Orlando City SC: 2016 at the Quarter Mark

Today we're going to look at the MLS side after a quarter of the season is complete. Orlando City have played nine of 34 matches on the season. We'll look at what is going well, where the club is struggling, how this season compares to 2015, and projections for the full season.

What's Working

There are a number of things for Orlando City fans to feel better about this year compared to last season. The first is improved depth. Compared to this time last season, Orlando City have added a lot of experience to the roster, and they also have the OCB team in USL where some younger players on first team contracts can get development minutes in live competition. Names added to the Orlando City roster in the last twelve months include Adrian Winter, Julio Baptista, Antonio Nocerino, and Kevin Alston. Of course some experienced players have left or been traded away from the club, with the biggest and most recent name being the departure of Aurelien Collin to the New York Red Bulls. The improved depth has paid dividends in several matches when there has been effective substitution, as the fresh legs off the bench can provide a lift to the squad late in matches without suffering a steep drop-off in talent. As for the actual substitution pattern itself, we'll circle back to that topic later.

Another thing that fans can be happier about this year is more scoring. Through nine matches in 2015, Orlando City had scored only 8 goals and was sitting on a goal differential of -4. This season through nine matches, OCSC have scored 16 goals and they are on a goal differential of +2. Orlando City are also currently riding an 11-match home unbeaten streak that stretches back to the end of the 2015 season. There are also more players scoring goals this season for the club, including the emergence of Kevin Molino who now is among the team leaders with four goals scored on the season after going scoreless in his injury-shortened 2015 campaign. Additionally, Brek Shea and Carlos Rivas have scored their first goals as members of Orlando City SC this year. A big reason for this change in scoring seems to be that players have started to practice first-touch shooting. Last season players were very hesitant to shoot if they got the ball on their feet in the scoring third, but this season they seem a lot quicker to shoot, which has resulted in more scoring.

Biggest Struggles

While there are areas that the club have improved, there are areas where fans have reason for concern. One major concern is sloppy defending. Orlando City was not a great defensive squad last year, and the team relied way too heavily on Donovan Ricketts and Tally Hall to bail them out of trouble when they let opponents sashay into the scoring third of the pitch unchallenged, and unfortunately we see Joe Bendik called upon far too many times to make saves, or we see Orlando City players scrambling to get back in front of their own goal to try to help defend or clear the ball out after they allowed penetration all the way to the six-yard box. The team needs to learn how to keep the ball in the attacking half of the pitch so fans can spend more time cheering for scoring opportunities and less time pulling our hair out from watching the opponent try to score on us.

A second reason for concern among fans is sloppy passing. I said I was pleased with the improvement in first-touch shooting this season, but the club also seems to be a lot more reckless in their passing and possession. Watching the matches, it feels like the club has a tendency to go for the long-range, low-percentage passes, and as a result they are committing way too many turnovers. While it's harder to find statistics for a comparison to last season, we can look at 50-50 balls and tackles won for this season to see some comparison. Opponents are out dueling Orlando City, winning 50-50 balls by the count of 461 to 436 through the first nine games. In terms of tackles won, Orlando City and its opponents are tied on 126 each, but in the last two matches against New England and the New York Red Bulls, the opponents are winning that battle by the count of 41 to 18, more than doubling Orlando City's total. This is clearly indicates a trend going in the wrong direction and needs to be corrected by the players and the coaching staff immediately.

Finally, substitutions are a real concern this season--or rather I should say lack of substitutions. I indicated before that the better depth of the squad means that we have the opportunity to use substitutes more liberally and get quality minutes out of them. However, it is concerning to myself and many other fans that we are not seeing more substitutes used in matches. I don't pretend to know more about the games than the coaching staff, and of course I don't have the any contact with players during the week of practice to know who is feeling good, who is hurting, and who is struggling on the training pitch. But I have concerns, and I see those echoed in my twitter stream and on social media during and after many matches that we lose or draw when we did not make substitutions in the final 20 minutes of the match.

2015 Comparison and Season Prediction

I said earlier that we have doubled our goal scoring and are +6 in goal differential compared to this point last season. Examining the overall record, Orlando City is ahead of last season's pace, getting results in 7 out of 9 matches in 2016 (2-2-5, 11 points), whereas at this point last year the team only had results in 5 of 9 matches (2-4-3, 9 points).

Orlando City also struggled with injuries and international call-ups in 2015 that took a lot of key players out of many matches. By this point last season Kevin Molino was out for the year on a serious injury, and a number of other regular starters had already missed several matches. This season, Orlando City has been able to take advantage of scheduling to avoid playing during most of the International breaks, and the club has also not suffered so many injuries to key players. The one player who has been plagued with nagging little injuries throughout the year is Kaka, who has missed a half-dozen matches so far with minor pulls and strains. Of course, the captain's presence is important, as the team seems to play like two different entities depending on whether he is in the match or not.

Looking ahead, if the team can continue to avoid the same level of injury problems they faced last season, and if they can make some corrections to the worrying trends I have identified, I believe that they will be able to make the playoffs. At the time of this writing, Orlando City sits 4th in the East, but three teams behind us in the East have yet to play this weekend so it's unclear if we will go into next week still above the line for the playoff race. But based on the fact that we entered the final weekend of the season last year with still a mathematical chance to make the playoffs, I'll predict that we improve on that and finish 2016 in either the 4th or 5th spot in the East. I still think the team is young, and I'm still not sure we will resolve all the problems that make games exciting for the wrong reasons by the time the season is over, but I believe there will be enough improvement to see our lads make the playoffs this season.

What about you? Do you think Orlando City has a chance of making the playoffs this year? Do you think there are other problems that are more pressing that the team needs to address? Or do you think that I have too much concern about the team and they will outperform my expectations? Let me know in the comments below!