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!

OCSC: MLS Midseason Evaluation and Projection

Orlando City's MLS side has had a bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde start to the season in 2017. After racing to the top of the table in March and April on the strength of an MLS-record streak for wins to open a new home stadium, Orlando City fell back from the top spot with a distressing May that saw them win only one match the entire month. With the break for International Play and the US Open Cup, it's a good time to look at the first fifteen matches of the season and see what we can project for the rest of the year.

Orlando City MLS Season Review

The first 15 matches of the Orlando City MLS season can be neatly divided into two groups by date, since the team's performance was vastly different after the fast start in March/April and the grind of back-to-back three-match weeks through May.

March and April

In the first two months of the season, Orlando City started 6 - 1 with the only blemish being a road loss at Columbus in the third match of the season. The start of the year was also a bit unusual due to a cancellation of a match in Boston due to snow. Taking 18 of a possible 21 points put Orlando City at the top of the Eastern Conference table, and the defense played incredibly well, giving fans a hope that the days of the leaky sieve defense that had caused us to tear our hair out in the last two seasons may be behind us. 

Game Opponent GF GA Result/Points
1NYCFC10Win / 3
2Philadelphia21Win / 3
3Columbus02Loss / 0
4NY Red Bulls10Win / 3
5LA Galaxy21Win / 3
6NYCFC21Win / 3
7Colorado20Win / 3

GF = Goals for OCSC; GA = Goals against OCSC; links go to Match Center Stats on MLS web site

Last year's player of the year for the club was Joe Bendik, because he was the only player that was consistently steady and active in every match all season long. This year it was apparent that moves made by Jason Kreis in the offseason had greatly improved the defense. Speedier and more agile defenders like Jonathan Spector, Leo Periera, and PC proved able to mark attacking players more closely and prevent open opportunities by attacking opponents on goal. Our defense plays more instinctively and with quicker reactions this season, and it's a thing of beauty to watch them do their work when they are all humming along at full song.

May Meltdown

The month of May and the first game of June has been a completely different story. The MLS schedulers didn't do us any favors in the month, filling every match week with 3 matches so that the team was always playing 3 games in the space of 8 or 9 days. The torrid pace of games took a toll on the club, and it quickly became clear that this schedule was disruptive and overtaxed the stamina and depth of the team. In the eight matches that have been played since May 1, Orlando City has only managed one outright win, going 1 - 4 - 3. This period has seen the team's two worst losses on the season, and one hopes they won't be repeated. The first was an absolute destruction on the road in Houston with an 0 - 4 loss on May 6, and the other was a horrible 0 - 3 loss at home to NYCFC on May 21.

Game Opponent GF GA Result/Points
8Toronto12Loss / 0
9Houston04Loss / 0
10Sporting KC22Draw / 1
11San Jose11Draw / 1
12NYCFC03Loss / 0
13Minnesota01Loss / 0
14DC United20Win / 3
15Chicago00Draw / 1

GF = Goals for OCSC; GA = Goals against OCSC; links go to Match Center Stats on MLS web site

The only two fortunate things about the disappointing stretch are that the schedule improves and the club is still in the playoff hunt with the early season strong start. Orlando City is pretty much done with the 3-match weeks and has no more that are clumped together like the month of May. Also, after the most recent match on June 4, Orlando City is sitting 4th in the table on 24 points, tied with NYCFC and only four points behind second place Chicago Fire. This stretch of the season ended on a strong note with a win and a draw, but it was the kind of draw that felt like a win. In the June 4 match against Chicago, Orlando City suffered the "Wrath of Ted" as referee Ted Unkel handed out two unjustified red cards to Rafael Ramos and Antonio Nocerino. That left a 9-man Orlando City side to defend against a full-strength Chicago side, but they still prevented the visitors from putting any goals into the net. That has to give the team renewed confidence that the defense can play well against anyone, and even on short rest. This should be a big boost as they head into the heart of the summer and crest the halfway point in the season.

Current Standings and Projection

Orlando City has endured the worst part of the schedule in terms of multi-match weeks, so it seems unlikely that they will suffer a stretch of matches with performance as poor as the month of May. I'm not sure we can expect to see them replicate the performance of March and April again this year, but I am encouraged by the fact that they are still in the thick of the playoff race after this difficult stretch.

