Last night I had to get home and wind down a little bit before I could trust myself to take to social media. When I could, only one word came to mind to sum up how I felt. "Phooey!" For those unfamiliar with the etymology of the English language, phooey is a precise term expressing a period of fun ending in frustration.
Last night was a phooey moment for me: my team spent all evening peppering the opponent's goal with shots and wound up walking away with zero points after giving up a free kick goal on a dumb foul during injury time at the end of the match. Bah! Phooey! Phooey! Phooey!
I think the thing that makes it more frustrating is that it's starting to become a trend. In all three matches the squad has given up a goal to the opponent very late, and in the most recent two they have waited until added time to surrender the decisive score.
Today I'm not going to spend a whole lot of time analyzing the match last night, just my reactions to it: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
We are shooting the ball a lot more. On the way home one of the members of our group was checking stats from the match on MLS.com and we outshot DC United by the count of 17 to 11. We also had more quality shots on target. And if we're looking to talk about the good from the match, I've got to take a moment to recognize the outstanding work in DC United's net by Bill Hamid. Coming off a season where he was named Keeper of the Year in 2014 it was clear why. The radio post game show indicated he had five saves on the night. It's fun to watch a guy like that work his craft--it's only a shame he was doing it for the opposing team!
Another good thing from last night was team defense. There was a sequence in the 68th minute where DC United made a furious assault on the goal. Donovan Ricketts had come out of the net to try clearing a shot, but a DC United player had what looked like a wide open opportunity at a goal. Then the amazing Brek Shea stuck out a leg and cleared the screaming shot away from the net and back out toward midfield. And Shea wasn't the only defender involved in that sequence helping to frustrate DC United's attack, but he was just the one who made the most spectacular contribution to help preserve the team's chances to that point. I think between his all-around play in the match and considering the very short week he had flying back from Switzerland on Wednesday, I have to award Shea my "Man of the Match" for Orlando City for this contest.
Aside from the ugly collapse at the end, the worst "bad" thing that kept coming to mind during the match was the team's poor receiving of the ball on passes from teammates. They received the ball very "hard" last night--meaning that when a teammate passed one of our lads the ball, they would often have it hit them too hard and it would bounce well away from them so they would have to chase it.
Now I'll admit now as a novice fan and someone who has never played organized soccer I don't speak from a perspective of experience, but I have watched the way a lot of players are able to "cushion" or "soften" the ball when it comes in on a pass so that it drops right at their feet and they can immediately pass, dribble, or shoot with it. But I counted time and time again when a pass into one of our players would bounce off their breastbone and bounce ten or twelve feet away from them, so they would have to chase it for a few steps before they could do anything.
I know it's a problem, but I can't offer a solution because I'm not sure of the cause: if it's a case of teammates not being familiar with each other and their tendencies or capabilities, whether it's a drill that they need to practice more under simulated game conditions to be able to receive the ball better on the fly while being marked, or whether it's just a lot of players that don't have experience with that and need more repetitions. In any case, the result of this situation is a lot of times turning the ball over to DC United, or allowing defenders to get into better position and not being able to take advantage of the pass to shoot or pass immediately as you'd like to see them do.
I've already alluded to the most egregious and insufferable moment of "the ugly" from the match last night--the added-time collapse of the squad and allowing DC United the late goal for the win. Now I have not watched the replay yet for analysis, but I'm someone that tends to not want to blame officiating for results, so I'm not going to complain if there was a bad call that awarded the free kick right outside our box. After all, we led the match both in possessions and shots on goal, so I fault our team for not converting on any of those shots earlier in the match.
But of course there was a scary ugly moment as well, early in the first half. Pedro Ribeiro went down just inside the area at the north end of the pitch and had to be subbed out around the 15th minute, and then the trainers took him straight into the locker room. As of this writing I have not seen if there's any official word on his condition, but the twitter stream during the match contained a lot of speculation about a possible hamstring injury that could see him out four to six weeks. I hope it's not as severe as that; I hope even more fervently that it's not any worse than that! Ribeiro seemed to really get into a nice rhythm with Kaka in the Montreal match, and it would be a shame to see something disrupt that partnership long-term so early in the season.
Another ugly thing I saw last night was several "rushed" shots. God knows some of the players who have been following the blog and retweeting some of my posts over the last couple of months are not going to like me very much--complaining a couple of weeks ago about not taking enough shots and now complaining about rushing them. But I'm a fan and I want to see wins and it's really frustrating to see that not happen. There were times during the match when Cyle Larin (love the hustle), Kevin Molino (love the dedication) and Carlos Rivas (love the effort) all had shots at the goal with Bill Hamid out of position. But in each case they shot wide, high, or otherwise off-target and missed great chances. There was one chance in particular that Larin had down right in front of us on the north end during the first half. He received a great crossing shot from Kaka I believe and hit the ball full force. Unfortunately he bent it to his left (our right) beyond the outer post of the goal and the ball crashed hard into the retaining wall at the bottom of the stands. It clearly looked like he rushed the shot more than needed. A half-heartbeat longer to take more careful aim and get less spin on the ball and it would have been in the back of the net.
I know that historically MLS has not been kind to expansion sides, and it seems like the trend is holding with Orlando City this season. But I can't lose hope, nor will I give up on this team. I have a great belief in the talent of the players, the experience of the coaches, and the dedication of the owners to build a championship side. We come from USL Pro with a history of winning, and the transition year may prove rough, but I see no reason to expect anything less than future championships for this club.
At this stage, MLS has become a much more competitive and prestigious league than it was when it launched 20 years ago. Some pundits put it the globe's Top 10, but I still have to think there's a big drop-off between the top 3 or 5 and everyone else if I'm honest. But it is true we have a lot more young players coming hear from Europe, and the presence of international stars like David Villa and our own Kaka can only be good omens about the future prospects of landing world-class players. Already as the European clubs near their "silly season" where talk is heating up of off-season transfers, you hear rumors about big names considering MLS. In all likelihood this is something most agents are doing as a ploy to try to get more money out of potential European employers for their client's services, but it says something when the global soccer press gives these rumors due consideration and analysis to see if they might indeed be true. It says that these "experts" and pundits believe there's real credibility about some current superstars taking their trade to the US in the middle of their careers and not just to play out one final contract.
Because of the more competitive nature of the league, I think that club cohesion is becoming more and more important. The longer that the core starters of a club can play together season after season, the better they get to know each other's strengths and skills, and the better they can help each other take advantage of those. With 24 players of the 30 on our roster being new to Orlando City since the end of the USL Pro playoffs last season, and all but one of our usual Starting XI being new players to the team, it's no wonder they still look like they're trying to figure out how to play together.
Finally, I think a reason for optimism comes from my history as a fan of sports teams in this town. I've been attending UCF football games since long before the Knights were a Division I team, and even before anyone had ever heard of Daunte Culpepper. So I've watched that program evolve and progress from a glorified sandlot team into a perennial conference champion and the glorious, beautiful amazing wrecking ball that destroyed Big XII champions Baylor in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl. There was a lot of heartbreak and close late losses over the years on the way to building that team into arguably the second best college football program in the state of Florida (all they lack now is the conference affiliation to prove it week in and week out).
So I'm a fan for the long haul and I don't give up easily. I hope that other Orlando City fans won't be quick to get down on the team either. There are lots of reasons to be proud of this team, and many more reasons to believe their future will be something very wonderful indeed. All that said, I am a fan, dangit. And when I see something like that late collapse last night, I can't help letting fly the occasional exasperated and heartsick, "Phooey!"