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Orlando Pride season preview: all about mentality

The Pride opened preseason Monday and announced a slate of five preseason matches (photo: Orlando Pride)

The Pride look to improve on a tough freshman season. (photo: Orlando Pride)

2016: 6-13-1, 19 pts (9th place)
Playoffs: did not qualify
Head Coach: Tom Sermanni
Home Ground: Orlando City Stadium

The Story of ’16

“A tale of two seasons.”

Pride head coach Tom Sermanni summed up the Pride’s inaugural season pretty succinctly. After getting off to a stronger start than many expected of the newest expansion team, Orlando struggled first without its internationals and then with injuries, managing just one point after the Olympic break. The Pride paid a large price for USWNT forward and inaugural Pride captain Alex Morgan, and their lack of depth was quickly exposed.

“I thought the first half of the season, I think we overachieved a little,” said Sermanni. “You know, we were a new team getting established, getting a squad established, getting depth in the squad, where it was much more difficult for us, so the second half was, results-wise, a significant drop off.”

Defender Laura Alleway agrees that the common struggles of any expansion team presented a challenge. “I think it was a kind of a disappointing year for us. I think we had good players and good staff and a great organization and the results didn’t really go our way, but it was a learning year for us and a growing year.”

What Happened Over the Winter

It took all of their 2018 draft picks to accomplish, but the Pride made the loudest splashes of any team during the offseason. They acquired defenders from both teams in the 2016 NWSL final, as USWNT veteran Ali Krieger jumped ship from Washington in a highly debated trade, while Australian Alanna Kennedy was traded from the North Carolina Courage (formerly the Western New York Flash) for 2016 draft pick Sam Witteman.

Alleway believes Krieger provides something extra than just her skills on the pitch. “Once one person steps up, it’s kind of a catalyst for the rest of the team, and other people kind of lift their game. It just takes one person to try and lift the group, and I think Ali’s probably that one person who’s come in here so far and has really lifted the vibe and is being super positive and the intensity of training is higher. Just one person can make that effect.”

Morgan shocked many when she signed a short term contract with French powerhouse Olympique Lyon in January, pushing her 2017 NWSL debut back to June. For a team that scored the third fewest goals in the league last year, it was a bad sign even as they added Dash striker Chioma Ubogagu. After both Sarah Hagen and Kaylyn Kyle were waived, it also meant Orlando would start 2017 without its three original players.

And then, the Pride signed Marta. Yes, Marta, she of the record five consecutive FIFA Women’s Player of the Year awards, the most well-known and oft-described greatest female soccer player ever. While the Brazilian can’t carry the offense on her own, she certainly gives it a boost, and the same can be said about attendance. Regardless of what she does on the field, Marta represents the biggest signing in the NWSL’s short history.

“Probably it would be obviously in one of the more advanced positions as part of the front three,” Sermanni said of Marta’s role on the squad. “Probably in a more wider role than a central role. Or she could play in a free role behind the front three as an attacking player or a number 10 or whatever you want to call it. So I see her playing predominantly in one of those two roles.”

Player to Watch

Alanna Kennedy (14) has been traded from the Courage to the Orlando Pride. (photo courtesy Western New York Flash.)

Alanna Kennedy is a key asset for the Pride going into their second season. (photo courtesy Western New York Flash.)

The Pride could boast one of the best defenses in the league this year, and look for Alanna Kennedy to play a huge role. Capable of playing on the backline or in midfield, Kennedy is an aggressive defender with textbook tackles and a superb aerial presence. At only 22, she brings with her the experience of over 50 caps for the Matildas, including World Cup and Olympic appearances, as well as both W-League and NWSL championships.

The centerback is also a threat on set pieces and has scored for both club and country. With the second-worst goal differential in the league last year, the Pride need players who will change that on both ends of the pitch, and Kennedy is that player.

{Read more: USWNT agrees to new CBA | Dan’s 2017 NWSL preseason predictions}

Best Case Scenario

The big names make big impacts. Krieger and Kennedy help Steph Catley and Alleway form an impenetrable wall in front of Ashlyn Harris. Marta does Marta things, and when Morgan returns, she, Marta, and Harris remember what it’s like to win a club championship, as they did together in the WPS’ final year.

There’s no doubt the Pride have talent, and Sermanni has worked hard not only to build depth but to improve the players returning from last year. If everything clicks, Orlando is certainly capable of making a playoff run.

“The first year for a player coming in the pros can be quite difficult and it takes time to make that adjustment, and I think she made the adjustment well last year but I think going into the offseason, her preparation has been first class,” said Sermanni of second-year midfielder Dani Weatherholt. “I think the confidence of being called up the to the [USWNT] 23’s has helped her take another step forward, both in soccer but also I think in confidence and composure and just being comfortable around the place. So I think she’s taken a definite step forward.”

Cause for Pause:

Injuries crippled Orlando last season, and there remains a noticeable drop off on the bench. Should just one or two key players go down, the Pride could be in trouble. Also, even if the defense solidifies and Marta and Morgan go on tears up top, the question remains of what will link the two. Kristen Edmonds was quietly the Pride’s best player last year, and defensive upgrades will allow Monica to push higher, but two players does not a midfield make. If other players don’t step up, the Pride could return to long ball with a prayer, struggling to find the back of the net.

Final Outlook

If any NWSL team is likely to spend significant time in a three-back formation, it’s Orlando. An excess of outstanding and versatile defenders would allow Sermanni to assist his midfield by pushing Monica and Catley up, although the onus would then be on them to avoid allowing the defense to get overrun, and the system works best with a strong central midfield.

Sermanni didn’t rule it out. “At this stage we haven’t really netted down a system that we’ll start the first game with, but we have certainly considered playing three at the back.”

Formations and personnel changes aside, it’s what the players have off the pitch that both Sermanni and Alleway believe will bring success to a club that, from a shiny new stadium to big signings to strong marketing pushes, has shown it’s willing to throw significant resources behind the players.

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“Last year we weren’t really like a whole unit. There were players being drawn out to the Olympics and being taken away and in and out of the squad where it was hard to find that consistency, whereas I think this year we’ll actually have a solid time together and we will be able to form a good unit as a core so that mentality of being really together, I think is going to be different this year,” said Alleway.

Much as he did with Weatherholt, Sermanni singled out Monica for making strides in her leadership and confidence, but he believes it’s on the team as a whole to step up.

“What we want in our team is different people showing leadership skills in different ways. I think it’s a word that’s thrown out there without people having a good idea of what it actually means,” he explained. “So we’ve got our obvious leaders in Ashlyn and Ali Krieger because of their experience and not just their footballing ability but the general aura they have around the team. But then underneath that and all around that you have a whole lot of other players doing different kind of things in the team that I would consider leadership things … What we want in our team is a whole group of people doing different leadership things in different ways and taking responsibility.”

Leadership. Mentality. Confidence. Responsibility. The Orlando Pride have the pieces to the puzzle, and it’s on them to put it together.

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