It's taken a week to process my heartbreak at the end of the Orlando Pride season after our ladies fell 4 - 1 at Portland last weekend. I feel like a husband who's been jilted for a younger man, or like a parent who wakes up one day to find the house an empty nest. I can't sleep well, I'm not eating right, and every time I look at the signed player photos on my refrigerator, I sigh and shed a tear.
Yes, this ladies' soccer Casanova has spent a sad, lonely week with my favorite 20 women in the world gone from the pitch for the season and not being able to take a league championship trophy with them. But as with any loss, the best way to cope is to think on the memories of the good times we had together and the love and passion we shared through this beautiful game and the strength, power, grace, and grit our players brought to it.
New Faces Shine
Between the 2016 and 2017 seasons, the Orlando Pride made a lot of changes. There were eight new full-time player added to the roster in the new year who were not part of the team in 2016: Rachel Hill, Danica Evans, Nickolette Driesse, Marta, Camila, Ali Krieger, Alanna Kennedy, and Chioma Ubogagu. All of them saw playing time in 2017, and seven of them scored goals or registered assists during the season.
Returning Players Improved
In addition, there were several returning players whose form and performance in 2017 far outshone their contributions the previous year. In her sophomore season as a pro, the dynamic Dani Weatherholt added a level of ferocity and toughness to her game that had not been there last season. The difference was evidenced by two conversations I had with her at fan interaction events.
In 2016 I asked her about the biggest challenge in transition from the college game to the pro game. She indicated it was the role reversal: from being a mentor in college to being the rookie in the pros. After several years in college you get used to being an everyday starter, and then in the pros you have to work even harder on the training pitch just to get in the 18-player roster for matchday, and then hope you get a few minutes here and there.
At the beginning of the 2017 season after Weatherholt impressed her teammates by winning the competition in endurance drills in preseason camp, I spoke with her again. After congratulating her, I asked if she had played competitively in the offseason. She replied that she had not, but she had spent the entire offseason working out with the men's soccer team from her college alma mater. So she pushed herself all off-season against younger, faster male players, and that showed both on the training pitch and in games.
The trademark of Weatherholt's game in 2017 was relentless pursuit of the opponent with the ball. As defending midfielder, she was constantly disrupting the attempts of opposing players to create or continue attacking chances. And then when she had the ball stripped off her feet, she pursued the girl who stole it until she either got the ball back or one of the other Pride players was able to get control of it. She was rewarded this season with her first professional goal and assist, and the jubliation of her teammates after she scored showed the genuine fondness and affection they hold for her.
Among the field players, Toni Pressley was perhaps the most improved player from 2016 to 2017. Her strength was evident and obvious in 2016, but she did not seem to have the stamina to play the full 90 minutes week in and week out. She was not the only player last year who showed signs of a little rust or perhaps the effects of not being playing regularly at the professional level. But of those players who struggled in 2016, Pressley was the one who showed she had been the most dedicated to coming back faster, stronger, and better in 2017.
This season, Pressley's strength was matched by her stamina and she became one of the most reliable defenders on the team. She also showed a burst of speed that seemed new in 2017, and Pressley added a long-range goal from 35 yards out that would make Ronaldo or Messi pleased with themselves if it came off their foot. And Pressley also managed to make some positive news off the pitch, showing off her vegan cooking skills for the weekly Orlando City sports show and LionNation.
And Alex Morgan also put a disappointing 2016 season to bed this year with an amazing second-half run with the team. Morgan was the superstar signed to the Orlando Pride when the club was announced in the fall of 2015, and she came to the club with all the hopes, all the expectations, and all the weight of the leadership mantle resting firmly on her shoulders. All last year she seemed disappointed and distracted and couldn't quite get into synch with her Orlando Pride teammates. That's no surprise as 2016 was an Olympic year and Morgan had obligations for a lot of international travel including friendlies and qualifyers in the winter and spring with the women's national team, as well as an entire month away to play in Rio last summer.
It also could not have helped Morgan's frame of mind that the entire women's national team struggled, failing to medal in the Olympics for the first time since the women's sport was added to the Olympics in 1996. At the Gala last year, it was clear she was disappointed, and when she publicly announced she was going to play the winter and spring season with Lyon Olympique in France, I both believed and supported her decision based on her stated reason that she felt like she needed to challenge herself in a new environment and a new league. She would be back to Orlando to play the second half of the season, and after scoring only four goals with a lone assist in 2016 I thought it quite likely she could at least contribute that in a half season if she had her confidence in her own game back.
And history will show that Morgan was right, and the fans like me who supported her decision were right as well. Not only did Morgan help to lead Lyon Olympique to a league championship and into the UEFA Champions (which they won), she also came back and tripled her 2016 scoring in a half season of play, adding 9 goals and 4 assists to her Orlando Pride total in only 13 appearances. With any player of any gender that has Morgan's talent, there is no question of skill. The far more important factor is confidence. When a great player is feeling confident in their game, they not only play better, but they can elevate the play of their teammates around them. That's how the Pride gained divdends from Morgan's stint in France at the beginning of the season.