I think Toronto has a strong chance to win the East and the Supporters Shield this season, and it may well take a collapse by that team for the race to the top spot of the table to be terribly competitive. But I think Orlando City has a chance to finish in the top bracket of the Eastern Conference playoffs and host at least the first round playoff match at the end of the season. But with more than half the season to go, anything can still happen. The fact that Orlando City has been able to win matches without Kaka on the pitch and the improved defense give me confidence that the team has what it takes to be a contender this year.

What are your thoughts on the season? Does the team look like one that could contend for a playoff spot, or do you still want to see more matches before you make a prediction? Let me know in the comments below!

OCSC vs. MTL: Previews and Predictions

You may have noticed there was no wrap-up post from the Wednesday night match with Toronto, and the truth is that the result was so lackluster that I didn't feel like it was worth the time devoting an entire column to it. Joe Bendik had four more saves to earn the clean sheet in the draw, and now he's tied for the league lead with 109 saves on the season. Other than that, the defense managed to hold Toronto scoreless, albeit they were without their most potent scorers, who were still out recovering from injuries.

But now we turn our focus toward the next match. With three matches and a total of nine points available in the season, I think it's safe to say that Orlando City will not be making the post season this year. But the lads need a strong finish if they want to make the cut and be one of the 11 that Jason Kreis will protect in the expansion draft in December.

Players to Watch

Orlando City has a chance to do something special on Sunday, and that is to make a clean sweep of Montreal for the season. Though the Impact are having a better year overall, Orlando City has won both previous matches this season. Orlando City beat Montreal 2 - 1 in Orlando on May 21, and then in Montreal Orlando City prevailed 4 - 1 on September 7, back a few short weeks ago when the lads were playing like they actually cared about getting to the playoffs. In fact, going back to last October Orlando City has won three matches in a row against Montreal, and hold an all-time 3 - 1 - 1 series lead between the teams. There are only two home matches left on the year, so Orlando City could go a long way toward helping fans feel good about the money we all just paid to renew season tickets by actually going out and winning for a change.

But Montreal will not just give the match to us. For one thing, they are sitting in fifth position on the table without a playoff spot secured, so they need points to be sure they can stay in contention for the postseason. For another, they have a pair of dynamic players in Ignacio Piatti (15 goals, 6 assists) and Didier Drogba (10 goals, 6 assists). Additionally, Dominic Oduro is co-leader for the team in assists with Piatti and Drogba.

Other than the unusual defensive stand in the midweek match, there really isn't anyone who is playing with particularly good form for Orlando City other than Joe Bendik. The goal scoring threats have gone largely quiet for the last month, and the defense looks energetic but undisciplined, which has led to several lopsided defeats in recent weeks. The good thing is that we have nobody on the MLS injury report, but Brek Shea was shown a yellow card in Toronto and will be suspended for the match this weekend. But with a healthy side, it's hopeful that Jason Kreis can throw some hungry players into the match and they will find a way to create some goals while keeping Montreal from getting too many clean shots at Joe Bendik's goal.

Prediction

I am looking forward to matchday for the Fantober events that Orlando City have planned for the morning. From 10 - noon those of us that have had season tickets since 2015 or before will have the chance to enjoy some prematch time in the stadium for some activities. But when it comes to the actual match, I'm not sure I can bring myself to be terribly optimistic. City's last four matches have been three losses and a draw, while Montreal is coming off a win in their most recent match. Unfortunately tomorrow's match feels like it's heading for a loss, and I think that will officially put a fork in Orlando City's season.

What about you? Do you still hold out any hope for the post-season? Do you think Orlando City can secure the season sweep against Montreal? Let me know in the comments below!

Stoppage Time: July 12, 2016

This week in Stoppage Time:

  • Comparing OCSC at the half in 2016 to the midway point in 2015
  • Thoughts on some recent fan reactions to Orlando City firing Adrian Heath
  • Preview of NYRB vs. OCSC tomorrow night

 

If you have questions tweet them to me @lionsteethblog on twitter. Use the hashtag #STQ for Stoppage Time Questions, and I'll try to answer them on a future video update!

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

What a difference a week makes. Last week I posted my 2016 at the quarter mark, and I identified several things that were areas of concern, and I also pointed out some things that the club seemed to be doing better this year, such as being ahead of last year's pace on points and goals scored. But then this week happens, and it almost makes me want to tear that up and write a whole new prediction, but I'm holding off until the halfway point.

