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

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.

The Good

  • 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

The Bad

  • 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.

The Ugly

  • "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!

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

It was a match that had the potential to set the team up for a playoff run after the Olympics. Instead, it turned into a frustrating night that leaves many wondering if the Pride will be able to make the leap into the Top 4 on the table by the end of the season when they return from the break.

The Pride (6 - 9 - 0) fell 1 - 0 on the road to the Boston Breakers (2 - 11 - 1), the team with the worst record in the league. With only five matches left in the season, the Pride sit 7th on the table, and are seven points behind fourth place Chicago Red Stars. When the club returns to action after the Olympics, there will be almost no margin for error if they want to claw their way back into the playoff race, and they may need some help from the top teams in the form of those clubs dropping matches or getting draws, since they only play one match against another club that currently sit in the Top 4 (8/26 vs. Washington Spirit). But Orlando fans can be inspired by the late-season run of OCSC in their MLS expansion season. Also, this year all three clubs that play under the Orlando City umbrella have shown a knack for leaving the result until the last moment. So maybe there's more of that last-minute drama in store for fans as the Pride come into the last part of the season. Let's hope so!

The Good

  • Play to the Final Whistle - As always, the team played all the way to the end. Even in stoppage time at the end of the match they were working to create chances, as Jasmyne Spencer forced defenders to take her down in front of the Boston goal. Unfortunately the officials didn't see the takedown as a foul and no PK was awarded to the Pride.
  • Aggressive Play - A stat I like to look at to tell which team is pushing the envelope in terms of trying to create opportunities is the Offside stat. While getting called Offside can indicate that a team is not being attentive enough to the positioning of the opposing defenders, it also shows that they are trying to get In the match yesterday the Pride were called Offside 8 times while Boston were only offside twice. 

The Bad

  • Missed Chances - The match contained a number of missed chances for the Pride. In addition to the aforementioned non-call takedown of Spencer in stoppage time, there were several other missed opportunities on the night.
    • In the 22nd minute, the Pride had a set piece which led to a great pass from Toni Pressley to Kaylyn Kyle who was deep in the six-yard box in front of the Boston goal and managed to tap the ball into the back of the net. Unfortunately, Kyle was too deep in the box and was called offside.
    • In the 32nd minute, Toni Pressley served a booming pass forward from the far side of the pitch in the attacking half. The ball found Jamia Fields near the far corner of the Breakers goal, and she tapped it out for rookie Sam Witteman. Witteman used a first-touch pass to get it across for Jasmyne Spencer, but she was turned away from goal and had to try to pivot on the ball before she could shoot. Unfortunately that delay gave enough time for a Boston defender to get a foot on the ball and clear it out of the danger area.
    • In the 37th minute, Kristen Edmonds took a free kick outside the Boston 18-yard box that found rookie Dani Weatherholt in front of the near post. Weatherholt took a first-touch shot that was almost perfect. Unfortunately the ball ricocheted off the goalpost and deflected back into the field of play. For a moment it looked like Maddie Evans was going to be able to continue the threat as she sent the ball back into a scrum of players from both sides in front of the goal, but Orlando was unable to get another attempt on goal before Boston launched another counter-attack.
  • Natasha Dowie - Dowie was bad from the perspective of an Orlando fan. The English International, most recently of the Doncaster Rover Belles,  was signed by Boston on July 17 and played her first match last night. Unfortunately for the Pride, she scored the game's only goal. She scuttled past Toni Pressley, who has imposing height and length on the pitch, but has shown a tendency to get beat by smaller, more agile players. Pressley was caught outside on the play, and Dowie was able to get into position for a one-on-one matchup with keeper Kaitlyn Savage, and she put a worm-burner strike home in the opposite corner of the net.
  • Slim Pickens from the Bench - Readers of a certain age will wonder what the star of Dr. Strangelove has to do with an NWSL match and the answer is nothing. But the recent departure of Leah Fortune from the team and the missing Olympians meant that Tom Sermanni only had one bench player with any experience in matches this season, and that was rookie Christina Burkenroad. Otherwise, the only players on the bench were the call-up signees that have been called up while the Olympic players are in Rio.

