No more Mr. Nice Guy: Sermanni's steel forged Orlando's 2017 NWSL success

Mark Thor/ISI Photos/Orlando Pride

Don't let that genial smile fool you. The Scot made some canny, calculated moves to lead Orlando to the playoffs. 

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During his stint in charge of the Australia women’s national team, Tom Sermanni earned a reputation as a builder, someone who takes a holistic approach to programs in need of development. So it wasn’t that much of a surprise when he was announced as the head coach of the National Women’s Soccer League’s latest expansion team, the Orlando Pride, in late 2015.

His first season in charge of the Pride, however, was a hard learning experience. Orlando finished second from bottom in the 10-team league, ahead of only the Boston Breakers, and 14 points out of a playoff position.

An encouraging start to the campaign gave way to a futile ending: Orlando went winless its final eight games over the final two months of the season, losing seven, including a five-game skid which spanned from mid-July to early September. Changes were needed throughout the roster, and they arrived most notably at the top end.

In 2017, the Pride made a rather stylish run for the playoffs, aided in large part by the arrival of the world’s most prominent single-name female footballer, Marta. The five-time FIFA World Player of the Year scored 13 goals — behind only league MVP Sam Kerr — and added six assists. Add on to that the midseason return of a healthy and in-form Alex Morgan — who scored nine goals in 13 games — and Orlando surged to third in 2017, making the playoffs for the first time.

While Sermanni had the services of one of the most dynamic duos in the league, he also made several necessary key changes that allowed him to get the most out of a team that many had predicted would be no better than mid-table. He brought in Brazilian midfielder Camila, who quickly developed into a key cog under Marta’s tutelage, as well as Australian international Alanna Kennedy.

And he showed off tactical acumen in his decisions to move Kennedy out of the defense and into the midfield while also sliding Ali Krieger in as his center back, taking advantage of her experience as a defender while also saving her legs.

ISI Photos-Jeremy Reper

Marta (ISI Photos-Jeremy Reper)

“As soon as we put Alanna in the midfield, we stopped leaking goals from our center back position,” he teased during a conference call before the NWSL semifinals, which also featured Kennedy. “We always knew that Alanna had the ability to play in midfield or at the back. And in fact can probably play in multiple positions in reality because of her football ability and because of her physical qualities,” he said.

Kennedy’s move into the midfield gave Orlando the ability to be more creative in its movement everywhere else on the pitch, while Krieger, capped 98 times for the U.S., gave Orlando some stability in the back.

“Her ability to defend and ability to dictate what happens back there, they are best suited coming from a center-back role rather than a fullback role when you’re sometimes on the periphery,” said Sermanni. He also cited Krieger’s ability to help the team gel off the field as part of her value to him. “Her ability to relate to the players makes her just such an important leader in the group.”

That sense of camaraderie was a constant thread for Sermanni as he described why his team had made progress from one season to the next, and he deserves an immense amount of credit for fostering it. As with the U.S. women’s national team during his short 2013-14 tenure, Sermanni was tasked with getting superstar international players to buy into his system and philosophies.

NEXT: Warm persona, cold calculations