Atlanta vs. OCSC: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Atlanta United's Gerardo Martino is a man who knows how to put together a team that is exciting to watch on the pitch. The last two matches for Orlando City have been among the most frenetic, fast-paced, and exciting matches all season. Martino's team swarms to the ball on defense and they attack quickly and often on offense, which forces opponents to either try to keep up or else just get run straight out of the building.

Orlando City put in another good defensive effort in Atlanta yesterday, allowing just one goal from a team that seems to take a shot after every sixth or seventh touch of the ball. Kaka scored a great goal off of a Cyle Larin assist late in the first half to put the Lions up, but the ghost of 2015 reared its head in second half stoppage time as Orlando City gave up a late goal for the second game in a row to the same player: Hector Villalba. This time Villalba's goal was good for the equalizer, but after taking 4 points in two matches, it's clear Atlanta has an early leg up in the budding southeast rivalry between the two young MLS clubs.

The Good

  • Cyle Larin - Larin did not score, but he did everything else I could have asked of him, and that's why he deserves some positive recognition this week. I've said before (and I may have to say again) that Larin has often frustrated and infuriated me by trying to get away with being a finisher and goal poacher only. Not so yesterday: Larin raced up and down the entire attacking half of the pitch for the entire time he was in the match. His movement kept Atlanta defenders having to chase him around, and the result was that he often had more space when the ball did come to him. Another refreshing change was to see Larin making some one-touch and two-touch passes, which included his assist on the Kaka goal. Larin actually created a chance--that's a massive boost for the team, whether he's feeding the assist to someone else or creating an opportunity for himself. The sooner the lad learns to play that way every time Coach Kreis puts him in the Starting XI, the sooner we will see some better results from the team.
  • Kaka - For the second match in a row, Kaka was a bundle of energy and was active all over the pitch. It's clear he's not quite as fast as he used to be, but he now has the wisdom of all those years and he can still read the flow of a match like few others. With the rest of his teammates flying around, he was able to pick his timing and his spot and blast a beautiful goal from outside the top of the 18-yard box to the upper corner of the goal to give Orlando City the first half lead.
  • Dom Dwyer - Dwyer came in and did what Dwyer does. He was like a pogo stick bouncing around the pitch and drawing plenty of attention from Atlanta United defenders. I said in my match preview that my hope is that Dwyer can serve as something of a mentor to some of the younger strikers on the team. And I'm going to go ahead and give Dwyer's presence a lot of credit for the improved play we saw from Cyle Larin yesterday. I can't put my finger exactly on the reason--perhaps it's as simple as Dwyer drawing a lot of focus from the defense and freeing Larin up to move around the pitch without dragging multiple defenders with him. Or perhaps Dwyer gave some constructive advice or offered Larin some helpful tips in practice that sunk in for the lad because it was coming from another active player and not from a coach.
  • Heart and Hustle - Atlanta had the late equalizer, and there are plenty of reasons to say why that was a fair result--they had a lot more shots, shots on goal, and dominated time of possession. But Orlando City did a few things right. The visitors actually won the stats that I consider to be often the best predictors of a match outcome. Orlando City won the battle of Duels (58 to 47), Tackles (20 to 13), and Clearances (23 to 7). I've harped on digging deeper into the stats to find the true story of a match, and most of the time the stats don't lie. But the wonderful thing about sports is that there's never any foolproof system for explaining the results of a game other than the scoreboard. And in this case, the scoreboard says the teams were even.

The Bad

  • Woeful Aim - Kaka's first half golazo was the exception on the day. Orlando City registered 10 shots on the match, but only one on target. That means they allowed Atlanta netminder Brad Guzan to get out of the match without having to make a single save on the day. Letting the opposing keeper have a boring day in the office is not going to cut it if this team expects to claw their way back into the playoff race. Shooting on target has got to improve.
  • Bad Officiating - Now it's not unusual for fans to argue about a yellow card, but I am going to argue that a yellow card was given to the wrong player, at least based on the TV replay. In the 56th minute referee Allan Kelly issued a referee to Orlando City's Cristian Higuita, who was uncharacteristically playing UN peacekeeper for most of the match. In the sequence, the player that seemed to lose his cool and perhaps warrant a yellow was Dom Dwyer, but he did not get a card at all. Of course, watching from the lens of a TV camera mounted up in the stadium is different from being down in the middle of the pitch, so it's possible that Higuita did or said something worthy of a card. But I thought surely when the yellow came out it was going to be shown to Dom and not Cristian.