Sporting KC got a very deserved win. When we get into a discussion of the numbers (see below) it is clear that the home side came to play today and our lads were just not competitive in the match. The only injustice that could have come out of this match, according to the way the players on the pitch executed their assignments, is if the own goal that gave Orlando City the initial lead had held up as the only score of the contest.

For now, I just want to be done talking about this horrible match as quickly as possible and leave it to the people who have the opportunity and authority to change the direction of the team to get to work finding solutions instead of making excuses.

The Good

  • Joe Bendik - Our goaltender deserves MVP of the team honors so far this season. If anyone disagrees, I'd like for you to use something other than your ignorant, irrelevant, and uneducated opinion. Seriously, if you disagree with me on this you had better get to a hospital pronto, because even your autonomic nervous system is too stupid to realize it's supposed to keep your lungs breathing and heart beating without being told what to do by someone more intelligent than you are. OK... so maybe that's a little harsh, but I am not seeing anyone else on the pitch in an Orlando City uniform playing consistently. Today Bendik had 10 saves. To put that in perspective, many MLS keepers can play a month of matches without having to make 10 saves. To put that another way, if Bendik had only made half as many saves (five is still a high number), then the score would have been 7 - 1 in favor of Sporting Kansas City. If you're a fan of a certain age you might remember TV ads that appeared every year around the holidays featuring NFL quarterbacks from the 1980s. They would tell you how they were buying some brand of gloves to keep the hands of their offensive linemen warm because those were the hands that protected him from getting sacked every play. Well forget gloves--every player on the roster who is not Joe Bendik should be pitching in to buy that guy whatever he wants: sports car, new house, luxury ski boat, whatever. Because he's the only guy out there that deserves to be drawing a paycheck every week.
  • Nothing - Absolutely nobody or nothing else about this match deserves a "good" grade from Orlando City's perspective. The only good that can possibly come from this is if the team collectively wakes the hell up and starts playing much better soccer than they have in the past half dozen matches. More on that later.

The Bad

  • Pass Selection - I educate the team and the coaching staff about this after every match, and so far they have been too daft to pay attention and learn from my godlike wisdom. OK, so maybe I don't have all the answers, but I keep seeing the team doing the same stupid things and suffering the same awful results (anything less than a win is awful because I'm a fan, you understand). So I would at least like to see the team TRY something different when it comes to passing and see if that works. What I mean by bad pass selection is that this team seems to have fallen in love with the long ball and the quick-strike attempt. If an Orlando City player tackles the ball away from an opponent down in front of our goal and he has seven teammates out in front of him, ranging from 5 yards to 75 yards up the pitch, invariably our lad will try to get the ball up to the guy 75 yards away in one massive kick. It is as though our players are blind to the chances to make controlled passes and patiently build up an attack to get some numbers forward, and instead they opt for the lowest percentage pass they can possibly make, and it winds up either overshooting their man for a goal kick or getting intercepted by the opponent and foiling any chance we have to mount pressure on the opponent's goal.
  • Defending Midfielders - It would be way too easy to simply say our "defense" is bad, and I would agree with anyone that at this point in the season we are a very poor defensive team. But if you look closer at the defense, there are actually some places on the pitch where we play pretty good defense. For instance, when the opponent gets the ball inside our 18-yard box, we have a tendency to get numbers back and make it hard for opponents to have an uncontested shot on goal. To illustrate my point, Orlando City had 29 clearances today. That means 29 times someone other than the keeper cleared the ball out of the attacking third and (at least momentarily) stopped a scoring opportunity. The problem with the defense is that we are letting the ball get down in the attacking third 29 times that have to be cleared. Our defense needs to be stopping the other team about the center line of the pitch and keep the course of play in our attacking half of the pitch, not our defending half.
  • Lack of Motion - I see a lot of standing around from players that don't have the ball. These guys are professional soccer players, and that means they get paid to run. They're not NFL linemen who have to explode for 100% effort for three seconds and then stand around for two minutes with their hands on their knees. If you don't have the ball on your feet, then get your ass moving somewhere that you can do something useful, such as marking an opponent, getting open for a teammate to pass you the ball, putting yourself in the path of an opponent who is running to get the ball or doing something. It's probably not true, and I know this, but sometimes I feel like there are players on our team who run less than the assistant referees who are supposed to cover just one half of the pitch up and down the sidelines.
  • Tabular Freefall - After the victory over Portland on April 4, I posted a piece that showed us sitting atop the table in the Eastern Conference. It was the first time the club had ever reached that lofty position, and it seems like it will probably be the last time we see it this season. Now the club has slipped below the red line, and if they don't start playing better we may not see the top side of that line again before 2017 rolls around.