The Historic

  • Witteman / Edmonds Switcheroo - Rookie Sam Witteman got her first start of the season at forward, while Kristen Edmonds started on the defensive line for the first time.

While the loss is disappointing as a fan, once we had a clear picture of how many players would be called up for the Olympics we always knew that the July stretch of the season would be a tough one, since we would have to rely on so many rookies to play so many minutes and fill so many key roles. As with Orlando City's MLS season in 2015, a key injury to backup goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe has also hurt the club, since a roster spot had to be used to sign another goalkeeper while Ashlyn Harris is away.

As I've said all season I appreciate seeing the players try hard and keep playing all the way to the end of the match, so I'm not going to be too critical of them. It's hard to say whether the club has the right mix of players on the team with so many of them having missed so many matches due to national team call-ups. For now we'll just have to hope that Tom Sermanni and the brain trust in the front office will help the team find as much success as they can in the final part of the season and make any needed off-season transactions to build an even stronger team for next season.

What did you think of the match? Whose play stood out for you as particularly good or dodgy? Do you expect that the team can win enough points in the final few matches to still make it to the Top 4 of the table, or do you think the playoffs are out of reach for this season? Let me know in the comments below.

OCSC vs. NER: Previews and Predictions

Tonight will be the third and final matchup between OCSC and the New England Revolution in 2016. The team will match two familiar foes that have new looks since they last met in April. On April 30 at Gillette Stadium, Adrian Winter was a member of OCSC and Adrian Heath was the coach. Now at the end of July, both are gone from the club and Jason Kreis is the new head coach in Orlando. And another familiar face is in a new uniform on the other side of the pitch as Kei Kamara, long time star for the Columbus Crew, is wearing a Revs uniform.

What To Watch For

The new wrinkle to the New England lineup hasn't made them any less dangerous. They still have Lee Nguyen, who broke hearts in Orlando with a late PK equalizer that allowed the visitors to split the points back in the first meeting of the season, and resulted in some ugliness as more than insults were hurled at opposing players by fans in the stands at what was then known as the Citrus Bowl. Nguyen leads the Revs with 5 goals on the season, while multiple other players are tied with three each, including the mid-season acquisition Kamara.

New England is effective at building attacks and taking shots on goal. Teams like that have posed problems for Orlando City all season, with their questionable defensive performance. I've almost come to the conclusion that the original brain trust of the club forgot the first principle of sports, which is "defense wins championships." From the announcement of Kaka as the first player to the acquisition of dynamic scorers like Cyle Larin and Kevin Molino, it seems like they've been trying to focus on flashy play to try to draw crowds instead of building a team that lets the goalkeeper be the loneliest and least active player on the pitch.

Jason Kreis addressed the defensive struggles of the club in his initial press conference, and this week he also announced a change in position for Brek Shea, saying that he wanted to move him back to winger and not have him play at the outside defender position. Brek has the speed and the range to be able to play forward and get back to help the defenders if he is up higher in the formation, but it gives him more of an opportunity to focus on the attack and not always have one eye back on the defense. There have been a lot of times that Brek has simply looked like he is out on the pitch taking up space, and I have to admit I was chalking that up to a lack of will to do what it takes to win. But upon reflecting about the coach's plan to move him forward, I'm wondering if his flat performance hasn't been due to having to try to worry about both ends of the pitch simultaneously when his skills are best suited to being in an attacking role.

Coach Kreis has also talked about having a more compact and disciplined shape on defense, which should give goalkeeper Joe Bendik a little help. Bendik has made some of the most exciting plays for Orlando City this season, and he is second in MLS in terms of the number of saves, largely due to the sieve-like defense that has permitted opponents so many shots on goal.

Predictions

If Orlando City can demonstrate some more disciplined and effective defensive play this match, it should help them extend their 16-match home unbeaten streak. And their cause should be helped by the fact that New England has only won a single match on the road all season.

I've sensed plenty of excitement and enthusiasm from players following their initial meetings with the new coach, and they have definitely seemed to play with more energy in these last few matches. That makes me optimistic about tonight, and I'm going to predict that they take it down to the wire and emerge with a 2 - 1 victory on the night, taking all three points.