The Ugly

  • Costly Defensive Lapses - It's easy for a fan to point fingers, and I really don't feel good about criticizing professional athletes because for all their flaws on the pitch they show a helluva lot more skill than I ever had. Having said that, I'm a bit distressed that certain players seem prone to making repeated mistakes of judgement or lapses in attentiveness that wind up costing us goals. In the first two seasons you could take your pick of anyone across the back line almost that was prone to giving up easy goals because they lost track of a player. This year we are doing better, but the defense seems like it's still good almost once per game for leaving a dangerous opposing attacker unmarked and letting them have a great shot on goal. Such was the case yesterday when Hector Villalba got away from everyone to receive a pass when no defenders were within ten yards of him. I had predicted Atlanta would score two goals, so I suppose I should be glad that we only gave up the one. However, the fan in me cannot condone such abject failure any time it happens.

What were your thoughts on the match--do you think Dom Dwyer's debut lived up to expectations? Are there any players currently in the usual starting rotation that you think the team should jettison and replace as dead wood? Do you believe Orlando City can right the ship and get back into playoff contention this year, or are you already looking toward 2018? Let me know in the comments below!

Atlanta vs. OCSC: Previews and Predictions

A week ago this morning, Orlando City fans were reassessing their projections for the season. Holding Atlanta to a single goal for a match is a good day in the office for any defense with the array of offensive weapons manager Gerardo Martino has assembled. But the scoring slump that has plagued Orlando City all year--they have scored three goals only one time all season--let them down, and the single lapse in defense allowing Hector Villalba's rocket goal was the only score by either side.

But then Tuesday happened, and Orlando City announced the signing of Dom Dwyer. Much has been said by pundits and fans alike this week about the trade--some saying Orlando City overpaid for a star past his prime, and others claiming that Dom will be walking on purple smoke and turning losses to wins for Orlando City over the next decade. Time will tell if either prediction is right or if the truth lies somewhere in between. But one thing is clear--it was a record transfer value and such trades and transactions within MLS make the day closer and closer (it still may be a decade or longer--let's not kid ourselves) when an MLS club will win the services of a star player who is also being courted by a team in one of the top 5 European leagues.

Dom Dwyer certainly sends a signal that the Orlando City front office is aware they have a goal scoring problem and they are doing something about it. The club claimed that they were not done dealing on the heels of that trade. The summer transfer window closes on August 9, so the club has some time to make more moves, but cannot afford to dally much longer if they are serious about making more improvements that can help them this season.

Players to Watch

Speculation is that Orlando City will slightly change the tandem up top, platooning Cyle Larin and Dom Dwyer at the top of the 4 - 4 - 2 formation. Many believe this means the odd man out will be Carlos Rivas, but with his passing ability I would not think it out of the question that he could be put in an attacking midfield role alongside Kaka. If I'm honest as a fan, I've been frustrated with both Rivas and Larin this season, but for different reasons. Carlos has improved his passing and ball handling skills this season to become one of the best players on the roster in those categories. But his shooting is still horribly erratic, with the odd Ronaldo-esque screamer struck solidly on frame interspersed between far more balls that go 15 rows up into the stands or 10 yards wide of the goal or both. 

And Cyle Larin just looks like he has no clue what to do when he gets outside the six-yard box. He is essentially the MLS version of the NFL's short-yardage running back. I don't think Larin's goal scoring total season to season would be much different if the MLS suddenly allowed substitutions at every corner kick and the team brought him off the bench only to stand in front of the goal and try to deflect the ball into the goal. With his size and speed he has so much potential to be a great creator and versatile finisher, but he just appears to be content to squander his potential waiting for teammates to feed him the perfect ball to poke into the back of the net.

I'm hoping that as a more mature and more experienced player, Dom Dwyer can provide some mentoring and leadership for both Rivas and Larin. For Rivas I hope he can get him to settle a bit before shooting so more of his strikes are on target, and for Larin I hope he can permit Jason Kreis to let Larin sit on the bench more often and think about the value of being a more consistent defender and perhaps hitting up cross-team clubmate Marta for some one-on-one lessons on how to handle the ball on your feet from the defensive half up to the penalty area.

For Atlanta, the goal scorer from last week, Hector Villalba, has moved into a tie for the team lead on 9 goals with the injured Josef Martinez, who is still out with a foot injury. Miguel Almiron (8) and Julian Gressel (3) are also dynamic scoring threats with multiple goals on the season each. USMNT keeper Brad Guzan is once again expected to start in goal, and Orlando City fans can only hope that the offense makes him have a little busier day at the office today than he did last Friday night at Orlando City Stadium.

