The 2019 Preseason is under way, and Orlando City is playing host to three other teams as they train and prepare to start the season. NYCFC, the New England Revolution, and Minnesota United FC are all in town to play a couple o friendly matches at Orlando City stadium and work on their team tactics, strategies, and lineup options in live game conditions. On Saturday night Orlando City hosted fellow 2015 expansion side NYCFC in the first match of the Orlando City Invitational for each team. The match saw both sides play spirited football and it saw Orlando City emerge with a 2 - 1 victory. In post-match comments, Coach James O’Connor was quick to stress that this was just pre-season, but he seemed to echo the sentiments of the crowd, who were mostly pleased with what they saw, and moreso what they didn’t see.
Winning feels great. For fans, players, and the organization alike, 2018 was a brutal year. As I write this I am reminded that the season started well last year and fell apart after the first month. All the same, I saw some key differences in the way the team played last night that give me hope that we’ll see a different mindset from the players this year.
Attacking off the ball. One of the best aspects of last night’s match was the number of people participating in the attack. Last season it largely felt like 10 guys standing around watching whoever had the ball make an attack. But both goals last night were set up by multiple players running into attack and forcing defenders to account for multiple potential scoring angles.
Sacha looks rejuvinated. I’ve always thought that Sacha Kljestan looks a little bit like Aidan Gillen, the actor who portrayed Lord Petyr Baelish (or “Littlefinger”) in the HBO series, Game of Thrones. Last year, Sacha moved about as much as Littlefinger after Arya Stark had sliced his throat open at Winterfell—he seemed frustrated, tired, old, and exhausted all the time. But last night Sacha looked spry and energetic, even excited. He had the assist on Tesho’s goal, and he was involved in the play that led to Chris Mueller’s goal as well. In addition, Kljestan was active distributing the ball to other players who took shots in the match as well. This is what he was brought to Orlando City to do, and whatever funk descended over the team to make them look like a bunch of misfits last year seems to be dissipating.
Tesho looks very promising. Newcomer to the team Tesho Akindele, who came from FC Dallas, was MLS Rookie of the Year in 2014 and he looks like he could be a great addition to the club. He had the first goal, and in post-match comments he and Chris Mueller both talked about how Tesho’s run and ability to draw the attention of defenders opened up the lane for Mueller’s shot on the second goal for Orlando City.
Mueller is showing maturity. Orlando City fans could have been understandably nervous coming into 2019 after the great rookie campaign that Chris Mueller had. After all, the last time there was an impressive rookie in purple was 2015, and people were predicting that Cyle Larin may go on to become a global star because of the way he burst onto the MLS stage. But the early success went to Larin’s head and he became a lazy, petulant, whining little snowflake who every year thereafter had worse and worse stats. Fans might have worried the same would happen to Chris Mueller. But the one glimmering spot of hope for the future from last year looks like he has spent the offseason trying to get better and not basking in his personal achievements. Whereas last year Mueller seemed to have a bit of rookie hesitance to pull the trigger and take a shot, this year he is taking opportunities when they come and still is able to distribute and pass the ball when he realizes he is not the best option.
Fluid, not floundering, formation. Last year it looked like a lot of players had no clue what position they were supposed to play, regardless of the formation, and nobody, including the goalkeepers, seemed capable of playing much defense. Last night’s published formation was a pretty standard 4 - 4 - 2, but for most of the match Orlando City seemed to play with a three-back formation, and when Ruan or another defender would push up, a defending midfielder like Will Johnson would just slide back to cover defensively. The group on the pitch seemed to play as a unit, and for the most part it felt like there was good on-field communication from the back of the formation to the front.
Maxi Moralez strikes again. OK it’s probably unfair to call Maxi Moralez’s goal bad, because it was a really beautiful strike with power and pace from 30 yards out that found the back of the net on the fly. But I just don’t like it when anyone scores against us, and it feels like that guy was scoring on Orlando City every time I turned around last year. That’ll be enough scoring from you against my team for this season, Maxi.
It’s only pre-season soccer. That doesn’t really make it bad, but it’s hard to really tell what anything means for the team from a preseason match. Earlier in the week Orlando City lost a closed pre-season match to Philadelphia 4 - 1, and both players and coaches mentioned after the match that the team seemed to wilt after conceding the first goal in that one, which reminds me a lot of what they did last season. Seeing them bounce back strong after conceding the first goal last night was good, but it doesn’t mean they will do that every time out. Coach James O’Connor didn’t use many subs last night for two reasons. The first is that he wanted to get most players a full 90 minutes, and the other is that the team held a closed-door scrimmage against UCF earlier in the day, and seven players had put in a full 90 minutes in that match.
Dwyer with another quad injury. Star striker Dom Dwyer didn’t play last night because he’s recovering from a quad injury. I’m starting to feel like that guy is another Kaka in terms of being a bit of a glass cannon and a very expensive part-time player. If you want to be paid like the best player on the team you can’t be sitting on the bench injured half the season. In addition to Dwyer being hurt, Carlos Ascues and João Moutinho are also rehabbing from hamstring or quad injuries.
Did you attend the Orlando City Invitational match last night? If so, what did you think? Are you encouraged by the team’s result in the match, or are you going to wait to get excited until you see how they perform in the regular season before you jump on the 2019 purple bandwagon?