It’s been a roller-coaster week since the USA hosted Panama at Orlando City Stadium last Friday night. With a 4 – 0 win in front of a packed house, every fan of the US Men’s team thought we were in great shape to secure a top three finish in the hex and qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Since then, it’s been all downhill as a soccer fan.
Lost Points and Lost Matches
First was a gut punch from the MLS. Between the MLS decision to ignore the Laws of the game and not force Dallas FC to forfeit the most recent game and a win by the New York Red Bulls last weekend, Orlando City’s MLS side was officially eliminated from the playoffs.
Then last Saturday the Orlando Pride came up short in their bid to advance to the NWSL Cup Final as they fell 4 – 1 at Portland. The Thorns have a great team and just played better soccer on the day. To be fair, the Pride struggled in the last few matches of the season when they were on the cusp of qualifying for the playoffs. They could have locked up a spot with four games left, but it took three draws and losses by some other teams competing for the final two spots for the Pride to punch their playoff ticket. As much talent as they have, I saw a team that showed nerves for the first time all season when they were trying to lock down the playoffs and again in the semifinal match. They have veteran leaders, but they are a young team, and I think that comfort with expecting to be in the playoffs and expecting to play for championships will come with time.
And then last Tuesday night the US Men’s National Team laid a sloppy, misshapen, cracked-shell egg against Trinidad & Tobago. T&T fielded a young team with nothing to play for but personal pride and the sheer love of the game, and that love showed through brilliantly. Meanwhile, Team USA looked slow, plodding, disorganized, and seemed like they had spent more time drinking Bacardi & Coke than training. By the end of the match, not only had they lost 2 – 1, but wins by Honduras and Panama had vaulted both those teams above the USA in the Hex and knocked us out of the World Cup before the month-long final tournament for the first time since the 1986 edition.
All that makes me a pretty angry fan. So in some ways I’m pretty damn glad I only have to spend one more match day at Orlando City Stadium watching the MLS side trip over their shoelaces this weekend. And even that’s going to be more bittersweet than the last home match of any season, since Kaka announced earlier this week he would not be back.
Kaka’s decision did not surprise me—his name drew attention to Orlando City from the very beginning of the MLS era, and he immediately became one of the most beloved players in the entire league, alongside the veterans who gave their entire careers and became part of the lore of the MLS. So part of his league-leading salary over the last three years can be seen as an investment in promoting the club.
But his time with the MLS side was marred by injury. That is just the effects of Father Time creeping up as it does on the best athletes in every sport. And age also showed its effects this year especially as teams seemed to hone in on stopping Kaka by collapsing down on him and cutting off his passing lanes every time he received the ball. As the Captain at the 10 spot, all of his teammates always wanted to give him the ball to let him dictate the offense, but as that became too predictable and Kaka’s speed at 35 could not match his speed at 25, I believe it really hurt Orlando’s chances of creating more chances and scoring more goals.
So if Kaka were to come back, I knew he could not come back as an every match starter and it would be unwise to bring him back at his same salary level, and I am always doubtful that any professional athlete is willing to take a pay cut or accept a reduced role. So it seemed likely he would retire.
Players to Watch
In the last few matches, Cyle Larin has started from the bench with Kaka and Dwyer at the top of the 4-4-2 (or 4-1-2-1) formation. I think this is likely to be the case again, with Kaka coming off in the second half to give the crowd a chance to recognize him and making way for either Larin or Rivas.
It will also be interesting to see whether Will Johnson is in the 18 for the match today. MLS announced late in the week that they have completed their investigation into his domestic abuse arrest. That means he has been cleared to rejoin the team for practice and is eligible to be selected for matches.
Given the general reaction of the Orlando City fan base, I do not think it would be in the club's best interest to bring Johnson back next season, and my hunch on that will grow stronger if the coaches decide to leave him out of the 18 for Sunday's match. He has value as a player, and when the off-season transfer window opens, I think there may be some teams that would be interested in trading for him.
Orlando City is out of the playoffs and have nothing left to play for. Columbus is playing to try to improve their playoff place. They currently sit fifth but can finish as high as third depending on their results and the results of other Eastern Conference teams in the last two matches. So on paper it would seem like Columbus would have the motivation.
However, this will be Kaka’s last home match with Orlando City. The hometown fans will be urging Kaka on to provide one final magical performance, and the rest of the team will (hopefully) want to reward the fans for putting up with their on-field nonsense for the entire season. So one more time I am going to invoke my purple-tinted glasses, and against the better part of wisdom I will predict that Orlando City will pull off the victory. My score prediction is 2 – 1 in favor of the home team.