Prediction

Going back to the beginning of this post, I said it was a good day for any defense to hold Atlanta to a single goal. I'm positive that even before the Dom Dwyer rumors started last weekend, Gerardo Martino was reviewing tape and adding points of emphasis for his strikers to exploit the weak points in Orlando City's defense. So I think it unlikely that Orlando City will succeed in holding Atlanta to a single goal again this week. I look for Atlanta to score at least 2 goals and they have certainly showed they are capable of scoring more. And before the Dwyer trade I was fully prepared to predict this would be a loss, but I'm honestly not sure what effect Dwyer's presence will have on the team. If Atlanta gets distracted by focusing on the threat that Dwyer represents, it could open up more opportunities for Larin, Kaka, and any other players in the midfield. There was a lot of emotion in the game last week in Orlando, and one or both teams could lose their cool and wind up hurting their own cause by having a player sent off. I feel like it would be an incredible amount of hubris to predict an outright win, but I am going to go with a prediction of a 2 - 2 draw on the match.

What are your thoughts on today's match? Will Orlando City be able to return the favor to Atlanta and steal all 3 points on the road, or will Atlanta's offense find something that was missing last weekend and win by an even larger margin? Do you think that the addition of Dom Dwyer alone is enough to turn Orlando City into a contender for one of the top three places in the table? Let me know in the comments below!

OCSC vs. Atlanta: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

There is debate among fans whether Atlanta vs. Orlando City is a rivalry or not. But the players from both clubs made it pretty clear they consider it a rivalry. Kaka ran harder than he has in any game for Orlando City since he was signed to the club, and players from both teams were pushing, shoving, grabbing, holding (thankfully not biting as there were no Salvadoran natives on the pitch) and otherwise being very chippy throughout the match. And the difference came in the 86th minute with what can only be described as a beautiful goal by Hector Villalba from about 25 yards out that arced over Joe Bendik and just under the crossbar for the score. 

The Good

  • High Energy - The match featured the most energetic play by the entire Orlando City team that I have seen in some time. Everyone was active and running from the opening whistle, and the effort did give Orlando City a lead in shots for the match 14 - 8. Unfortunately, the accuracy of shots was no more than usual, meaning that the majority were nowhere near on frame. But more about that later.
  • Cristian Higuita - Higuita is usually one of the more high energy players in the match and that remained true for this game, as he physically imposed himself between opponents and the ball and made a number of good tackles on the night. But in this season I have noticed his passing and vision are improved. In the first and second half both, Higuita managed to get himself in position to deliver some great crossing passes toward teammates, but in some cases the Atlanta defenders were quicker to reach the ball and in others the Orlando City teammate failed to recognize the chance as quickly as Higuita had and missed the opportunity.
  • Carlos Rivas - Carlos is probably as close to being a complete young player as Orlando City has on the roster. He is able to pass well; he is able to maneuver well with the ball on his feet to create opportunities for himself; and he is showing signs of getting slightly more patient in his shot selection as the months pass. He nearly took Brad Guzan's arms off a couple of times with extremely powerful shots that were low and on target, but the USMNT keeper showed his strength by smothering and capturing shots that a less skilled keeper may have been unable to keep out of the goal.
  • Defense - The defense for Orlando City did not disappoint me. I had predicted that Atlanta would score a single goal because the Orlando City would be motivated for this match. With the number and quality of scorers that Atlanta has, I found it unlikely that the home team would record the clean sheet. And in all those regards, the defense met expectations. They held Atlanta to only 8 shots for the match with only 6 of those on target, so I consider that a pretty good effort. 
  • Officiating - Referee Jose Carlos Rivero and his crew had a good match. Rivero made it clear early on he was going to be reluctant to go to the pocket to show a card, but in every case his decision was justified. The early yellow to Kaka was deserved because the captain made a rather optimistic and very late challenge near the sideline that missed the ball and took the legs out from under the opponent. Perhaps his biggest test came near the hour mark when Will Johnson raised his leg very high to try to clear a ball near the top of the Orlando City 18-yard box, and Atlanta's Yamil Asad chose to slam his forehead into Johnson's cleat at the same moment. Even though by Johnson's position he had no way to see that Asad was coming for the same ball, he deserved the yellow card because a boot to the face can cause serious injury--intentional or not. But because the contact was incidental and unintentional, it would have been an error to show straight red.

The Bad

  • Lack of Speed - Cristian Higuita and Carlos Rivas are two of the fastest players on the Orlando City team, and it's clear that Manager Gerardo Martino has focused on getting speedy players for his Atlanta United team. Like good safeties and cornerbacks in American football, the Atlanta United players displayed superior closing speed on the ball when Orlando City had possession, forcing a lot of turnovers and rushing a lot of shots on the goal.
  • Losing the Stat Battle - Long time readers will know that the headline stats are not the ones that are most important, as the stats that show the hustle in the match are usually the ones that dictate the outcome. And that held true in this match. Of the key stats for Duels Won, Tackles Won, and Clearances, Atlanta won two out of three in those categories. Atlanta led in Tackles Won (11 to 4) and Clearances (24 to 12). They also led in passes (409 to 319), passing percentage (81% to 75%), and possession (55% to 45%). The only significant stats that Orlando City won were Corner Kicks (6 to 2) and Crosses (20 to 10). But as with many stats in the game, it's less important how many you have and far more significant what you can do with the chances you get.

