Jason Kreis now has done what no other MLS head coach can claim to do: he has made his league coaching debut with two different teams at Camping World Stadium (CWS). In 2015, of course, he debuted with NYCFC in their first-ever match against Orlando City in Orlando, and last night he debuted with Orlando City in the same venue. For the record he is now 1 - 0 - 1 in debut games at CWS, and that is just fine with Orlando City fans, since it means both times our team got points!
Last night's match brought to mind the late-season run that OCSC made in the 2015 campaign to get them back into the playoff hunt. Coming into the match, OCSC were sitting 7th in the Eastern Conference table, 3 points behind the visiting New England Revolution. The win by the home side puts the two teams in a tie on points at 26. Orlando City still have a game in hand over New England, and the Revs still retains the 6th spot on the table by virtue of having one more win on the season than OCSC, with our lads leading the league in draws on the season.
Last night during our tailgate time, our group were discussing that Orlando City have shown a strange kind of confidence on the year, and we were wondering whether it would hold form under Coach Kreis. All season when the team have fallen behind (starting with the season opener against Real Salt Lake), they have played like they have the confidence that they can claw their way back into the match and get a result. But if the team goes into the latter stages of a game with a one-goal lead, they have played like they lack the confidence to hold on for the win, and they almost always seem to give up a late goal to concede the draw or the loss. In Coach Kreis's debut, we were able to see that tendency smashed away as the team kept pushing and fighting with a late lead to actually add another goal and win by a Kevin Molino brace.
- Kevin Molino - Since I just mentioned him, it's an obvious place to start. Molino has been a fan favorite since USL days and this season he is showing us all why. After coming back from a season-ending injury suffered in the first half of the 2015 campaign, Molino scored a brace on the night and had the assist on Cyle Larin's goal. Molino now has 9 goals (second on the team behind Larin's 11) and leads the team with 8 assists on the season. This season he continues to establish himself as an essential component of Orlando City's success, both in terms of creating opportunities for teammates and finishing goal scoring chances.
- Kaka - The Captain played his best match of the year, and he looked younger and more energetic than any time we have seen him this season. I try to avoid paying attention to too many rumors surrounding the club, but social media has been abuzz for most of the season that the Captain was not as happy as he could be with leadership from the coaches box earlier in the season, and some speculated that his mysterious injury flare-ups were in part due to not wanting to follow the vision for the club that Adrian Heath had set forth. Those rumors may or may not be true, but Kaka certainly seemed exuberant last night.
Still, the former Ballon D'or winner showed his age as he made at least one ill-advised pass attempt late that threatened to let New England get back into the match. And it wasn't long after that before Coach Kreis subbed him out for fresh legs, which seemed like a prudent change.
- Brek Shea - I won't pretend like I haven't been a bit harsh with Brek Shea for most of the year, as he has spent large stretches of matches where he seemed to be out there just filling up a uniform and not contributing much to the success of the team. But last week Coach Kreis said that he was putting Shea back in a winger position and moving him out of his role as outside defender. And that move proved to reinforce some second thoughts I had during the week.
I speculated in my match preview that in his defending role, Shea was ill-equipped to commit himself forward high enough to help out with the offense because he always had to keep an eye on defense, and despite his length and gazelle-like speed, his skill set and mindset may just not make him a very effective defender. Shea has also played very emotionally (in a negative way) for most of the season, getting easily rattled by contact from opposing forwards, and reacting in a volatile manner that has drawn him lots of silly and needless fouls.
What we saw from Shea, who subbed in after halftime for rookie Hadji Barry, was a player who seemed rejuvenated by the move to the wing, as he registered the assist on Molino's first goal in the 64th minute. He also had several beautiful shots from distance with those pretty curving rainbow arcs we have seen him deliver in the past that went just over or wide of the net. Then in the 76th minute Shea got a one-on-one chance against Revs keeper Bobby Shuttleworth that forced the keeper to contort and dive awkwardly to deflect the ball out in front of the net. Unforunately, Shea's run had been so swift and strong that none of his teammates were in the area to be able to tap the ball into the back of the empty net.
And the move also seemed to help the mental side of Brek's game as well. He took several very hard fouls on the night, including one scary moment in the 72nd minute when Je-Vaughn Watson got his legs tangled up with Shea's, and then the two tumbled hard to the turf, with Watson falling with his full weight on Shea's leg and then rolling over him for good measure. Shea took a minute or two to get up and he looked momentarily gimpy, but he seemed to be racing at near full-speed again when he had his chance at goal in the 76th. The fact that Shea was able to mentally ignore the frustration of these hard knocks and not let himself get drawn into silly emotional retaliations shows, in my opinion, just how much stress he was feeling at trying to play in a defensive role. And of course, like anyone, that kind of stress is naturally going to affect his performance on the pitch. So to Brek and all Shea fans I think I owe a bit of an apology for being a bit hasty in blaming his earlier performance in the season solely on a lack of will to win. He showed last night he certainly still has the fire in his belly and can be a dangerous part of the Orlando City attack when he is allowed to focus all his energy forward.
