Reflections on the Carolina Cup Challenge

Over the past few days, the lads played in three matches for the Carolina Cup Challenge against fellow MLS newcomer NYCFC, host USL Pro side Charleston Battery and the one tenured MLS side in the group, Houston Dynamo. Unfortunately for Orlando City fans, we didn't seem to learn much from the tournament other than that the side still looks a bit unsettled and there are more questions than answers heading into the season.

Orlando City's ownership philosophy going into the MLS was to build a club with a balance of experienced leadership offset by youthful exuberance. Both were on display February 21 in the opening match against NYCFC, with Kevin Molino and Kaka combining for a goal early in the match. The match was later equalized by NYCFC and resulted in a draw for both the MLS expansion teams, building yet more anticipation for the opening weekend match on March 8 at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.

In last Wednesday's fixture, Orlando City went up against host Charleston Battery, a side that has been a familiar opponent to Orlando City fans over the last several seasons in USL Pro play. Orlando City went up early with another goal involving Kaka and this time Brek Shea. But the match, which had been rescheduled for an earlier start due to predicted dangerous weather, had to be cut short due to lightning at the 26-minute mark, just seconds after Charleston equalized getting a ball past a diving Donovan Ricketts into the Orlando City net. The pitch was soggy and rain was falling the whole of the match, and to the uneducated eyes of this fan, Orlando City's veteran age seemed to suffer more than did the younger, spryer, and more nimble Charleston side. On the equalizing goal, for example, Ricketts seemed a bit sluggish as though weighed down by waterlogged boots and was not able to react as quickly as long-time MLS fans have seen him in previous seasons with Portland and the LA Galaxy.

And yesterday's match was really pretty ugly. The squad allowed three goals including a penalty kick, and received two red cards in the match against Houston. I admit to being an untrained observer and a fan who is still learning the game, but it really seemed like the lads were either very outmatched by Houston or really distracted by something that stole their focus. They didn't really organize any aggressive possessions early into Houston's end of the field, and the first goal was surrendered on a turnover in Orlando City territory that allowed Houston's Boniek Garcia to feed the ball to Will Bruin for a goal that looked far too easy.

Three minutes later, a sliding tackle attempt by Aurelian Collin inside the area knocked the ball away but also took down Houston's Garcia from behind, resulting in a red card for Collin and a penalty kick for Houston. And in the dying moments of the half, Houston's Leonel Miranda caught Ricketts off balance and sent him sliding to the turf before he slotted home another goal for a 3 - nil advantage at the half.

When Carlos Rivas came into the game for Orlando in the 62nd minute to get some playing time after missing a few matches with an injury, the experiment didn't last long. A mere minute after he came on the pitch he was tossed with a red card for an apparent elbow to the face of Miranda. Playing down two men, Orlando simply did well to avoid giving up more goals, and showed little fire or form other than a bit of an ugly scrap that involved some pushing and shoving between both squads that eventually resulted in teammates having to separate Kaka and Dynamo goalkeeper Tyler Deric of all people.

Now I've watched enough college football in my time as a fan to realize that a team can look awful one week and come back to look brilliant the next. But I also realize it takes time for teams in any sport to jell and build good chemistry working together. Whatever was bothering the lads on Saturday, I hope they managed to leave it in the hotel or on the tarmac in Charleston before their return to Orlando on Sunday.

Regardless of the outcome of the final match of the Carolina Challenge Cup, the result of that game will not be the nervous tension fueling fans of Orlando City in the coming week. The anxiety we feel will be shared by all fan bases of the other clubs in MLS as we hope the players and owners can resolve the issues holding up the CBA negotiations so that the season can begin on schedule. For Orlando City's part, the club plan a number of Kickoff Week celebration events, and I'll be attending and covering several of them for the blog. I will hope to see some of you at these events Please find me and tell me you've been following me on twitter or reading the blog, because I hope to be able to include more fan perspectives than just my own as the season progresses.

For now, have a wonderful week and let's cheer our lads onto victory when they take the pitch in anger the first time on March 8 for the opening match of Orlando City's MLS era!