The Ugly

  • The Numbers Say it All - This whole match was just a dumpster fire in terms of Orlando City's performance outside of the goaltender. There are no numbers you can look at to see any kind of reasons to suggest or hope that the team is making any kind of improvements. In fact, over the last few matches the team seems to be playing much, much worse, and today was by far the most disappointing game of the year in terms of the team looking like they didn't even belong in the same league with Sporting KC. And let's not kid ourselves--Sporting KC is a good team, but they have struggled recently, coming into today having lost six matches in a row. That's just how bad we were today.
    • Shots: Sporting KC 34, Orlando City 7 -- for those playing at home, that's nearly a 5:1 ratio of shots that Sporting KC took over Orlando City.
    • Shots on Goal: Sporting KC 13, Orlando City 0 -- realize this: Sporting KC had more shots on goal than Orlando City had just plain shots for the whole match.
    • Duels Won: Sporting KC 44, Orlando City 38 -- remember those long, low-percentage passes I was complaining about earlier? This is what happens when you do that. Those long passes often result in 50-50 balls (duels) and Orlando City has been consistently getting outplayed on those all season.
    • Tackles Won: Sporting KC 15, Orlando City 8 -- for fans of American football, a tackle in soccer means to strip the ball away from an opponent. This is now the third or fourth match in a row where Orlando City is getting seriously outclassed in this category by our opponents. And of course when an opponent strips the ball off our players' feet, it creates a possession and potential attacking and scoring opportunity for them. This also goes back to those low-percentage passes and frivolously giving the ball away. Our players are not executing the fundamental principles of playing good, sound soccer right now, and it's painful to watch.
    • Passing Success: (Overall) Sporting KC 402 of 472 (85%), Orlando City 320 of 396 (80%); (Defensive Third) Sporting KC 52 of 53 (98%), Orlando City 83 of 85 (97%); (Middle Third) Sporting KC 183 fo 205 (89%), Orlando City 198 of 248 (80%); (Attacking Third) Sporting KC 157 of 214 (78%), Orlando City 39 of 63 (62%). These numbers do not lie and they bear out my assertion that the team are not building up patient attacks and turning the ball over way too much in our own end. If you focus on just the attacking third alone, you'll see that Sporting KC had 214 pass attempts vs. only 63 pass attempts for Orlando City, which is more than a 3.5:1 ratio.

Unfortunately, the one thing I don't have for the team is answers. If I thought I could offer the team some sage advice that would help them win, I would quit my day job, sell my house, and buy a pup tent and just go camp out on the grounds at the Lake Sylvan Soccer Complex where the team trains until Phil Rawlins had me arrested for being a nuisance or until Coach Heath and the lads started listening to me and winning because I knew what the hell I was talking about.

I do have a suspicion, however, that whatever flaws or weakness in the team and its tendencies I am seeing, the other coaching staffs and players around MLS have long since identified those in a much more technical and precise way than I can, and they are deploying game plans to exploit those weaknesses at every turn. I think maybe what the coaches need to do is to scout our team in the way that an opponent would. Alternately, Phil Rawlins and Flavio can pay a consulting fee to an EPL manager to look at tape of our team and identify the most glaring errors so that Inchy and the other coaches can address that with the lads in practice and start getting the problems corrected. The European season is over and the managers are all about to lose players from their team for the Olympics for a couple of months, so they should have some free time on their hands to earn a little coin from an upstart American MLS club that needs someone to look over their shoulder and tell them what needs fixing.

I'm sorry if anyone takes offense and if it sounds like I'm saying that our coaches and players aren't capable of fixing the problems themselves. But I look at the numbers and the performances match after match and I just see things getting worse. So clearly it seems like we are going in the wrong direction somehow. At any rate, smarter minds than mine will have to figure out what the club needs to do to fix whatever is wrong.

So what are your thoughts on today's match? Do you have any good, bad, or ugly points you'd like to contribute? Do you think I'm being unfairly critical or not critical enough of some individuals or issues with the team? Do you think I should give more credit or praise to a player or scheme than I am giving? Let me know in the comments below!

