigation when asked at the Daytona SoccerFest last week. Fleming didn’t offer much either in our talk with him on Wednesday.
“We can’t really talk about that much right now,” he said. “The most important part is just that the joint investigation does their job thoroughly and that they come to the right conclusion. There’s not a lot more to say about it than that at this point. I just want to make sure that what comes out of this is right and fair.”
With a tougher schedule on the horizon, it’s going to be difficult for the Pride to continue to get results — not impossible, but it’s going to take a lot of effort and the squad must minimize mistakes. Orlando has yet to play either of its two matches against league-leading San Diego Wave FC or fourth-place OL Reign. In addition, another meeting with the Portland Thorns awaits.
Hines will take each game ahead that he has left in this uncertain season the way he always does — with a smile on his face and an intent to get a result. Even with the most seasoned coach, it’s not easy to win with a young, unfinished team. But he will be getting reinforcements. The addition of 18-year-old Malta international Haley Brugeja could be a boost to the club’s struggling offense. And, very quietly, first-round draft pick Caitlin Cosme is getting healthy for the first time. The Pride have had a few games recently without a single center back on the bench, but with Cosme’s return, they’ve had two the last couple of matches. Additionally, Carrie Lawrence had her first start Friday since sustaining an injury to her ribs, helping her team shut out Houston.
A better defense, another scoring threat, and the continued development of Villacorta and Cluff in the midfield might be enough to keep this Pride team at least in contention for a playoff spot. The Pride entered today just two points behind sixth-place Angel City, although the expansion side has a game in hand — that will take place tonight at home against San Diego — and three points behind fifth-place Houston.
If Hines can continue to work on his team’s fundamentals and keep his players believing, it just may be enough.