The MLS season is in a short break for the Gold Cup, so it seems an apt time to look back at the first 20 matches of 2017 and assess how the club is doing compared to the same point in the 2015 and 2016 seasons. There is no doubt that when the season started, the first two months gave Orlando City fans the hope that this might be the year that the club put everything together for a magical season and could make a deep playoff run. But the multi-match weeks in May and June did leave many fans scratching their heads and wondering what the balance of the year will bring.
My crystal ball is no more accurate than any other pundits, but I have run some numbers, collected some facts, and made some observations and have some opinions about how the team will fare the rest of the year. Others will doubtless have different opinions--some more rosy and some more dire than mine. And I encourage and welcome any discussion. But after the last few days of teasing the mid-season recap, I present it all here for your review and assessment.
Just the Facts
- Above the Line. So far this season, Orlando City has spent every week in playoff contention. This is a big improvement over the first two seasons, and the early season string of wins buyoed by many matches at Orlando City Stadium helped Orlando City to get off to a strong start.
- New Contributors. Another factor for Orlando City is that Jason Kreis brought in several defensive players that helped to secure wins early when the team seemed to struggle to score goals. With new players like Jonathan Spector and Will Johnson in the lineup, fans have felt confident the team could hold a 1 - 0 lead for the first time in the MLS history of the club.
- Anemic Offense. However, the offensive output has been lacking. Through 20 MLS matches in 2017, Orlando City has only scored 22 goals, compared to 32 goals scored over 20 matches in 2016 and 26 goals scored over 20 matches in 2015.
- Improved Defense? Even with the new defensive players, the 2017 campaign has not seen the best defense of the Orlando City MLS era. In 2017 the team has conceded 29 goals, compared to only 26 goals conceded in 2015. But the performance is much better than the 35 goals conceded in 2016 through 20 matches.
- Depth is an Issue. And the depth of the team is definitely in question. As long as the team was playing one match per week in March and April, they looked very strong, winning 6 of their first 7 matches and shooting to the top of the Table. However, when the MLS scheduling gods saddled Orlando City with 3 matches per week for most of May and June, the team really struggled. Since the beginning of May they have only won 2 of 13 matches, balanced against 6 losses and 5 draws over that period.
- Key Player Waived. One more troubling issue for Orlando City fans is that the team could not come to terms with Matias Perez-Garcia and has released the player. MPG was one of the most consistently hard-working players on the pitch for Orlando City, and consistently drew free kicks for the team by putting himself in position to take hard fouls from opposing players. The loss of MPG makes an already thin starting line a little thinner unless there is an opportunity to bring someone else onto the club that can assume his salary and role and perform as well or better.
- Silver Lining. There is a bright side. Even with all the struggles, the good thing for Orlando City fans is that the team is still above the red line in 5th position for the playoffs. This puts them higher than they have been at this point in either of the previous two season. If my calculations are correct, the team was in 8th place and out of the playoffs after 20 matches in 2016, and they were in 6th position and dropping out of the playoffs at this time in the 2015 campaign. The team is also scoring points better than any previous MLS version of the team. In 2015 the team were only managing 1.35 PPM after 20 matches, and in 2016 they were managing only 1.15 PPM after 20 matches.
Orlando City Statistics by Season: After 20 Matches
For the table above: GC = Goals Scored; GS = Goals Conceded; GD = Goal Differential; PPM = Points per Match
Depth makes a huge difference in the MLS season. Between the heat and the travel required to play across North America, the addition of midweek matches in the middle of the season means that for a team to win consistently, they need at least 15 - 18 players that can be part of a consistent Starting XI. Teams at the top of the table like Chicago and Toronto are able to drop players in and out of the starting lineup with little change in the results. They are still able to score well and defend well when their usual starters have to have some rest. But Orlando City is not there yet. When we have to rest our usual starters due to midweek matches or little niggling injuries, we do not seem to be able to match the same success. Early on the team managed to win when Kaka was nursing a hamstring injury suffered after 10 minutes of the opening match of the season, but in hindsight that appears to be more an aberration than a pattern, especially when the multi-match weeks began in May.
Orlando City suffers from a rash of players that are "one trick ponies." We need to draft, mold in our academy, or trade for more players that have a bigger range of skill sets. Cyle Larin is a devastating scorer if you put the ball on his feet, his chest, or his head in the 6-yard box. But outside of that he largely appears to be a lost puppy wondering what to do. He is an inconsistent defender and he has trouble finding teammates with passes or even dribbling the ball to help create his own opportunities. Carlos Rivas is a great dribbler and a very sharp passer, but he is extremely inconsistent when it comes to his finishing touch. He is still far more likely to get under the ball and shoot yards above the goal into the stands than he is to be on target when he shoots. And Kaka is really starting to show the miles on his legs. He is still capable of dazzling opponents and fans a few times per match as he dances on the ball or fakes out a defender, but Marta shows far more consistent wow-factor moves on the pitch than Kaka does these days, and she is equally able to create her own shots or find opportunities for teammates, whereas Kaka seems to have lost a step from 2015.
I still think this team will make the playoffs, but I don't think they will be in the top half of the playoff contenders. I think 4th - 6th is where we will see the team land after the regular season ends. And that assessment is contingent on no unexpected trades, injuries, or disciplinary issues that drastically impact the lineup over the remaining 14 matches of the season.
I think the team needs to get better talent. We may not need to trade away any stars or fan favorites from the team, but in terms of role players, we need some more depth and we need players who have a broader skill set. As I said it feels like we have too many "one trick ponies" on the team, and we need to have more players who can create chances, distribute the ball, finish chances, defend opponents, and pass to teammates at a high level of skill. Until we do, I don't see us moving much past simply reaching the playoffs.
What are your thoughts on the season so far? Do you think Orlando City is in good shape at this point, or do you worry about what will happen in the balance of the season? Do you think it was a mistake to part company with MPG, or do you believe that the club has an opportunity to sign a player who can help to fill in some of the missing gaps and push the team back toward the top of the playoff bracket before the end of the season? Let me know in the comments below!