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!

RSL vs. ORL Recap--The First Law of Sports: Broken!

In any organized sporting contest between individuals or teams, there are many rules governing the game. But universally there is one fundamental, primary, and first law: the one officiating the rules should never interfere to alter the course of the game.

In the match vs. Salt Lake City at Rio Tinto Stadium on July 4, 2015, that law was broken. In the dying moments of the first half, head referee Sorin Stoica (a man who is so sadly inept he cannot possibly live up to his name), showed our beloved captain, Kaka, a straight red and sent him off the pitch and sent Orlando City a man down.

Last night I was seething, and from my perch and my twitter stream, I know I'm not the only one. Every blogger and every passionate Orlando City fan I know was just as incensed as I was about the unjustified sending off of Kaka. But today I am no longer seething. I am not sad. I am simply determined to see justice carried out. Sorin Stoica must be exposed as a fraudulent fop incapable of refereeing a peewee soccer match and should be thrown out of MLS in favor of someone more competent. For as many fans pointed out, the future chances for MLS to grow into an elite league in the world of soccer depend not only upon attracting world-class talent into the ranks of the player base, but also attracting world-class talent to the ranks of its officiating crews.

The match was tied at 1 - 1 when Stoica sent Kaka off. The play happened just in the corner of the RSL box when the crafty Javier Morales interposed himself between Kaka and the ball, leaning into the Orlando City captain to cause obvious and dramatic contact before crumpling to the turf from an apparent hard foul. The fall appeared to throw Kaka off balance as well (a telling detail, since an aggressive push from the Orlando City man would not have resulted thus). In the aftermath, as Kaka attempted to catch his balance, he appeared to step first on the ball, and then his foot appeared to slide off the ball either onto the ground between Morales' legs or onto the RSL player's leg itself.

Stoica reacted decisively at first, running toward the scene of contact and reaching toward his pocket. Meanwhile, Kaka, disgusted with the thespian dramatics of his opponent, merely walked away, preparing for the free kick that he knew was about to be awarded to the home side. Stoica blew his whistle a couple of times, probably intending to get Kaka's attention so he could show him yellow.  But when the superstar player ignored him, Stoica's emotions overcame him. He felt slighted and ignored by Kaka, and in a show of defiance-- clear sign of a personality flaw dominated by a Napoleon Complex driven by a need to control to compensate for a lack of self-confidence--Stoica instead pulled a red card from his pocket and sent Kaka off the pitch.

I think even the home side crowd were a bit stunned at that. If Kaka did indeed step on another player, then it probably did warrant a yellow card--even if it were accidental. That much I can't argue--it's a matter of player safety, and when someone makes an honest mistake or takes an action that can seriously injure another competitor, the yellow must be shown. But red cards are reserved for intentional, malicious fouls committed in certain situations. Intent to injure another opponent is one. Intent to stop a clear goal scoring opportunity is another. Intent to show up an official (as when Clint Dempsey recently tore up the referee's notebook in a US Open Cup match) is yet a third. But the foul committed by Kaka (if indeed there even was one) did not approach any of those qualifications.

As if this act of injustice were not enough to clearly demonstrate the incompetence of referee Sorin Stoica, a statistic was quoted by the TV broadcast crew just moments after the sending off occurred. They indicated that over the last 36 matches Sorin Stoica has officiated, he has issued 18 red cards. This clearly indicates an official who is vastly out of step with his cohort of other officials. It shows he does not have the same understanding or comprehension of the rules as other MLS officials. If every official called matches with the same fervor, then players would adjust so that they would not be in danger of flirting with a sendoff every other match.

As the match continued, other voices in the twitterverse began quoting RSL fans and supporters as saying that Referee Stoica had marred matches in which they had played with unjustified sendoffs of their players, and they felt like it was about time he decided to turn his vengeful wrath on someone else for a change. I can certainly see how they might feel that way, but it's clear to me that at least some of those sendoffs of RSL players were probably as unjustified as his sendoff of Kaka last night. So something has to be done. Sorin Stoica cannot be permitted to remain an MLS match day official. If MLS wants to keep him employed, they can give him a mop and a bucket and make him clean the bathrooms at their corporate headquarters. But that's about all he's fit to officiate.