The Ugly

  • Rivas' Rushed Shots - Our buddy Jeff had the quote of the night after Carlos Rivas sent yet another shot 15 rows up into the Supporters section behind the Atlanta goal in the second half. "It's like he's playing Nintendo and can't remember if he's supposed to hit the A button or the B button!" I mentioned above that Rivas seems to slowly be learning a bit more patience in his shot selection as more of his shots really test the keepers these days, but he is still prone to taking far too many wild shots that go high or wide.
  • Jose Aja - I've about decided that Jose is simply a bit clumsy. He nearly gave up another goal on the season in the first half by attempting a pass back to goalkeeper Joe Bendik that was easily intercepted by an Atlanta attacker and set up another shot. Fortunately the rest of the Orlando City defense was on alert during that play and the shot came to nothing. Aja did nearly score on a header in the second half, but on the aggregate he has been more a liability than an asset this season. If he can't be taught to be a bit more crisp and sharp on the ball, then he needs to be off the roster in favor of someone who provides more consistent contributions.

What were your thoughts on the match--did any Orlando City players seem to have a particularly good match? Who was the biggest disappointment to you from the Orlando City roster? What changes would you make to the Starting XI ahead of the rematch next week in Atlanta?

Red Stars vs. Pride: Previews and Predictions

The Orlando Pride travel to Chicago today to face the Red Stars in the Lifetime Game of the Week. The Pride appear to be firing on all cylinders now with Alex Morgan back to full match fitness and Marta leading the club with 8 goals on the season. After a 4 - 1 win last week at home over FC Kansas City, the Pride are looking to continue taking full points as they hope to mount a second-half surge toward the top of the table and reach a playoff position.

Players to Watch

A number of the NWSL's finest players and some of the world's best will be on display on the pitch today. Chicago have USWNT star Christen Press at striker. She leads the league with 59 shots (34 on target) and she is fourth in NWSL with 6 goals on the season. Press is also tied for 4th in the league in assists, with three to her name. And in goal the Red Stars feature Alyssa Naeher, who has five clean sheets on the season behind a stingy defense that has surrendered only 13 goals on the season, just one more than the league-leading Portland Thorns, who have given up only 12 goals.

For the visitors, the roster has two standout stat leaders on the year. Orlando's Marta is 3rd in NWSL with 8 goals on the season, and is tied for 2nd in the league with her teammate Camila for assists, as both have registered 4 on the season. And as a unit, the Pride are near the top of the table in several categories: the team is 3rd in goals scored (23), 2nd in assists (15), and 4th in shots (153).

Prediction

I think this is one match in which past performance is not a predictor of future results. The teams have faced each other 3 times previously, and the Red Stars have won all of those meetings by the count of 1 - 0. I think this time is going to be a different result. I predict the Pride will deliver yet another clean sheet for Aubrey Bledsoe with a 2 - 0 victory on the road.

What are your thoughts on the match? Do you think the Pride can take full points on the road, or do you believe history will repeat itself and the Red Stars will keep their undefeated streak against Orlando alive? Let me know in the comments below!

OCSC vs. Atlanta: Previews and Predictions

One of the most anticipated matches of the season will come to Orlando City Stadium on Friday night as Atlanta United comes to town to play Orlando City after the Gold Cup break. Both teams started the season on great form, then both hit a slump a couple of months into the year. The difference is that Atlanta has seemed to find their legs and get back toward the form they had at the start of the season, winning their last 3 in a row and 4 out of the last 6 matches (4 - 2 - 0), while Orlando City still seem to be trying to dig out the funk they fell into during May, winning only one of their last six (1 - 2 - 3).

The good news for both teams is that they find themselves above the line going into the match, with Atlanta in 4th place on 30 points, and Orlando City in 6th only a single point behind them on the table. The bad news for both teams is that seventh place Columbus Crew sits on 28 points, so the team that loses this match could well find themselves below the red line after the rest of the weekend's MLS action.