What about you? What do you expect from the lads this evening? Do you think Orlando City will be able to emerge from the match with a win, or do you think that they will need more time to adjust to the changes Coach Kreis wants to implement? And now that you've had a chance to read some of his comments in the press and hear some of the players talk about him, do you think he's a good fit or the team or not? Let me know in the comments below.

Breakers vs. Pride: Previews and Predictions

Sunday will be a big match for the ladies--it's the last match before the Olympic break and probably the last match without all of the players who have traveled to Rio. This match also comes on the heels of the worst loss the team have suffered, so it will be important for their confidence (not to mention, important for their playoff hopes) to have a good result from the match this weekend.

Once again, the NWSL schedulers have been kind, in that at the time the team really need a boost of confidence and really need three points they go up against the team that sits on the bottom of the table. The Breakers still sit at 4 points, which is what they had the last time we played them in Orlando earlier this month. Their 1 - 11 - 1 record is last in the league, and they also have the fewest goals scored in the league (6) while surrendering the most goals in the league (29).

Players to Watch

Last week the Seattle Reign took advantage of the Pride's youth and inexperience, forcing a lot of the Pride's younger players and those who have not had many minutes this season to chase the ball around the pitch and thus be out of position to open up scoring chances. I will be interested to watch if the coaches have helped the players adjust to that tactic. I would expect the Boston coaches would be working with their team to exploit any potential weakness that any opponent presents just to help their team enjoy some success and gain some confidence.

Looking back at the match on July 10, the team we face in Boston will look different from the one that visited Camping World Stadium. Mollie Pathman, the goal scorer for Boston, has since retired from professional soccer, so she is no longer with the team. And Stephanie McCaffrey, who played all 90 minutes for Boston in Orlando, has since been traded to the Chicago Red Stars. It was a move similar to the departure of Leanne Sanderson from the Pride earlier in the season, where Boston did not get players back but instead received an International spot and draft picks for next season.

For Orlando, of course we have a lot of exciting players to watch. Kristen Edmonds and Jasmyne Spencer are our leading scorers, and I expect both of them to be active on the ball, pushing forward and threatening to find the back of the net all night. Additionally, I'm hoping we'll see more shots and chances taken by rookies like Christina Burkenroad. And I'll especially be watching two players to see how they bounce back after a particularly difficult game.

A late challenge in the first half last week by Dani Weatherholt resulted in the first PK opportunity that Orlando have given up this season. Weatherholt is normally very heads up and eyes sharp for tactics of the opponents, but the cagy Reign were able to draw her out of position on the play and lure her into the error. It's a classic case of what I like to call "old age and treachery" vs. "youth and exuberance" every time a veteran player in any sport takes advantage of a rookie to gain an advantage. And late in the second half last week Toni Pressley suffered every defender's worst nightmare. Her attempt to deflect a crossing shot resulted in an unfortunate own goal. I hope to see both of these players bounce back and have good outings this match.

I'm also hoping to see our defense as a whole provide a little better support for goalkeeper Kaitlyn Savage. Last week against the Reign she had to face 23 shots, 12 of which were on goal. She made 8 saves, which is a good tally for any keeper. At the same time, the defense is the part of the team hit hardest by the Rio Olympics, as most of our starting defensive back line are away with their National teams. Kaylyn Kyle has been doing her best to play in the defensive position and encourage the other players that have moved into those positions with her, and I'm hoping that facing a team that hasn't had much success scoring this season will give them a chance to have a really solid outing. A clean sheet would be a great reward for the work that they and Savage have had to do in place of the missing Olympians.

As a team we know we're going to get great effort for the full 90 minutes, as they have lately developed a knack for scoring goals late in the match. In the last few matches they have scored goals, including game winners and equalizers well after the 85th minute and even in stoppage time. 

Prediction

Last time these teams played, the result was a 2 - 1 win for the Pride. I am going to go out on a limb and say that the result is even better this time. I will predict the Pride will win 2 - 0. We'll see if I also bounce back from a poor week in the prediction category last time out!