Heroes of the Night

Even with the unjustified sendoff of Kaka, Orlando City still managed to get a result. Down a man, they were unable to control possession in the match as we are accustomed to seeing them do. As I've said in recent weeks, I'm increasingly suspicious of possession as a valid statistic to tell you anything about match results. But to give RSL credit, they did outshoot Orlando City (23 to 9), they won more duels (53 to 44) and tackles (19 to 12), and had more clearances (24 to 20).

However, there were some heroics that kept RSL from scoring with the man advantage and taking all the points up for grabs. The first and most notable was the unanimous fans' choice for Man of the Match, Tally Hall. The Orlando City keeper. He had six saves on the night, preserving the draw and helping us secure the point. Another statistic was blocked shots: Orlando City blocked 9 of RSL's shots on the night (most of those in the second half) while RSL managed to block only 3 of Orlando City's shots.

Everyone on the pitch for Orlando City had a hand in preserving the precious point. The defensive line of Rafael Ramos, Seb Hines, Sean St. Ledger, and "Use the Force" Luke Boden all had hands in blocking RSL shots or swarming to the ball when it came into the danger area and tackling it away from opponents before they had a chance to shoot. Further up the field, players like attacker Pedro Ribeiro and speedy midfielder Carlos Rivas launched occasional counter-attacks that forced RSL to race back to their own end and desperately defend their own goal. Those efforts did pay off, with Orlando City winning another key statistic, leading the corner kick tally (9 to 5) over the man-advantage home side.

I must also mention the efforts of Lewis Neal, Eric Avila, and Cristian Higuita, who all contributed to the result with physical play, tactical positioning, and strategic fouls that disrupted the flow of RSL's attack and frustrated their efforts to capitalize on the man advantage in the second half.

And finally, of course, we have to recognize the glorious captain, Kaka, whose efforts in the fifth minute resulted in Orlando City's goal. We struck first, making RSL chase us for the tying goal over the next 23 minutes. Without his early efforts, the night would have been disappointing in addition to being very frustrating and unjustified.

Results and Standings

With the point, Orlando City has moved into a tie for 2nd place in the East, tied on 24 points with Columbus Crew and New England Revolution. All of the east teams have completed their matches for the weekend, so the result will hold until the teams resume play later this week. Also it means that Orlando City is only 4 points out of first place in the East behind leaders DC United.

Take heart, Orlando City fans--this squad is really starting to show its quality. At the beginning of the season it was hard to say what kind of club we had with so many new faces and untested young players. But now we have seen that even with the biggest star unjustly sidelined and several veteran stars out with injury, we have the depth to compete and preserve a result when we have less than a full 11-man side on the pitch. 

Tailgate and Match Rewind: Colorado Edition

Today we're starting a new feature on the blog to recap the tailgate from the previous home match. Yesterday's tailgate was the first one of the season where Mother Nature played a role, dropping a brief but intense rain shower an hour or so before the match. Luckily, it didn't interfere with the festivities, and more importantly it did not put a damper on anyone's spirits before or during the game.

Pictures

Over in the Gallery you can find pictures from the tailgate, including a picture of Buster, who was the unofficial mascot of yesterday's pre-game festivities. We cooked on the small grill yesterday, using the charcoal to give the food a little better flavor. Our menu was a big hit, and we had a good turnout for the meal. We even had a visit from some new friends in the Ruckus and a couple of Colorado Rapids fans dropped by to say hello. One of them was Jason Maxwell, who writes the View from the Couch blog about Colorado Rapids soccer. We talked a little bit about the Beautiful Game, the 2015 season (very little about that), and the different experiences we have had as bloggers interacting with team leadership.

Jason has been at his craft for a number of years, and he has seen several coaches and front office folks come and go, and it was insightful learning about how the relationship of the team to the fans changes with each new front office or head coach. At the moment I love the way we are treated as fans by Coach Heath, Phil Rawlins, and the rest of the Orlando City staff, so I hope there are no changes for a long time to come.

Rain Come and Rain Go

Clouds had been visible in the distance for a while, but around 6:15 they started to close in a little on our position in Lot A. So we quickly packed up our gear and put it in the car, then jumped into the vehicle ourselves around 6:30 as the rain began to fall. We were just in time to hear a nice interview that Jim Phillips had recorded with Kaka and Phil Rawlins. But as is typical with a Florida storm, the rain didn't last long, and before 7:00 pm we were back out of the car and simply debating whether we wanted to take rain gear into the stadium or not. Ultimately I decided on my rain jacket but left my rain pants in the car. As it turns out I needed neither, but I felt better having the jacket just in case, as once or twice during the match the clouds threatened to close in.