Players to Watch

Atlanta United have so far produced more fireworks on the pitch, scoring 39 goals through their first 19 MLS league matches, and those goals have come from many different feet. Josef Martinez leads the team with 9 goals on the season, while Miguel Albiron and Hector Villalba have each scored 8, and there are no fewer than four more players who have scored at least two goals each. And USMNT goalkeeper Brad Guzan recently joined Atlanta United during the secondary transfer window, just before leading the USA to win their group and advance to the knockout round of the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Meanwhile Orlando City have scored only 22 goals in 20 MLS matches, and they have relied on far fewer players to get the ball into the net. Cyle Larin is the team leader with 8 goals on the season, while Carlos Rivas (4), Kaka (3), and Will Johnson (2) are the only other multi-goal scorers on the roster. And as the luck of the Gold Cup draw would have it, Cyle Larin will be missing from the roster on Friday night, as he is playing with Canada in their Gold Cup match on Thursday night. And of course in goal it's always entertaining to watch Orlando keeper Joe Bendik make another MLS Save of the Week stop--though fans would be just as happy if he had a boring match from time to time.

Prediction

If you simply look at the stats, it seems like Atlanta United may have an edge coming into the match, since Orlando City's leading scorer will be out of the lineup due to International Duty. But both teams have had a long layoff during the Gold Cup break, as Atlanta has not played since Independence Day and Orlando City has not played since July 5. And both teams will dearly want to win this match to give themselves some breathing room away from the red line. And the setting also favors the home side. Both teams play far better on their home pitch, with Orlando City holding a 6 - 2 - 3 record at Orlando City Stadium, while Atlanta United only has a 3 - 5 - 3 record away from Bobby Dodd Stadium this season.

I think with the position on the table, Orlando City will be playing with slightly more resolve to keep their streak of being in a playoff position alive through the season, and that will help them win an important but typical victory. I think Orlando City wins it 2 - 1 and sets up a very interesting rematch the following week in Atlanta.

What is your prediction on the match? Do you think Orlando City will be able to find the resolve to win the match on Friday night, or do you think Atlanta will burst out of the Gold Cup break and steal 3 points on the road? Let me know in the comments below!

 

Pride vs. FC Kansas City: Previews and Predictions

Are the 2017 Pride a better team than the 2016 version? Undoubtedly. There's far more talent and much more firepower on the pitch. But the team has a tendency to get a little lazy on defense, especially after they get a lead in the match. In fact, the Orlando Pride have been ahead 9 times in 13 matches this season, and five of those nine times they have conceded an equalizer to leave points on the pitch. This tendency to give up late goals has resulted in at least 10 dropped points and has pushed the Pride down toward the bottom of the table in defensive rank, landing them at 8th spot on the table. 

I'd like to see the ladies make a commitment double down on defense once they go ahead so that they can preserve the lead and conserve those points. In fact, if they could have held the lead those five times they coughed it up, they would be sitting on 26 points for the season and only a single point out of first place in the league standings. However, the Pride have got the offense going, outscoring opponents 12 - 11 over their last seven matches, and with Alex Morgan working her way back to full match fitness I presume we would see the offensive output only increase.

Today will be a perfect opportunity to start reversing the defensive woes as the Pride welcome FC Kansas City to Orlando City Stadium on Saturday. FC KC has surrendered 15 goals in their last seven matches, equaling the worst defensive performance in team history. The visitors are winless in their last 6 matches, and they equaled a dubious league record last week when they became only the second team in NWSL history to give up a 2 goal lead and lose a match.

Players to Watch

Any time FC Kansas City comes to town, it's always a treat to get to see USWNT star Sydney Leroux ply her craft on the pitch. Leroux is always a scoring threat for the Blues. She is fifth out of all players in NWSL with 32 shots on the season, and leads her team with 3 goals, while Alexa Newfield is second on the team with 2 goals. Alexa Newfield, Shea Groom, and Christina Gibbons share the team lead in assists with 2 each on the season.

For the Pride, many eyes will be on Alex Morgan to see if she can regain the form that she had this spring when she helped lead French side Olympique Lyon to both league and UEFA Championships. Marta will also draw every eye in the stadium as she looks to add to her season tally of 8 goals, which puts her second in the league behind co-leaders Megan Rapinoe and Samantha Kerr. Camila and Jasmyne Spencer have also added 3 goals each on the season. Marta and Camila are co-leaders in assists on the team with 3 each, and Jasmyne Spencer has added 2 more.

Prediction

Both teams enter the match struggling on defense, with the Pride having given up 20 goals compared to 19 scored for the season (-1 goal differential), while FC Kansas City have given up 18 compared to only 13 goals scored (-5 goal differential). I am feeling more confident about the ability of the Pride to click the last pieces of the puzzle in place to start consistently getting successful results, and with the home pitch advantage I think they will take full points tonight. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that tonight is the night Alex Morgan gets her first goal for the Pride on the season, and the home team will win by a count of 3 - 1.