- Cyle Larin - This season, Cyle Larin has tended to patrol an area about the width of a single bowling lane that stretches from the halfway line of the pitch to the attacking goal along an axis that connects the two penalty spots. When the team goes back to defend, he has been fond of pulling his phone out of his pocket to text his girlfriend and stay rooted to the spot, and it has seemed to take an act of the Canadian Parliament to get him to chase a ball left or right of the middle of the pitch, and forget about asking him to do more than spectate when it's not obvious that a play is being set up for him. OK, Larin fans--I speak in hyperbole and exaggeration, but you get the idea. He's another player that I've criticized this season for not playing to the best of his ability in a way that most helps his team.
But that all changed last night. Numerous times Larin was out near the edges of the pitch in the attack, and he was also quite mobile off the ball, dragging Revs defenders all over the park to show them a tour of every single blade of turf on the pitch. I have said all season that he is at his best when he is mobile laterally as well as vertically, and that this helps him to open space for himself and draw defenders away from teammates, giving the squad a lot more options and opportunities to find the back of the net.
And again as with Shea, after seeing this change and seeing how excited Larin seemed to be during the match, I have to wonder if his old "striker on rails" habits from earlier in the year were not something being dictated from the sidelines in terms of how the coaches wanted him to play. It's obvious that Kreis understands the value of Larin's mobility and is giving him free rein to drift anywhere in the park that he wants, and may even be encouraging him to do so. I fully support this new "free range Larin" that we saw last night, and I hope we see a lot more of it in the latter part of the season.
- Defensive Line - The defensive line was much improved last night. It wasn't perfect for sure--the goal by Kei Kamara in the 19th minute was the most glaring example of this. On the play both Servando Carrasco and David Mateos were caught flat footed and out of position, with nobody marking or impeding Kamara as a ball was played forward to him. Kamara has fantastic speed for a player with his length and once he got free along the touch line he was uncatchable, even dribbling the ball as he hurtled toward Joe Bendik's goal. He opened up enough of a gap that he had a chance to catch Joe just enough off his guard that he could sneak the ball past him and into the far corner of the net for a goal.
But aside from this complete defensive breakdown, the back line played well enough to keep New England's other dangerous scoring threats off the board for the rest of the match. As a unit, the defense seems to lack speed when Rafael Rammos and Tommy Redding are both out of the match (both are nursing hamstring injuries at this time), and while Redding has an abundance of natural athletic talent, he's still inexperienced and can get schooled by wily veteran attacking players. There's another player (we'll see him later) who could help to shore up the defense by his natural talent and great speed, but only if he can be relied upon to avoid drawing a yellow card every time he steps on the pitch.
- Antonio Nocerino - Nocerino is another player that I have scratched my head over all season, and I've really had a hard time understanding why it's been so difficult for him to adjust to playing in MLS or with this club. But last night he had his best game of the season, bar none. It was a little bit surprising to see him get the start, and in post-match comments, Coach Kreis addressed this decision: "[Nocerino is] a player that I think took particular interest in what we were trying to do tactically and has taken a particular interest in organizing the players around him. I’ll be frank and tell you that I didn’t come here last week thinking he would start this weekend, I clearly did not, but he’s a player that in the training session on Tuesday and the match on Wednesday and the training session again on Friday earned his spot and I think he had a really nice performance.”
Now I certainly won't say that Nocerino had a great game compared to some other performances on the night, but compared to what we've seen from him so far this season, he was much consistently better and more productive than he has been. A particularly nice touch for Nocerino, I thought, was when he got subbed out at the 78th minute he was given a genuinely warm acknowledgement from the fans. If Jason Kreis can continue to coax that kind of performance out of Nocerino when he plays from the bench or in the Starting XI, then I think that will really help to sell the fans on his coaching ability.
- Numerical Domination - They say you can use stats to prove anything you want, but a lot of the numbers really looked impressive in the final analysis for Orlando City last night. Here are a few of the more telling highlights:
- More shots (16 - 10)
- More corner kicks (5 - 2)
- More crosses (17 - 13) -- it seems like we have rarely had more crosses this season, which meant we were getting great ball movement.
- More passes (500 - 388) -- again, we've come up on the short end of that stat too many times this season.
- Better passing accuracy (83% - 79%) -- we've been trailing in that stat almost every match this year.