The Match: Tale of Two Halves

When the match started, about 30 minutes late due to the weather delay, it began in a way I've never seen. They dispensed with the fireworks and the national anthem and simply kicked off the game to get started. The change in routine seemed to mess with the Orlando City mojo, for they spent the first 45 minutes of the match displaying the same listless and lifeless lack of energy that characterized the debacle in Montreal on Saturday night.

Aurelien Collin's absence in the defense seemed to make a huge difference, as Tally Hall was called on way too many times for my liking to make saves in the first half as our defenders got out of position and didn't have Collin's experienced signal calling to help them all be in prime position on the pitch to defend Colorado's attacks.

And it was clear from early in the match that something was bothering Brek Shea. He was limping a little bit every time he slowed to a walk, and when he hit the ground, he was slower than usual to get back up. While it was sad to see him have to go off before the half, I wasn't surprised when Coach Heath made the change. If truth be told, I have a feeling there was no snub by USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann in not naming Brek to the team this time around--I think it was simply for Brek's own health that he didn't ask him to try to go this round.

Aside from the missing Collin and the hobbled Shea, I was just not a very happy fan the whole first half with the sloppy passing and the cheap giveaways. The Rapids have not shown themselves to be a very good team in 2015, but our lads spent much of the first half giving them chance after chance to build up an attack or a counter-attack against our goal. The statistics will show that we held the ball a high percentage of the half, but as I said in my last match recap, I'm beginning to think possession is a bit of a red herring stat in MLS. If you never possess the ball in the attacking third of the pitch and you don't have any shots on goal, you could possess it 90% of the game and it would be meaningless.

Toward the end of the first half, Orlando City finally started to seem to get a little life, but the first 45 ended in a nil - nil draw. The second half, however, was a different story.

In the second half, Orlando City seemed like they were a little more alert and hungry to win. Maybe Coach blessed them out at the half or maybe he promised them all milk and cookies if they won. Whatever he did, it seemed to work. The possession began building toward more meaningful attacks toward the Colorado goal. In the 54th minute Kaka struck a magnificent ball toward the near post from the right side of the pitch, but the ball hit the post and spun and curled all the way across the face of the goal before trickling out of play for a goal kick on the far side. It was a nice feed into the captain from Ramos, and the ball was struck with pace, but someone from the Orlando City grounds crew had put just a coat or two too much paint on the goalpost for it to become a score.

Carlos Rivas finally seems to be getting his timing down on his blazing runs toward goal, for in the 61st minute he raced up the left side to beat two defenders and passed the ball across to Larin, who blasted it into the net for his sixth goal on the season.

And just a few minutes later in the 65th, the Captain got his just reward. Making another run up the right side, he received a beautiful pass from Cristian Higuita and scorched it underneath Colorado keeper Clint Irwin's outstretched arm and into the far side netting.

Orlando City had more chances, but Irwin came up with some good saves. Finally, in the dying moments of the match Colorado put together a few threats, and I was screaming at our lads to clear the ball from in front of our area instead of just toying with it. Fortunately, none of the chances the visitors had came to anything, and Tally Hall was able to escape the pitch with another clean sheet.

Standings and the View Ahead

The 2 - 0 victory and a loss by New England last night drew Orlando City to within one of tying for 2nd place in the East. However, it will be a while before Orlando City has any more matches that count for season points, as they don't play a regular season match again until July 4 at Real Salt Lake (Fake Salt Lake as one of our Rapids visitors to the tailgate informed us). Hopefully the down time will give both Collin and Shea a chance to get fully healthy again. Cyle Larin will be off for duty with the Canadian National Team for a spell, and that will mean more starts for Pedro Ribeiro.

I think that will be good for Ribeiro, and the break from club play may be good for Larin as well. Coming in as a rookie from college, I've been curious if Larin will hit a rookie "wall" when he realizes he has months left to play after reaching what would be the end of a normal college season. Breaking up his play with a stint on the National Team may let him come back with a look at club play like it's a fresh college season and allow him to push on to the end of the year without suffering physical or mental fatigue from the much longer professional season.

In any case, I'm enthusiastic about our chances to make the playoffs and at least start the post season at home. Vamos Orlando!