What are your thoughts on the match? Do you think that the Pride will be able to solve the issue of giving up late goals with the current roster they have, or do you believe that Tom Sermanni and the coaching staff will still need to make a few more moves to ensure that the defensive side of the ball is as potent as the offense? Let me know in the comments below!

OCSC at the Gold Cup Break: Facts, Observations, and Opinions

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

Year GS GC GD Points PPM East Table
2017 22 29 -7 29 1.45 5th
2016 32 35 -3 23 1.15 8th
2015 26 26 0 27 1.35 6th

For the table above: GC = Goals Scored; GS = Goals Conceded; GD = Goal Differential; PPM = Points per Match

Observations

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.


Opinions

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!

Spirit vs. Pride: The Good, The Bad, and The Historic

It was a drama-filled day at the Maryland Soccerplex as the Washington Spirit hosted the Orlando Pride. The match ended with a draw, which seems like a fair result based on the way the two sides played. And while the referee refrained from going to his pocket to issue any cards in the match, he did point to the spot twice to award PKs, and I'm not sure either one was really deserved. The good thing is that the offsetting PKs did not tilt the game in favor of either side, so they likely changed the final score but not the outcome of the match.

The Good

  • Winning the Deep Stats - The Pride showed more hustle in some aspects of the match yesterday, winning a lot of the key statistics. Our ladies led in Duels Won (46 to 45), Tackles Won (14 to 10), and Clearances (28 to 24). They also led in several other stats: total passes and percentage (448 / 76.6% to 346 / 71.1%), Crosses (13 to 10), and Possession (56.4% to 43.6%). I said "some aspects" above because with those stat lines it's clear the Pride had opportunities that were left not taken. More on that later.
  • Marvelous M&M's - For the score line, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a one on one match since Marta and Mallory Pugh were the only ones who scored. Each of them scored a goal from the run of play and they both calmly put a PK in the back of the net. I can't fault either player, but I will complain that I wish Mallory Pugh would save her goal scoring for matches when she doesn't play against my team!
  • Dani Weatherholt Returns - It's been a bit of a mystery why Dani Weatherholt hasn't started a match since returning from the U-23 Nordic Tournament in early June. She's a player that has proven to have a high work rate and is very aggressive chasing down and dispossessing opposing players early in the season. There was no announcement on her return of any injury she may have picked up in the tournament or any disciplinary issues that may have kept her on the bench. But whatever the reason for her being out of the lineup, it was wonderful to see her back in the starting XI and playing the full 90 yesterday.

The Bad

  • Failure to Finish - I said before that the team had won a number of the key stats in the match and that they showed more hustle in "some aspects" of the match. The problem is that they failed to convert that hustle into chances on the pointy end of the formation. Washington outshot Orlando both in Total Shots (18 to 16) and Shots on Goal (7 to 4). I've often been skeptical of Possession as a key stat because it doesn't really matter how much you have but what you wind up doing with it. To me it seems criminal if a team wins both the Tackles and Duels in a match but lets the other team get more shots. I hope this will be a point of emphasis for the Coaches this week as they get the team prepared for the next match.
  • Too Much Gawking - There are times this year that the team seems to have taken a page out of the 2015 Orlando City SC squad. Back in those days, a lot of the MLS lads looked like they were pinching themselves as if to say, "I'm playing with Kaka!" And this year there are times when some of the Pride players appear to be doing the same with Marta. There are times this season when the five-time Player of the Year will dance a ball into the area and look up for a teammate only to find the other 21 players on the pitch watching her work. I saw a number of times when the only teammate open for Marta was someone to one side with a cloud of defenders around her, while there were wide open spaces on the other side with no purple shirts around to dump off the ball as a safety valve. Yes, Marta's first instincts always seem to be to move the ball toward goal, but sometimes if you have someone on the opposite side that can receive the ball, it can allow other teammates to reposition and perhaps be in a better spot to take a shot.

The Historic

  • Offsetting PKs - I believe that this match marks the first time that an Orlando Pride match has featured equal and offsetting PKs in the match. I'm also not sure that either awarded PK actually should have been a foul. When Camila fell to the pitch in the 9th minute of the match, it looked like a shoulder-to-shoulder collision while both the attacking and defending player were going for the ball. I didn't see any tugging or pulling or tripping or other illegal play by Washington's Kassey Kallman that would warrant issuing a penalty, unless the referee somehow saw it as stopping a goal-scoring opportunity, which seems a bit of a stretch. And late in the second half when Washington sub Kristie Mewis went down, she appeared to be losing her balance already when she backed into Toni Pressley and hit the ground. Again there was no pulling, tripping, tugging, or other illegal play by Pressley, and it cannot be considered stopping a goal scoring opportunity as Mewis had her back to the goal. If I'm completely honest, I think the referee realized he had bungled the first half PK call and was just looking for any flimsy excuse to issue a make-up call to even it out. At the same time I'm not going to say that the second bad call ruined the match for the Pride. With their possession and hustle in the deep stats, they had plenty of opportunities to create more shots than their opponents and they simply didn't get it done. So as I said in the opener, based on the play of both teams, the draw feels like the right result.