What about you--what do you expect to see in the match this weekend? Do you think the Pride will be able to capitalize on the weakness of Boston to get a win, or do you think they'll continue to struggle like they did last week? Is there a player that you believe is poised for a breakout match? Let me know in the comments below!

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

Have you ever had one of those days that feel like it was written by a classic Nashville crooner--when your car broke down, your significant other left you, you lost your job, and your best friend was hospitalized with some traumatic injury? If so, then that's about how the Pride match with the Reign went last night. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Put another way, the match last night felt a little bit like it was the Pride's Kobayashi Maru test. Ask your favorite sci-fi geek to explain that one to you.

In any case, the match pitted a Pride team missing most of its season-starting defense to the Olympics against a Reign team that has some very good International players whose national teams just happen to have missed the Olympics this year. The result was predictable from an analytic point of view--of course since I'm a fan and not an analyst I often have to have the predictable proven to me before I'll believe it. And the Reign took advantage of the relatively young and inexperienced Pride opponents to have one of their best matches of the season. Even though the loss was a painful one for fans and I'm sure it was excruciating for the players and coaches, I think there are some good things to come of it.

The Good

  • Playing Until the Final Whistle - The Pride went down 2 - 0 in the first half, and then gave up an early 3rd goal at the start of the second period to trail 3 - 0. But they didn't quit on the match. In the 52nd minute Jasmyne Spencer scored (with an assist from Jamia Fields) to bring the Pride to back within 2 goals.
         Then even after the Reign added a fourth goal and forced a fluke own goal by the Pride, the team showed the resilience to score again. In the 89th minute, Kristen Edmonds scored (with an assist from Sarah Hagen). It would be easy for an outmatched team to simply give up and watch the clock to wait for a chance to hit the showers, but that is not in the character of this team. They fight until the final whistle and strive to find a result even against impossible odds.
  • Giving Extra Effort - Two plays that went against the Pride last night were examples of players giving extra effort, and as a fan I'd much rather see players make mistakes of "going too hard" than players making mistakes of not being engaged enough. I know that professional athletes are really competitive, so they hate any mistakes, but as a fan of a young team I know mistakes will happen and I just like to see them being the results of trying to win.
         In the 20th minute, Dani Weatherholt was called for a foul in the penalty area as she raced in to try to make a tackle from behind on Seattle's Kendall Fletcher as she received a crossing pass in from Naho Kawasumi. It was a case where a rookie player got caught out of position and then tried too hard to make up for the error and had the call go against her. Unfortunately because of the location on the field it resulted in a PK and the first goal of the night for Seattle. But I'd rather see our players react to and try to recover from a mistake than simply watch events unfold and hope that someone else will pick them up.
         Then in the 87th minute, Toni Pressley suffered the nightmare of any soccer player when she went into the record books with an own goal, scored by deflecting an attempted pass from Lindsay Elston to Beverly Yanez past keeper Kaitlyn Savage and into the Pride net.

The Bad

  • Missing Their Olympians - Being part of an expansion side is hard enough, when all the players have to take most of the season to really become comfortable with each other's skills and tendencies on the pitch, and build that team chemistry that lets great teams look like a well-oiled machine. But that job is especially difficult when halfway through the season some of the best players n the club are called away for a major global tournament like the Olympics. Then you have to bring in a lot of rookies and reserve players that may not otherwise be expected to see the pitch very much and put them in pivotal roles. As you advance through every level in sport from recreational to high school to college to professional, you encounter better opposition and you have to adapt your game to those situations. Many great athletes suffer adversity early in their careers, but they persevere and grow and rise above that to become legends. I hope that we're looking at some legends in the making on the Pride roster who will use the inevitable matches like yesterday as lessons and challenges to rise above and push beyond as they continue developing their game.