My Season MVP -- Aubrey Bledsoe
Perhaps Aubrey Bledsoe was the returning player who was most critical to the Pride making the playoffs in 2017. Bledsoe appeared in only one match in 2016 before a broken leg ended her season early. But this year, after Ashlyn Harris suffered a quad injury in May, Bledsoe played 11 straight matches for the team, recording two clean sheets and maintaining a 1.4 Goals Against Average. That was good enough to keep the Pride in contention as the team struggled to gel in the first half of the season, and allowed the offense time to get wound up so they could begin unleashing the blistering pace of goals that saw them rattle off nine unbeaten matches at the end of the season.
Aubrey Bledsoe proved she has the talent to be a number one goalkeeper in the NWSL, and as a fan I feel the bittersweet pangs of a parent ready to send his daughter off to college--both because I know I will miss Auburey terribly if she leaves the team, and because I will also be so proud of her getting the recognition she deserves as the starter for another team in the league.
What Went Right and What Went Wrong
The offseason roster moves by the front office and Tom Sermanni's coaching staff after the 2016 season were a stroke of genius. Bringing Marta, the five-time FIFA player of the year, to the club was a huge win for the team. Marta went on to lead the team in goals and fit in seamlessly with her teammates. She was everything you would want from a superstar--both creating and finishing chances on her own, as well as elevating the play of her teammates. She found almost immediate chemistry with several of her teammates early, and then when Alex Morgan returned to the team mid-season, the two seemed to feed off of each other like talented jazz musicians, each one riffing on the rhythms and vibes of the other to create something even more beautiful and wonderful than either could do on her own.
In all, eleven players on the roster scored goals in 2017, and the Pride topped the league in both goals (45) and assists (30). That's a big reason the team made the playoffs in 2017, and this shows the team has a strong nucleus around which they can build an even stronger team going forward.
There was not much to critique the team about this season, but the one weakness seemed to be the team's ultimate confidence in reaching the final goal. This became apparent over the final few games of the season. On August 5, the team found themselves far down the table and out of the playoffs. The team drew against Chicago at home, and then went on a 5-match win streak until the home match against Seattle on September 7.
Coming into that match, the team had the ability to lock up a playoff spot with a win. But the team looked hesitant, tentative, and nervous in that match. It seemed that instead of focusing on winning, the team's focus became on not losing. To casual fans there may not seem to be much of a difference, but the will to win is an attacking mindset, whereas the fear of losing instills a defensive mindset. The team drew its two matches on September 7 and September 23, both of which could have locked up a playoff spot if the Pride had taken all three points. It was only the performance of other teams that helped the Pride secure a playoff spot after the draw against Portland on September 23.
My assessment of the team's uncertainty seemed to be confirmed by the results in the final match of the season on September 30. With no pressure or distractions about making or missing the playoffs at stake, the team simply put their heads down and won the match at the North Carolina Courage. They had tossed aside the fear of losing and simply focused on winning.
And then in the playoff match on October 7, the hesitation and tentative play seemed to return. A number of players appeared to have their worst game of the season. There were uncharacteristic lapses of focus, turnovers, and erratic shots. This is certainly not something unique to the Pride or to the sport of soccer. I've seen many teams in many sports that put much more psychological pressure upon reaching the playoffs for the first time. In the abstract a playoff game is just another game on the calendar. But ask any athlete that's ever participated in a championship tournament or a playoff, and I think they would be lying if they claimed it didn't feel like it meant more.
Some teams and players just need to experience the playoff atmosphere for the first time to and learn what it feels like to lose in playoffs before they have the confidence to take it to the next level. Now that the Orlando Pride have experienced that loss as a team, I think all the players who return next year will be able to help the rookies and any new player that transfer into the club understand and cope better with that pressure when the postseason arrives in 2018.
Final Thoughts and A Look Ahead
I am very proud of this team. The improvement they showed from 2016 to 2017 was dynamic, and the players really seem to have bonded like sisters on the pitch. They share and cheer in each other's successes, and they support their teammates through injuries and sorrows. Barring some unexpected radical change in the team dynamic during the offseason, I would expect that this bond will continue in the next season and they will be able to build on the accomplishments of this season. I think the team will stand a strong chance to come back as one of the favorites to win the NWSL Championship next year.
Having said that, I don't discount that teams like Portland, Chicago, and North Carolina--as well as teams that fell short of the playoffs--will also try to improve their sides next year and come back with just as much determination in 2018. Repeating a trip to the playoffs will not be any easier next year, but I like our chances.
And now it's time to shed a few tears and say my goodbyes to these wonderful women for a few months. Whether you are playing in international leagues, traveling home to train with family and loved ones, or remaining in Orlando to train with the club, I hope you will have a successful and enjoyable off season. If your career winds up taking you somewhere else for next season, then I will truly miss you and wish you luck--and I hope you know that just as Janis Joplin sang you will always take a little piece of my heart with you. And if your career brings you back, I will be waiting (along with the rest of the Orlando Pride fans in Orlando) with open arms and renewed hope to welcome you back home.