The Orlando Pride entered the National Women's Soccer League as the newest and tenth team in the league in 2016. After a great and highly marketed preseason, the Pride opened strongly with the highest attendance in the NWSL so far as 23,403 fans came out to watch the team play their first NWSL match ever against the Houston Dash. That game finished with the result the fans, the team and the front office would have wanted, a late 3-1 win over the Dash but after that, things began to slowly drift away from the Pride.
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet."
October 2015 was remarkable month for the Pride. They featured in probably the NWSL's most blockbuster trade to date when they announced the acquisition of Alex Morgan in a multi-player trade from the Portland Thorns. This was a big-name signing for the new team, probably as big as it gets in the NWSL and it clearly signaled that the Pride were willing to do anything to get what they wanted. The Pride also acquired the services of Canadian international Kaylyn Kyle in the same deal but it clearly was almost a side-show to the Morgan trade. For Alex Morgan, the Pride gave up their first overall pick in the draft, two international spots and the rights to Lindsey Horan to Portland. US international Meghan Klingenberg was also involved in this multi-player, multi-team trade and she ended up with the Thorns as well once the dust had settled.
The trade was a huge announcement and sent shock waves all across the league. Many felt that the Pride had overplayed their hand in order to pry Morgan away from Portland but as Morgan is the face of U.S. Women's Soccer right now, her marketing worth was clearly what the Pride primarily wanted and they felt that the exchange was worth it in order to draw big crowds to watch the Pride play at Camping World Stadium. Whether this trade will prove the right choice for the Pride in hindsight remains to be seen but as of right now, the Thorns got the better deal out of the trade.
October also brought the announcement of the Pride's official head coach, the experienced Tom Sermanni. To most fans, Sermanni needed no introduction and the Pride's front office felt that he was the right man to lead their team in the 2016 NWSL season were their aim was to buck the trend of expansion teams and reach the playoffs in their first season.
Expansion draft and the offseason sees more players come in
The expansion draft allowed the Orlando Pride to acquire the services of goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris from the Washington Spirit. There are not many goalkeepers better than Ashlyn Harris currently plying their trade in the NWSL, and she was an obvious choice for the team once the Spirit placed her on the Unprotected Players list. The Pride then went on to pick three players from the draft who featured for them throughout the season: Sam Witteman, Christina Burkenroad and Dani Weatherholt. In addition to these players, the Pride also traded for forward Sarah Hagen from FC Kansas City and added international experience throughout the season with the additions of Laura Alleway, Monica Alves, Steph Catley and Josée Bélanger. Other notable NWSL players also signed for the Pride with the likes of Maddy Evans, Becky Edwards, Kristen Edmonds and Jasmyne Spencer were added to bolster the roster.
From afar, they all seemed to be smart acquisitions but the reliance on international players was a concern before the season started as most expected all of those international players to be away for an extended period of time at the 2016 Rio Olympics with their national teams. That de-stabilization of missing key players and long-term injuries also played a large part of the Pride final position in the NWSL.
On May 8th, the Orlando Pride recorded probably their best result in the league with a 2-0 win over previous NWSL Shield winners, the Seattle Reign. It was a surprising result as most people had the Reign as one of the four teams to reach the playoffs in their preseason predictions, but the Pride deserved every bit of that win.
Alex Morgan was in fantastic form on that day and seemingly was set to prove that her trade was worth all that the Pride had given up. Morgan set up the first goal of the game, finding Sarah Hagen in the box with a great cross from out wide and then in the second half, caused enough mayhem in the Reign penalty area to allow Lianne Sanderson to score the second of the night. Morgan was a threat all throughout that match and had it not been for an outstanding performance from Reign goalkeeper, Hope Solo, would have found herself on the score sheet as well.
By the time the time the two teams met again in July at Memorial Stadium in Seattle, the Pride had lost their early season verve. They had won four of their nine matches after that win against Seattle and were conceding goals at an alarming rate in each match. It was no surprise that the Reign then managed to put five past backup goalkeeper Kaitlyn Savage in a 5-2 romp against the Pride. The missing national team players exposed the lack of quality depth in the Orlando roster as many had predicted at the start of the season and Seattle had no problems finding gaps in the Pride back line time and time again. Camille Levin and Toni Pressley compounded their second half slump in this game and showed how much the Pride were missing the services of Alleway, Harris, Bélanger and Alves who were all away at the Olympics.
For all of Orlando's international stars, the key player for them all season long was Kristen Edmonds. Edmonds was acquired from the Western New York Flash in the expansion draft and raised her game to a new level under the coaching of Tom Sermanni. Along with Spencer, Edmonds provided most of the attacking threat for the Pride while Morgan was away on international duty.
Edmonds played in all but one match during the 2016 season and scored a team-leading six goals for the season. Edmonds also added two assists to her statistics and for most of the season, was Orlando's biggest attacking threat. Although Harris was named as the 2016 NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year, it was Edmonds who tried to keep the Pride afloat while the big stars were gone and her speed and nose for goals helped the Pride to some late wins during the season. Edmonds was not recognized by the league in any of the major awards but her performances did not go unnoticed by the home fans.
Underperformers of the year
A ninth place finish is not where any team wants to be in a ten-tam league but that was where the Pride found themselves at the end of the regular season. Their biggest weakness was in conceding goals and that was largely due to the performances of defenders like Toni Pressley and Camille Levin. Both players had experience playing in the league before this year and while they were not considered as top players in the league, more was expected from them especially when the national team players departed for the Olympics.
Pressley and Levin allowed too many players to drift by them or outright beat them in one-on-one situations which led to both Harris and Savage being subjected too many shots at goal. The goalkeepers coped as well as they possibly could but they, and Sermanni, would have preferred if their defenders had done a better job at preventing so many chances on goal. These two players will have to perform better in 2017 or they may find themselves on the bench or replaced fairly quickly.
A look ahead to 2017
The Pride should fare better than their ninth place finish in 2016 based on their current roster alone. With no major tournaments in 2017 that could potentially take away their big name players, the Pride do have a strong starting eleven. The key area to reinforce will be defensive midfield and their back line. Becky Edwards announced her retirement and as previously mentioned, Pressley did not have a good season for the Pride. Those are definitely areas coach Sermanni will be looking to address. The Pride will also be looking at an attacking midfielder to supply the likes of Morgan with quality passes in the final third after they lost Sanderson in a trade to the Flash. The addition of Lisa DeVanna will certainly bolster their attack so if those weaknesses are addressed quickly during the offseason, the Pride have every shot of making the playoffs in 2017.