I'm getting tired of excuses. Apologists for Orlando City's MLS side will tell you there are reasons the team has not won a match since June 30, but in all honesty those all sound like excuses to me.
Let's just look at the three teams that are part of the Orlando City SC organization and see what becomes evident.
The USL side has played 25 matches with a record of 8 - 6 - 11, is on 35 points, and has a +6 goal differential. The team has scored 28 goals, conceded 22, and is scoring a goal every 80.4 minutes. They sit 6th in the Eastern conference table and are solidly above the red line to reach the playoffs this season in their second year of existence. Remember the USL side was completely rebuilt as a new team starting in 2016 as the pre-MLS Orlando City franchise was essentially sold off lock, stock, and barrel to Louisville City after the 2014 USL Pro season. It's also noteworthy that the very same Louisville City franchise sits atop the Eastern Conference table in USL, and Orlando City's original fingerprints and DNA are all infused into that club as well.
The NWSL side has played 20 matches with a record of 9 - 6 - 5, is on 32 points, and has a +11 goal differential. The team has scored 37 goals, conceded 26, and is scoring a goal every 48.6 minutes. They are tied for 3rd place and are above the line for the playoffs with a 3-point lead over 5th place this season in their second year of existence. Again, this team was built from the ground up in under six months from the time it was announced in the fall of 2015 until they played their first match in 2016.
Orlando City SC
The MLS side has played 26 matches with a record of 8 - 11 - 7, is on 31 points, and has a -12 goal differential. The team has scored 27 goals, conceded 39, and is scoring a goal every 86.7 minutes. They have fallen to 9th place in the Eastern Conference table and are 5 points out of the 6th and final playoff spot after starting the season 6 - 1 - 0 and being atop the table. This is the team's third season in MLS and this is the absolute worst position the team has been in at this point in any of the previous seasons. But this team was not a brand new organization in 2015; they had four seasons and two USL championships under their belt before starting the club's MLS era. Several players, some coaches, and the front office personnel were in place.
It's a sad commentary on the leadership of the club that the team which should be the vanguard for the organization has scored fewer goals, conceded more goals, and amassed fewer points over more matches than any of the other teams in the club's umbrella--not to mention that they have five more years of existence than the NWSL and USL sides, so they have no excuses to not be five years further in their development and proficiency than the two newer teams.
Lack of Focus
Orlando City's front office entered the MLS era with grand ambitions: not only did they launch 3 full new teams, but they built a strong charitable Foundation and constructed a brand new soccer-specific stadium. On the one hand, those additional teams and the new stadium have given fans in Orlando a lot more options to see live soccer. On the other, by diverting the club's attention and resources from 100% focus on building the best MLS side in the league, the front office has been trying to build 3 competitive teams simultaneously, each one in a different league with different rules governing player acquisitions, salary structures, and schedules.
Perhaps this overly ambitious vision amounts to something akin to hubris for the front office. Compare this to the ownership of fellow expansion side NYCFC, who have had no ambitions to develop additional teams or even to build their own stadium. And with an ownership tied to EPL side Manchester City, the club can essentially function as a development side for the mothership, combining experienced veteran European leadership (such as David Villa) with young players that Manchester City may be grooming to promotion to the EPL team. Hiring a coach with a European mindset in Patrick Viera lends credence to this view, and makes the club part of a continuum with a unified mindset that spans both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Newcomers Atlanta United FC may not have an ownership stake from a powerful European side, but they have their full soccer focus on a single team. Also, because of the decision of team owner Arthur Blank to build the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium to accommodate a full-size MLS pitch, the front office doesn't need to split its focus between running the team and opening a stadium--they can simply focus on building the best MLS side they can and ride on the coattails of the Falcons as the NFL team moves into their new home.
I would not call it a consequence of the lack of focus, but a contributing factor to that approach is the radical change that has happened in the front office since the time the MLS franchise was awarded to Orlando City. The team started with a strong triumverate of visionaries: Owner Phil Rawlins, Coach Adrian Heath, and GM Paul McDonough. The three were in lock step and agreement over the way to build the club for long-term success. But there was one thing they felt like they were lacking to ensure they could make the move to MLS: deep pockets. So they brought in an enthusiastic and willing financier in Flavio Augusto daSilva.
It would be a mistake to question Flavio's passion for the game or his desire to win. But it feels like we've seen this kind of owner in professional sports before. Sometimes it works out well and sometimes it doesn't. To me, Flavio seems like an owner who is cut from the mold of a Daniel Snyder of the Washington Redskins or Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys. At the end of the 2015 season it's pretty obvious that Flavio was behind the dismissal of GM Paul McDonough (who moved into the same role with Atlanta United, by the way). The original Portuguese GM that Flavio brought in lasted less than a month in the role before leaving the club, and Niki Budalic has now settled into that role.
In the middle of the 2016 season original coach Adrian Heath was fired and Jason Kreis was brought in to replace him. The player roster of the club did not match with Kreis's model for success or style of play that helped him lead RSL to an MLS Championship, so he naturally began making changes in the roster as early as the summer transfer window of last season. Then at the end of 2016, club Founding Owner Phil Rawlins began distancing himself from day-to-day operations. Publicly this seemed to be part of fallout from a divorce, but it's not hard to imagine that perhaps a difference of vision over club direction with the new majority owner, GM, and Coaching staff may have led to this decision. It seems a bit odd that the man who had the vision to bring the club to Orlando, move into MLS, and build a new stadium would simply choose to walk away, and it feels a lot more like he was probably pushed out.
Fast forward to the present and we now have a team whose roster is made up of the fractured vision of three different leadership groups involving ownership, coaching, and GM combinations. So it's almost like the club has started over again three separate times since the beginning of the 2015 season and has not completely settled in to focus on the job at hand of building a winning culture.
Excuses, Excuses, Excuses
I started this post by saying that apologists for the club and apologists for the front office would say that there are reasons they have failed to keep pace with fellow expansion sides that have joined the league since 2015. But I refuse to allow anyone to claim these are reasons--they are only excuses. However, I think the thing that's the most frustrating to me is that as a fan I feel like I have no answers nor any prescription make the team better. Firing coaches or GMs or Front Office staff only feels like it would throw the club into more disarray and fracture the club's vision even further. And on paper, as well as to the eye, it seems as though the team has made some good personnel moves, especially in the most recent summer transfer window. At the same time it's hard to ignore the fact that with some of the offseason moves Orlando City has lost more scoring than it has gained in return by losing fan favorites Brek Shea and Kevin Molino.
As fans there may not be anything we can do other than look forward to next season for the MLS side, and jump on the bandwagon for the Orlando Pride and OCB as they continue to make pushes to the post season in their leagues. I wish I were smart enough to know what to tell the front office, players, and coaches to do in order to start winning again, but at this point I feel like I have no more answers than those inside the organization seem capable of generating.
What about you--if you had the ear of the club leadership and players, how would you address the issue? What could the MLS side do between now and the end of the season to give you faith they are pointing the club in the right direction as they prepare for the 2018 season? Let me know in the comments below!