What were your thoughts on the match? Do you think the team deserved the draw on the road? Or do you think that they either got extremely lucky or were the victim of a bad call that awarded the opponent an unfair goal? Let me know in the comments below! 

Spirit vs. Pride: Previews and Predictions

The Orlando Pride go on the road to face the Washington Spirit in this weekend's Lifetime Game of the Week. Both teams are coming off losses last weekend, and Orlando fans hope they will get to see the first match with both Alex Morgan and Marta in the starting lineup. The Pride had a rain-delayed match at home last week and just could not seem to get anything going on offense, even when Tom Sermanni had his team pull a hockey move late in the second half when Aubrey Bledsoe ran up to join the rest of her teammates for a corner kick and nearly headed the ball in for a goal.

The Pride will be looking for some revenge this week against Washington, as they have never beaten the Spirit in three previous meetings. The Spirit swept the 2016 series, and the teams drew earlier this year at Orlando City Stadium. So getting a win on the road at Washington will be a sweet victory indeed for the Pride.

And unfortunately the Pride waived Laura Alleway earlier this week. Alleway had seen limited playing time on the year, and according to the release from the team on Monday, she was looking for opportunities to play more. This release opens up another roster spot on the team, and it will be interesting to see what the front office decides to do in terms of filling that spot. With a frighteningly small roster allowed by the league, I hope they will be able to find someone they are confident can grow and thrive on the team to add to the squad.

Players to Watch

The Spirit have several threats to score and one primary playmaker on the squad. Francisca Ordega leads the team in both goals (4) and assists (2). Havana Solaun has added 3 goals, and Kristie Mewis has added 2, while five players (including Mewis and Solaun) have added one assist each. Mewis and Ordega are also the most active players on offense, as Mewis leads the team with 15 shots (9 on target) and Ordega has 14 shots (8 on target). And in goal, Stephanie Labbe is 3rd in NWSL with 49 saves on the season.

For the Pride, the team have a large number of players who have come up big after a slow team start on the season. Marta leads the team with six goals (good for 2nd in NWSL), while both Camila and Jasmyne Spencer have added 3 goals, and Chioma Ubogagu has 2 on the season. Marta and Camila are also the leading playmakers on the team, with each of them having 3 assists, which is tied for 4th in NWSL. And it should be no surprise that the Brazilian duo of Marta and Camila are team leaders in offense, as Marta has 22 shots (14 on target), while Camila has 17 shots (7 on target). And in six matches in relief of the injured Ashlyn Harris, Aubrey Bledsoe has registered 23 saves. Bledsoe saved 5 shots against Chicago last week, with Christen Press's awarded PK being the only goal in the weather-delayed match. And even though she has only played a few minutes off the bench, all Orlando fans will be watching to see how Alex Morgan is able to fit into the mix with her club teammates after helping Olympic Lyon win both a league title and the UEFA championship last spring.

Prediction

On paper the Pride appear to be the more complete team at this point in the season. The team have been scoring more lately, and last week's match seemed a bit of an aberration, perhaps with some nervous excitement due to the return of Alex Morgan to the club. Aubrey Bledsoe has the only clean sheet for the Pride this season, and that came on the road in Boston several weeks ago. I think the team has the opportunity to repeat the result that they enjoyed that day, so I'm going to call for a 2 - 0 victory for Orlando in today's match.

What are your thoughts--do you believe the Pride have the firepower to win the match in Washington today? Or do you think the scoreless drought last week is a sign of something more troubling and that the team will struggle again today? Let me know in the comments below!

Orlando City vs. Toronto: Previews and Predictions

Wednesday night Orlando City plays its penultimate midweek match of the season as it hosts Toronto FC in the City Beautiful before the league's Gold Cup break. The game will mark the 20th of the season for Orlando City and the first home game for Cyle Larin after his DUI arrest last month. Orlando City will be at almost full strength, with only Carlos Rivas sidelined with a sprained ankle. I say "only" but Rivas is one of the best passers and the fastest striker on the team, and he is responsible for 3 of the team's 21 goals on the season, putting him in a tie for second on the squad with Kaka.