- Better possession (56.4% - 43.6%) -- broken down by five-minute increments, Orlando City won the possession in 12 of the 18 five-minute blocks of the 90-minute match
- More duels or 50-50 balls won (57 - 41) -- this is directly tied into the possession, as winning these duels helps settle the ball and get it to a teammate to begin building a chance to attack the opponent's goal
- PROReferee Officiating - OK, I have to say that the refs actually didn't call a horrible game. There were several calls that a large number of fans thought they got wrong, and some missed opportunities to show yellow to some of the visiting players for poor sportsmanship, but we got through an entire match without a single outburst of the "Ref belongs on OBT" chant, and that may be a record for our home crowd. And I'm not saying the crowd were any less vocal or less attentive to the game, I'm saying that means the officials didn't do anything so egregious as to deserve getting an earful.
- "Cry" Kamara - I saw this hashtag pop up more than a few times last night on social media, and it seemed justified. Kamara is a great talent, but he has adopted the worst tactics of the thin-skinned divas from European soccer. He was begging for undeserved calls against Orlando City players all night, and then he whined every time he was whistled for an infraction of his own. Perhaps the worst display, though, was in the 67th minute when Kamara ran into a truck named David Mateos.
Mateos didn't even seem to notice the contact, while Kamara fell sprawled on the pitch in front of Joe Bendik's goal and screamed and cried until his teammates were forced to kick the ball out of bounds. The way he was rolling around on the pitch we were all very concerned and though we must need to call 9-1-1 for the poor man, who acted like he had been gored on the streets of Pamplona during the Running of the Bulls instead of colliding with a defender on the soccer pitch.
Trainers came rushing out onto the pitch and even the referees came over to check on Kamara. But as soon as it was clear to him that there was going to be no foul called or no penalty awarded, he popped to his feet and trotted off the pitch as though he were fine. It's very poor judgment on the officials' part that he wasn't given a yellow card for simulating injury, and perhaps it was even more disturbing that he wasn't given the Teen Choice Award for the William Shatner Honorary Best Dramatic Overacting category. I really think there ought to be an investigation on that one. The man deserves something for his efforts. I guess it just goes to show Hollywood is rigged!
- Consequences of an Earned Reputation - After last night's match I was critical of Cristian Higuita for drawing yet another yellow card--this one coming within moments of his stepping onto the pitch off the bench. Higuita came on in the 78th minute for Nocerino, and I thought to myself that with only 12 minutes plus stoppage left, the young Colombian could probably make it to the end of the match without drawing a yellow card. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
In the 80th minute Kaka showed that he was gassed by making a poor back pass in Higuita's general direction that caused the younger player to scramble to the ball at the same time that Revs defender Andrew Farrell was closing to it. Higuita reached the ball first and crouched over it awkwardly, almost seeming to try to put himself directly in the path of Farrell instead of actually going to strike the ball out of the way. The Revs player went tumbling to the pitch and the referee, who was in perfect position to see the whole play, wasted no time in pulling the yellow card against Higuita.
I have been so deeply disappointed by Higuita squandering talent because he lets his emotions get the better of him that I automatically default to presuming he is deserving of every yellow card that he is shown. And I don't think I'm alone in that. Referees are only human, and Higuita certainly has earned his reputation as a reckless player and someone that constantly pushed the envelope by mouthing off to officials every time a foul is called against him. I don't doubt his talent, but I do question his emotional maturity to handle playing the game at a professional level. I don't want him to lose his fire and his competitiveness, but I do expect him (perhaps with help from the new coaching staff) to learn how to channel those emotions into the run of play and not into inviting opportunities for officials to see card worthy fouls where they may not exist.
Many fans and other Higuita apologists have disagreed with me and said that they though the card was unwarranted, and after watching the replay numerous times, I'm still not quite sure I can bring myself to agree with them. Perhaps he simply lost his balance and didn't intend to interfere with the Revs defender, but it certainly looked like Higuita put himself in an unnatural position that forced the contact when that really wan't necessary to regain control and possession of the ball.
Whether you like someone who plays with that sort of aggressive style or not is irrelevant--the problem with playing that way is that you never give the officials the chance to give you the benefit of the doubt because you have proven time and time again that you haven't learned how to play within the limits of the rules. I respect the opinions of a lot of people who said they disagreed with me, but in this instance I just have to say I still disagree with them. The card may not have been justified in this instance, but it certainly was understandable why it was given, at least to this observer.
The most unfortunate thing about the card is that it was Higuita's 5th yellow on accumulation, meaning he will be suspended for the Seattle match next week. For the record, Higuita has played in 16 matches this season and has a total of 9 cards (8 yellow, 1 red), making him by far the most carded player on the club. If he can't learn how to control his emotions and play within the confines of the rules, then I'm not sure we need him taking up a roster spot on the team, regardless of his talent. At some point he becomes more of a liability than an asset.
What about you? What were your thoughts on the match? Did the game change your mind about any players or alter your feelings on the coaching change? Do you have confidence that the club will make a strong run to the playoffs this season, or do you think the performance of one match is too early to make projections about the rest of the season? Let me know in the comments below!