The Orlando Pride have completed a quarter of their matches for 2019 with six of 24 games played. At this point they are sitting on the bottom of the table with but a single championship point from their week two draw with Reign FC and a -11 goal differential. As a fan, I like to fancy myself as someone who understands what I am seeing on the pitch during the game, but it’s often not until after a match when I go back and watch games over again on DVR or analyze replays of key moments that I can see what’s really going on.
This season I’ve had several occasions to have in-depth conversations with Coach Marc Skinner an assistant coach Carl Green. And in the last couple of matches I’m really starting to see in real time the strategy they would like to play, and I’m understanding why the team is failing to execute it.
In the most recent home match against Portland, for instance, I was looking specifically to see if the team was trying to build up attacks out of the back with short, crisp, deft passes between teammates to push the ball up the pitch. Instead, time and time again I saw many players fall into a state of panic as soon as Portland showed any signs of pressure against the defense. Instead of passing the ball at angles toward the center or the edges of the pitch, when a Pride defender or defensive midfielder would be faced with a charging Portland player she would simply boom the ball 30 or 40 yards up the pitch, basically sending a desperation shot that hoped one of her teammates could run under it.
Of course in soccer, just like in American football, your chances of completing a pass successfully decrease the further you move the ball in space. There are tremendously quick and athletic players on every team in NWSL, so when you send a long ball forward, it’s a virtual guarantee that an opponent will get under the ball to challenge it. And if your pass is not inch-perfect toward a teammate who is expecting it, many times it will be the opponent who has the better position on the ball.
To me it seems this is a failure of coaching in American women’s soccer and we have somehow done a great disservice to the young women playing the game. Or maybe it’s just that Coach Tom Sermanni relied too much on players to follow their own natural talents and instincts and didn’t provide enough corrective guidance and feedback to prepare players to handle opponent pressure better. Coach Skinner has always said that this season was going to be a huge change of mindset for the players and it was going to challenge both them and him to try to foster and develop the system he is building to get the full potential out of the world class players on the team.
When the Pride have their next match on May 25, the team will be without all of their World Cup players. In all, the Pride have sent eight of their normal Starting XI players to France for the World Cup: Alex Morgan, Ali Krieger, and Ashlyn Harris (USA); Camila and Marta (BRA); Emily Van Egmond and Alanna Kennedy (AUS); and Shelina Zadorsky (CAN). That leaves a lot of players who didn’t get many minutes under Tom Sermanni or who are brand new to the team this season. It will be interesting to see if a mix of young and less experienced players adapts to Coach Skinner’s system more quickly and more easily than veterans who have become accustomed to the Sermanni system over the last three seasons.
A key to the success of the team going forward will be better responses to pressure from other teams. As long as the rest of the NWSL believes they can pressure the Pride into making poor choices with long, panic passes out of the back, we will keep seeing that tactic used against us and we will continue seeing lack of scoring from the team. The Pride need to become more successful in dealing with the pressure by using it to their advantage.
In college football and in the NFL, the best offensive teams use a speedy defensive opponent to their advantage. By running a lot of misdirection and counter plays, they can often get a speedy defense to over-commit one way or another and then run or pass the ball away from the pressure to gain more yards. I would love to see the Pride figure out a way to execute that same concept in soccer. Perhaps they can get teammates to feign converging on their teammate with the ball, thus focusing the attention of defensive players on the dribbler and running at her. Then with the feint set, the dribbler can pass out of the pressure to a teammate and release up the pitch to help matriculate the ball toward the opponent’s goal.
Next time you are watching the Pride play, keep an eye on the passing and see if the philosophy of Coach Skinner is starting to gel with the players. At this point, the team can’t fall any further down the standings, and this year it looks like there will be a real dogfight among team for the playoffs, so going on a steady streak of getting results from matches might just push the team back up toward contention by the time the final month or two of the season rolls around.