No matter how the season unfolded, 2015 would always be remembered as an historic point in the Orlando City franchise, owing to the fact that it's the club's first season in MLS. But as the team enters the final month of the regular season, there's a lot of excitement within the fan base and around the club because of the way the team is playing.
Orlando City SC has proven to fans, club leadership, and players alike why it's been so hard for expansion teams to make the playoffs in MLS. With a roster that features 25 players out of the first 30 who are new to the club this season, there has been a huge curve for these players to learn each other's tendencies and play style. Many of them are also young players without much top-tier play experience, so the competition they have faced this year is better than they have faced before.
I've also come to realize how much more difficult it is for young soccer players to understand roles and assignments on the pitch than it is for young players in other sports. In American football, every play starts with a huddle where everyone is reminded of their assignments, and either the quarterback or a linebacker calls out adjustments at the line based on the formation of the other team. In basketball, there are a million time outs and play stoppages, during which the coach can pull a newer player to the side of the court and either draw up a play or point out whom to cover. But in soccer, there are very few stoppages and huge amounts of ground to cover, meaning that there's a lot of trial and error and practice and intuition that younger players need to develop during the course of matches.
At times during the season, this youth and inexperience really showed how thin the Orlando City roster has been in terms of experienced MLS-caliber players, especially with injuries that have kept a number of opening day Starting XI off the pitch for months at a time. The worst stretch was between July and August, during which the team suffered six games in a row without a win and dropped all the way out of the Top 6 in the table, going out of the playoff picture at the time.
But as September unfolded and we move into October, the team's fortunes have seemed to turn around. Midseaon acquisitions like Adrian Winter, Corey Ashe, David Mateos, and Servando Carrasco have each made contributions to the team on defense or in scoring, and some of the young players, most notably rookie Cyle Larin, have proven to show exceptional talent. Brek Shea is also back and healthy, and the difference in the effect of the team's attack when you have both Shea and Kaka on the pitch together as opposed to having just one or the other is quite staggering. Orlando City have now strung together four outright wins, and with two matches left they find themselves only one point out of sixth place for the playoffs.
I've been curious all season what would happen once the NFL and college football seasons started, and whether Orlando City would continue to be able to draw crowds like it had early in the season. Yesterday's match against Montreal was the first real test since the game was on head-to-head with the resurging Florida Gators (back in the Top 25 for the first time in a half-decade it seems) as they hosted the 3rd ranked team in the country. Orlando has long been home to more passionate Gator and Seminole fans than it has been to Dolphins, Bucs, and Jaguars fans. But the recent success of Orlando City brought out over 35,000 fans who were all screaming and cheering and chanting and showing their passion by turning the stadium purple.
Regardless of whether the team manages to get into the playoffs or not, they still have a couple of trophies and several records that will go down in MLS history. The first is setting the mark for first-year attendance by an MLS club. Even though Seattle has grown to a point where they sell out every match and lead the MLS in overall attendance, Orlando City has a better attendance in this season than any other first-year team in the league's history. Another achievement is having the MLS All-Star MVP, Kaka, as a member of the squad. And a third is having rookie Cyle Larin break the MLS rookie scoring record that has stood since 2003. That previous mark had stood at 11 goals, and with the goal Cyle Larin scored in the Montreal match last night, he now stands on 15 goals. Unless the MLS is as corrupt as FIFA there's no way to conceive of anyone else being named MLS Rookie of the Year at the conclusion of the season.
This is indeed an exciting time to be an Orlando City fan. It's been a fantastic season and the great play of the club over the last few matches provides a glimmer of hope to make the playoffs for this season, as well as the promise of a much stronger 2016 campaign, depending on whether or not the club is able to keep the core of their roster together and make some strategic moves in the off-season.