This week has been pretty crazy with recovering from vacation mode, so I'm only now getting around to writing my reflections on the Toronto FC match from Sunday. It's interesting doing this after attending Coach Heath's show on Tuesday evening and hearing his perspective. There are a few things that are making me feel less angst-filled and more circumspect today than I was walking out of the stadium on Sunday night after another home loss. Here's a few reasons.
MLS vs. USL League Quality
From 2011 to 2014, Orlando City played in a league where there were a few teams that looked competitive and a number of teams that looked little better than a bunch of guys running around after sitting in cubicles all day. From the time Phil Rawlins formed the Austin Aztecs that eventually moved to The City Beautiful, his goal was getting a team into MLS. And when Flavio de Silva and the other Orlando-based investors bought into the team upon their move to our town, they were all on board with Phil's vision. Therefore, they went out and pursued young talent that was hungry to win and could be coached into contenders. The result was four straight playoff appearances, three Presidents Cups for most season points, and two league championships.
In USL that wasn't much of a feat because there were few other teams that really took being competitive seriously with a long-term future goal in mind from the top down. Sure, I think every player fantasizes about joining a great league some day, but not all ownership groups and coaching staffs have that level of commitment.
Now in 2015 we find ourselves in a completely different league where the average level of talent is miles above what we faced in previous years, but as fans we're still used to our lads being virtually unmatched by their rivals. It's hard to sit and watch a team that lost a mere four home matches over four seasons go winless in their first four home matches in a season.
Having never been a professional athlete, I'm not sure how quickly a collection of teammates usually starts to bond and gel together as a unit instead of a collection of individuals trying to to work toward a common goal. But as someone who has made a few job changes in my life I know it takes a while to get your feet on the ground in any new company or office, even if you're transferring from one city to another. It takes a while to learn about different personalities, expectations, routines, preferences, and schedules. Soccer has a really short off-season, and with the transition from USL to MLS, we practically hired an entire new roster of players. There were 8 holdovers from USL to MLS on the 30-man roster, but in the Top 18, that drops to about two or three, with most of our guys from last season being relegated to practice squad players and some likely bound for loan duty to places like Louisville City or other minor league teams for some seasoning to see if they can grow into the potential the coaches and owners saw when they were named to the team.
Let's contrast that with the other 18 teams that were holdovers from 2014 in MLS (everyone except NYCFC). Some teams lost a few players in the expansion draft; others had the typical silly season transfers of players to or from Europe and South America and draft picks from college or minor league teams. But whereas Orlando City had 25 new players on the roster in that were not with the club in 2014, at the most other teams may have had 5 or 6 new faces.
It's a whole lot easier when the core group of team members can introduce the new players to club culture than when the whole club has to try to find and create a culture of their own to match the mix of new personalities and faces.
Those who have lived in Orlando and have followed local sports for a while may remember another new era in local sports that began in 2004. In that case you had a major upheaval in both coaching style, team culture, and player chemistry that occurred over on the east side of town and in the Citrus Bowl.
2004, of course, marked the first year that George O'Leary was head coach of the UCF Knights football team. When he arrived on campus he found a squad that was lazy, undisciplined, and lacked the fitness to make it through the style of practice the new coach wanted to put into place (similar to what Charlie Strong inherited in Texas a couple of seasons ago). As a result, twelve of the players returning to UCF from the 2003 squad quit the team in the spring of 2004 because they couldn't handle the new coach's practice schedule and academic demands. If you're a long time fan of the black-and-gold, you may also remember that the Knights went a perfect 0 - 11 in the fall of 2004, making for a very dubious start to the George O'Leary era.
In the long run, UCF has done OK under the new coach. They've won multiple conference championships, a few bowl games, finished in the Top 25 a few times, and won a major bowl game. They did none of that under previous coaches, so they've shown improvement, but it took a while for all that to transpire.
Stay Calm and Keep Tailgating
So far every home match for Orlando City has been entertaining. OK, I'll admit the lads' performance against Toronto FC seemed a bit flatter and less energetic than any of their previous efforts. But the tailgates have all been a blast. Even sitting outside the supporters section as I do, our group has started making friends with several of the other regular groups in our tailgate lot, and we're all having a great time recounting moments of previous matches and speculating what may come to pass in the day's match. So I have to commend the fans for making the game day experience a lot of fun, and I have faith that as time goes along we'll return to seeing Orlando City claw their way toward the top of the league in MLS just as they did in USL over the past few seasons. I still fully expect that the team can make the playoffs this year (I am a perpetual optimist), and it will be interesting to see if they manage to remain above the red line in the standings throughout the year.
In the end I guess this turned out to be less a reflection on the actual match and more a look at where we are and why we shouldn't all be looking for a ledge just yet. In any case, I'm still excited about the season and still looking forward to spending my weekends this summer planning tailgates and cheering on the lads as they continue the MLS campaign. #VamosOrlando Go City!