For a time it looked like Toronto was going to run away with the Supporters Shield and the Eastern Conference race until Chicago caught fire (no pun intended) to burn their way to the top of the table. Toronto has lost two of its last six matches, including its most recent outing, a 3 - 1 loss to Dallas. Toronto has five players named to Gold Cup rosters, but the MLS web site has a track record of being inaccurate about which players will actually be out of their club squad for International Competition, so it's unclear if these players will be available for selection on Wednesday night or not: (Armando Cooper, Raheem Edwards, Jonathan Osario, Tosaint Ricketts, and Justin Morrow). Orlando City fans can hope that's the case, but it would be foolish to count on that being the case. In any event, Toronto has had a very good run, showing their depth by getting results in nearly every match they have played over the last two months, including all the midweek matches that proved to be too much for Orlando City's lack of depth to hold together.

Statistically, Toronto and Orlando City are similar teams, except in terms of results. For example, both teams have exactly the same number of shots (173), and are very close in shots on goal (Toronto 84, Orlando City 79). But Toronto has found the back of the net 10 more times, scoring 31 goals on the season, and the Toronto FC defense has been even more impressive than the improved Orlando City defense, as the Canadian side has conceded only 18 goals on the season (Orlando City has conceded 26).

Prediction

There is no doubt that coming into the match Toronto FC have been the better side this season, and they have proven able to win on the road as well as at home. Nonetheless, the homecoming for

Wednesday night Orlando City plays its penultimate midweek match of the season as it hosts Toronto FC in the City Beautiful before the league's Gold Cup break. The game will mark the 20th of the season for Orlando City and the first home game for Cyle Larin after his DUI arrest last month. Orlando City will be at almost full strength, with only Carlos Rivas sidelined with a sprained ankle. I say "only" but Rivas is one of the best passers and the fastest striker on the team, and he is responsible for 3 of the team's 21 goals on the season, putting him in a tie for second on the squad with Kaka.

For a time it looked like Toronto was going to run away with the Supporters Shield and the Eastern Conference race until Chicago caught fire (no pun intended) to burn their way to the top of the table. Toronto has lost two of its last six matches, including its most recent outing, a 3 - 1 loss to Dallas. Toronto has five players named to Gold Cup rosters, but the MLS web site has a track record of being inaccurate about which players will actually be out of their club squad for International Competition, so it's unclear if these players will be available for selection on Wednesday night or not: (Armando Cooper, Raheem Edwards, Jonathan Osario, Tosaint Ricketts, and Justin Morrow). Orlando City fans can hope that's the case, but it would be foolish to count on that being the case. In any event, Toronto has had a very good run, showing their depth by getting results in nearly every match they have played over the last two months, including all the midweek matches that proved to be too much for Orlando City's lack of depth to hold together.

Statistically, Toronto and Orlando City are similar teams, except in terms of results. For example, both teams have exactly the same number of shots (173), and are very close in shots on goal (Toronto 84, Orlando City 79). But Toronto has found the back of the net 10 more times, scoring 31 goals on the season, and the Toronto FC defense has been even more impressive than the improved Orlando City defense, as the Canadian side has conceded only 18 goals on the season (Orlando City has conceded 26).

Prediction

There is no doubt that coming into the match Toronto FC have been the better side this season, and they have proven able to win on the road as well as at home. Nonetheless, the homecoming for Cyle Larin and the intense energy of The Wall make it hard for any opposing side to come into Orlando City Stadium to collect points. Only rival NYCFC have been able to take all 3 points in our house on the final meeting between the two sides back in May, and Orlando City would desperately like to make a strong statement going into the Gold Cup break. My head leans me toward a Toronto victory, since I'm skeptical that all five Gold Cup players will be out for the match. But after having been at the match last Saturday night when the team went on the road to RSL and brought back all 3 points, I am buoyed by the prospect of the team winning at home, so I will predict a 2 - 1 victory for the team in purple.

What are your thoughts on the match? Do you think Orlando City can prevail at home and continue some momentum from last Friday going into the Gold Cup break? Or do you think that Toronto will assert its dominance as a top team in the East to steal points in Orlando? Let me know in the comments below!

and the intense energy of The Wall make it hard for any opposing side to come into Orlando City Stadium to collect points. Only rival NYCFC have been able to take all 3 points in our house on the final meeting between the two sides back in May, and Orlando City would desperately like to make a strong statement going into the Gold Cup break. My head leans me toward a Toronto victory, since I'm skeptical that all five Gold Cup players will be out for the match. But after having been at the match last Saturday night when the team went on the road to RSL and brought back all 3 points, I am buoyed by the prospect of the team winning at home, so I will predict a 2 - 1 victory for the team in purple.

What are your thoughts on the match? Do you think Orlando City can prevail at home and continue some momentum from last Friday going into the Gold Cup break? Or do you think that Toronto will assert its dominance as a top team in the East to steal points in Orlando? Let me know in the comments below!