The Historic

  • First Visit to Seattle - I could bring up some statistical figures, but that won't help anyone feel any better today.
  • Spencer Passes Morgan - Of course all eyes were on Alex Morgan coming into the season, looking to the Captain to produce the lion's share of the scoring for the Pride. But with her duties for the USWNT calling her away on several occasions, Morgan has not been able to play as many matches and notch as many goals as she might otherwise. Kristen Edmonds has emerged as the leading scorer on the team with four goals on the season, and Jasmyne Spencer has now also passed the Captain to register three goals on the season. It's always fun to see younger and less well-known players emerge and blossom in the right circumstances, and I think it's safe to say we are seeing both Spencer and Edmonds really come into their own as leaders on the pitch. And I look forward to more great things to come from them.

What were your thoughts on last night's match? Did you see any trends or tendencies that concerned you, or do you think this is part of the growing pains that all young teams suffer? Who else on the team showed the kind of character you like seeing from your players besides the ones I mentioned? Let me know in the comments below!

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

Last night Orlando City was on the road for the last match under interim head coach Bobby Murphy, and each half looked like it was taken from two separate matches. In the first half Columbus raced out to a 2 - 0 lead and it didn't seem like Orlando City had any answers. Then Bobby Murphy must have delivered the halftime speech of brief career as head coach, because the team came out determined not to return to Orlando empty handed.

The Good

  • Second Half Possession - I mentioned each half seemed like it came from a different game. As inept and lethargic as the squad looked in the first half, they looked the polar opposite in the second half: energized, intense, and determined to avoid a loss. In the second half, Orlando City had a bit over 54% possession. 
  • Second Half Scoring - In the 65th minute Kevin Molino scored unassisted to get Orlando City on the board, and five minutes later Molino had an assist as Cyle Larin scored to draw the match level. Molino continues to show that he was indeed ready to transition from USL to MLS and the club was smart to keep him.
  • "Super" Joe Bendik - The Orlando City keeper had seven saves on the night, and nearly saved his second PK of the season. In stoppage time at the end of the first half, Columbus was awarded a PK after the referee judged that Bendik took down Ola Kamara in the penalty area. Kamara's PK attempt went to keeper's left and that's the direction Bendik leaped, but the ball was perfectly placed to carom off the back edge of the goalpost and into the net. The ball was struck with just enough pace that even Joe's Superman leap wouldn't let him stretch out fast enough or far enough to stop the shot.
  • More Engaged Play - I've griped about Cyle Larin in the past for not being engaged when the team gets back on defense. But several times last night I saw him racing deep into our defending third of the pitch when the team needed more numbers to help try to stop scoring attempts. It's possible that in his message to the team Coach Kreis made it clear that strikers playing only offense is not good enough to be on the squad, and that Cyle is taking this message to heart. I also saw a number of times where the defense broke down by overrunning plays instead of by simple ball watching. If a player makes a mistake because he tries and guesses wrong, that's acceptable as imperfection, which is what I saw last night. When a player simply watches the other team play and expects someone else to do something about it, that's unacceptable laziness, and that's something I've seen way too much out of our team this season.
  • Kaka's Return - We can end the missing persons report on Kaka, but we can't cancel it altogether: now we need to get Brek Shea's picture put on the milk carton. The Captain returned to the pitch in the second half last night, and it seemed to spark the team awake. He was subbed out for Julio Baptista--personally I would have liked to see Baptista and Kaka on the pitch together--and it seemed the team came alive. Within minutes of his return the match was brought level. Even though he has not played in top form this season, I think his presence still commands such attention from the opponents that it opens more space for our more prolific scorers like Molino and Larin.

The Bad

  • First Half Possession - Remember how I said the match looked like each half came from separate games? Remember how Orlando City had the possession advantage in the second half? In the first half it was horrible: Columbus had a 55.3% possession advantage, which gave them an overall edge in possession for the match (53.5% for CLB, 46.5% for OCSC). 
  • First Half Scoring - Orlando City were shut out in the first half, and they didn't even have success in creating many opportunities for themselves during the opening 45 minutes. It seemed like every first or second touch by the club resulted in turning the ball over to Columbus. The only notable exception was a burst of offense in the seventh minute that saw Cyle Larin shoot on a tight angle that saw the ball bounce off the near side goalpost and out of bounds.

