Burned out in Chi-town

Orlando City's run in the 2015 US Open Cup has ended at the quarterfinal stage against Chicago. The more matches I watch with Orlando City, the more patterns I detect, and there are three ways that I have consistently seen other teams beat our lads in recent matches.

Chicago won last night's match 3 - 1, and at the outset it's fair for me to say that I thought the team that played better on the night won the game. It was a deserved result for Chicago, and if the loss leaves some of our players frustrated and looking for answers, perhaps they can find something from this fan's perspective that can be helpful. Understand, however, that I'm a fan so my perspective is limited from watching on the screen or sitting in the stands and I don't have any of the additional insight that comes from participating in team meetings, practices, training sessions, or playing in the actual matches. In other words, take my observations for what they are worth and don't expect me to approach my analysis from a player's or a coach's perspective.

Outhustled

The number one common thread I see in matches that Orlando City loses is a lack of hustle. By a lack of hustle, I mean that too often I see our players being too passive or hesitant when it comes to taking shots, passing the ball to teammates, or receiving passes from teammates. Now I am one of those people who says that possession is a meaningless stat in MLS--at least from the standpoint of what percentage of the time your team possesses the ball, which is what the MLS Possession stat measures. What counts in the end is what you do with the ball when you do possess it. And far too often in recent matches, I have seen Orlando City give the ball away.

Between the YouTube commentary by the Chicago Fire broadcast team and the twitter feed I was following and occasionally commenting on during last night's match, it was clear I was not the only person seeing the same thing. Way too many times we would get two or three passes on the ball and then someone from the Fire side would race to the ball before it reached its intended Orlando City recipient and take the possession away.

While I can see it happening, I can't necessarily lay fault at any one player--it happens too many times across too many matches to blame on anyone in particular. And I'm not sure if it's a problem with Orlando City players not passing the ball crisply enough to get it to teammates ahead of opponents, or our players not being attentive enough to opposing players to sense a steal when they are on the receiving end of a pass. I think perhaps it's a bit of both--on the sending and the receiving ends of the pass, our players need to show a little more energy to be sure that the ball gets to the intended target without being intercepted.

Something that also goes along with this "out hustled" play is the difference between the way we play defense on other teams and the way our team is defended. Most of the time last night, it looked like each Orlando City player had a shadow dressed in a Chicago Fire uniform when we were on the attack. The Fire (as well as some of our other recent opponents) did not leave much space at all between themselves and the Orlando City player that they were marking. It was a very tight man-marking defense.

On the other hand, Orlando City seemed to wait until a Chicago player got into a dangerous position and then tried to converge on the ball. With speedsters like David Accam and Kennedy Igboananike (think I spelled that wrong in a tweet last night) when you wait for them to get the ball, it's often too late to do anything about the defense. 

Missing "Sparkplugs"

Orlando City has a number of very talented young players that are still several seasons away from playing their best football (did I just call it football instead of soccer). They also have a few key players that always seem to provide a huge spark and bring tremendous emotional and kinetic leadership to the squad. At least three of those players were not on the pitch last night. One of them I know is recovering from injury, and I won't presume to know better than the coach who should play and who should not in any given match.

The three players of whom I speak are Brek Shea, Aurelien Collin, and Carlos Rivas. Shea of course is out recovering from his sports hernia surgery, and he along with Collin are two of the most physical and energetic players we have on the squad. Kaka has feet that would make Gregory Hines and Fred Astaire jealous, but Collin and Shea literally throw their whole bodies into the match when they play. Their kinetic and frenetic styles of play seem to lift the energy of the whole team, because they always have a knack of making a play at a key time that either encourages the team out of a mid-match malaise or sparks a strike to kick the intensity BAM! up another notch.

Carlos Rivas took a long time to start making his presence felt on a regular basis this season, but now he has started producing fireworks. Those fireworks don't always result in goals, but he rips it from range and sends thrills through the crowd and chills down the spine of any keeper having to face him. Those tremendous shots are like little bolts of adrenaline coursing through the team and providing a spark that has to make the players feel like the next goal could come on any possession, steal, or counter-attack that our lads can mount. 

On the other hand, there are not a lot of players who were on the pitch last night that regularly display the kind of energetic spark that Collin, Shea, and Rivas provide. Early on in the season Pedro Ribeiro was showing that sort of form, but I haven't noticed it as much since his return from the hamstring injury. Perhaps there's a bit of hesitancy on his part to push himself quite as hard as he did early on until he's absolutely confident that hamstring injury won't occur again. And Cyle Larin did produce a number of great goals early in the season (indeed he scored again last night), but I think he's starting to hit that "wall" that college players often hit on their first season in professional sports. College soccer in the US has only a 3-month season, and the regular season for MLS is more than twice that long, so it may take Cyle a season or two to acclimate to seven months of regular season before the playoffs begin.

Negative Emotional Energy

In sports, emotion can give you energy and it can also steal energy from you as a player. We all remember in the match against LA Galaxy a few weeks ago how each successive Orlando City score ratcheted up the emotion on our squad in a positive way. Each goal gave our lads energy to push on toward the next and the next until the match turned into a blowout.

But in the last few matches, I've seen how negative emotional energy has robbed our players of some sharpness. If a call goes against us, too often it seems like there's a lot of dramatic flailing of hands and yelling at the ref. Yes, all of us--myself included--feel like the refs have been somewhat biased against our team this season, but I hope the players can leave it up to us in the stands to taunt the refs and point out their questionable heritage. As players in the match, they need to focus on the next play and the next attack instead of wasting breath and energy arguing or complaining about the last one. It seems to leave our players a half-beat behind the play when it resumes, and the parity in the league is such that even a small advantage given to any opponent can spell the ball in the back of our net before you know it.

So those are three factors that I've seen in the last few matches and that really stood out to me last night. Am I being unfair? Perhaps. Do I have no idea how hard it is to run up and down the pitch for 90 minutes against MLS-caliber talent? Absolutely--I'd pull hamstrings and blow out ACLs inside the first five minutes of any match. I'm just very sorry for the lads to see them drop games in this way, and if there's any accuracy in some of the deficits I believe I am seeing on the pitch, I hope they can find a way of pushing past this and getting back to their winning form soon.

No matter what happens, I'll be there cheering them on--in the stadium when I'm in town or in front of a TV when I'm away (as I will be for the Columbus match on August 1). I still hope to see our lads in the playoffs at the end of the season. Vamos Orlando!