Chris’ 2016 NWSL Previews
The tenth NWSL franchise isn’t doing things halfway in their inaugural campaign. Orlando had been rumored as an expansion franchise for months before being confirmed late last year and has promptly hit the ground running both on the pitch and off. Having the might of one of Major League Soccer’s most ambitious ownership groups behind them has certainly helped with the promotion of the Pride, as Orlando has been quick to blitz the media and build the hype around the upcoming season. Tickets have purportedly moved at a rapid rate, to the point that the club is talking about breaking attendance records in their very first season in the league. It remains to be seen if the Pride can keep the pace up at the box office for the duration of the season, but the early signs from the club’s launch have been quite positive.
The Pride have been wheeling and dealing to make sure the on-pitch product matches the off-pitch ambition. Orlando made a pretty big splash right off the bat by trading for USWNT attacking dynamo, Alex Morgan, an expected move to bring Morgan to the same city as her husband. Oft-injured last year, Morgan has been an in-form terror in the offseason and could be a contender to finally put it together at club level this year. It’s not just Morgan though. The club added star power in the form of Ashlyn Harris and some strong pros at this level like Becky Edwards and Lianne Sanderson. And perhaps most intriguingly, the Pride made a big splash in the management department, naming former USWNT boss Tom Sermanni as their first manager. It all points to an exciting, if unpredictable, first year for the NWSL’s newest club.
There may be few coaches in the NWSL with as much to prove as Tom Sermanni, who has been desperate for a chance at redemption after his stunning sacking from the USWNT in the run-up to the Women’s World Cup. Sermanni had seemed like a natural choice to so many but was turfed out after some patchy results, including some infamous results at the Algarve Cup that may have played a major role in his dismissal. Since, he’s worked as an assistant with the Canadian WNT but has been clamoring for an opportunity to get back in the game proper and reignite his reputation in the WoSo world.
That opportunity came in the form of the opening with the expansion Orlando Pride, and Sermanni would have been a fool to turn down an offer to captain a side with the financial backing and ambition of MLS’ Orlando City. From the promotional work to a marketing drive that could deliver consistent bumper crowds, even with the team’s new stadium’s opening delayed, Orlando looks like a perfect place to establish a potential powerhouse in the still growing NWSL. It’s hard to argue that the Pride aren’t in a better position than Houston was upon their entry into the league given some of the big name players the club has been able to attract in their short lifespan thus far.
But it’s been a while since Sermanni’s been involved in club management, and he hasn’t really had a serious job at club level since his stint in the WUSA of old, where he managed the New York Power but never really got a chance to complete a massive rebuilding project after taking over a broken team following a historically bad 2002. The club game has obviously changed by leaps and bounds since, and a prevailing storyline surrounding this team going into 2016 will be if Sermanni can re-adapt to club level ball after so long in the international game.
Sermanni’s used to a big building project though, as evidenced by his time at the head of the Australian WNT. Through a commitment of building a program through youth, Sermanni was able to turn an anonymous Australia program into one of the world’s most promising and exciting sides. Part of that excitement though was centered around some obvious defensive failings that Sermanni also struggled to iron out of the USWNT during his short tenure there. Building a team with strong foundations on both side of the ball is going to be key for any type of playoff run, but at the very least, Sermanni’s all action playing style at past stops should ensure entertainment in 2016. For better or for worse.
When building a club from scratch, you better have someone capable of directing traffic between the pipes, as automatic defensive cohesion’s not a sure thing. It’s a good thing then that the club was able to bring in Ashlyn Harris via the expansion draft to serve as the last line of defense. Firmly entrenched as the U.S.’ #2 in goal at the moment, Harris may be hoping that she’s not as busy as she often was with the Spirit, dealing with a backline that was by turns too young or just not talented enough in her three years with the club. At the age of thirty, Harris is perfectly positioned to be the U.S.’ #1 for the next WWC cycle if Hope Solo steps away after the Olympics, but she’ll need to keep at the top of her game. She made just one error leading to a goal in ten games last season by my personal count, and that type of form would hold Orlando in good stead as they embark on their debut campaign.
With Harris likely to miss a chunk of time while with the USWNT this season, it was important to find a qualified understudy, and the Pride should have done so by taking Aubrey Bledsoe in the expansion draft. Bledsoe’s endured something of a stop-start beginning to her professional career, playing for a short stint in Europe before ending up back in the U.S. with Sky Blue FC last year. Logic would say that with SBFC struggling defensively and with Brittany Cameron showing a blunder prone side to her game, Bledsoe would get more than a token runout off the bench. But that’s all she got last season, and Bledsoe will be looking to reignite a career which has puzzlingly stalled out. She’s still largely an unknown commodity at this level, but the Pride will be desperate for Bledsoe to be up to the task when Harris is away.
The club also needs an emergency reserve fill-in when Harris is gone. And that could be a problem, as the only other keeper in camp to our knowledge has been Julia Kantor, a small school prospect from Florida Tech. Cantor bounced around in college but only really began to meet her potential as a senior at the DII school. Needless to say, if Kantor sees the field for any extended length of time in 2016, the Pride could be in deep trouble.
Compared with a lot of other teams in the league, the Pride look well set in goal. Harris will be a big asset for a defense that has to gel and could be worth her weight in gold in close matches for the club this season. Bledsoe’s ability at this level is still something of a mystery, but if she plays to her potential, the Pride will be fine, meaning this could be a strong point for the expansion club in 2016.