The Ugly

  • Defensive Skill Level - There have been so many problems with effort this season that it's been masking the fact that our defenders just aren't good enough to keep up with the top strikers in the league. I'm not saying they are unskilled or that they don't sometimes make great plays, but they just don't have the combination of speed and agility required to consistently beat and stop the attacks of opposing strikers without committing fouls. Some of them are too slow to keep pace, and some of them get caught up chasing the ball instead of staying focused on the man they are marking and thus drift out of position and are constantly racing to try to recover. The first goal for Columbus last night resulted from a true "Keystone Kops" moment related to this defensive shortfall. The goal happened when Seb Hines inadvertently ran a pic play against Servando Carrasco, letting Tony Tchani have an uncontested one-on-one shot at goal against Bendik. Tchani's shot was low and skipped under Bendik's arm as he dove for it. But if Hines and Carrasco had not collided, it's likely that Servando could have at least harried or disrupted Tchani enough to keep him from being able to pick the angle and timing of his shot as he wanted. Fixing this defensive deficit of the team is one of the top priorities of Coach Kreis, in my opinion, and I'll be excited to see what new signee Jose Aja can add to the squad when he gets his chance to play.
  • Another Draw - With 20 games in the books and 14 more left to play, Orlando City could set an MLS record for draws. They are sitting on 11 draws for the season, and need only 7 more to match the Chicago Fire's league record 18 draws, set in 2014. If they draw 8 of their final 14 matches, they will eclipse the records and get into the history books defying expectations... for mediocrity. 

What were your thoughts on the match? Did the energetic play make you optimistic for the rest of the season under Kreis? Or did the draw make you dread that we're going to be seeing more of the same from this squad for the rest of the season regardless of the coaching change? Do you think there is any hope for some of the existing roster of defenders if Coach Kreis deployed them differently, or do you think he just needs to upgrade the entire back line? Let me know in the comments below.

Reign vs. Pride: Previews and Predictions

The Pride take the longest road trip in NWSL this weekend as they travel to face the Seattle Reign tonight. The match will be back on YouTube on the NWSL channel, and kickoff is at 10 pm Orlando time Saturday night.

Players to Watch

For the Pride, it will be their third straight match without the Olympic players, but Seattle is in a similar boat. The legendary Hope Solo is with Alex Morgan and Ashlyn Harris in the USWNT camp. Seattle's midfielder Megan Rapinoe is also with Jill Ellis and Co. getting ready for the Rio Olympics.

This means that the top scorers for Seattle are still with the club. Japanese midfielder Naho Kawasumi and Scottish midfielder Kim Little each have 3 goals, and the Dutch forward Manon Melis comes into the match with two goals on the season.

The Pride will be fielding a team that seems like it has among the most talented and hard-working players in the league, and that's even without their half-dozen Rio-bound American and International players. Among these are the dynamic Kristen Edmonds, the energetic Jasmyne Spencer, the relentless Kaylyn Kyle, and the heady rookie Dani Weatherholt, who always seems to have great pitch awareness both on and off of the ball. Coach Tom Sermanni will likely tinker with the lineup again, as he seems to enjoy keeping opponents off-guard and expanding the comfort zone of his players to take advantage of skill he seems to know they have but they may not have yet tapped to their full potential.

Prediction

The Pride enter the match with 13 matches under their belts on 18 points, which puts them 6th on the table and 3 points out of playoff contention. Meanwhile, the Reign are on 17 points after 13 matches and sit 7th on the table. While the Pride are 1 and 1 so far in their matches without the six Olympians, they have seemed consistently energetic and have kept the intensity up in these matches, which is a big encouragement. I think they are getting more comfortable playing without these starters, so I'm going to predict a 2 - 1 victory for the Pride on the road tonight. 

What do you think? Do you believe the Pride will bring home three points, or do you think they will struggle on the long road trip? Let me know in the comments below!

CLB vs. OCSC: Previews and Predictions

In a little over two weeks, Orlando City has gone from what seemed like a season-ending tailspin to a club filled with optimism. After listless performances back-to-back against Dallas FC and Houston, both following the departure of Adrian Winter and the Dallas match seeming to herald the firing of coach Adrian Heath, the club seemed like it was ready to pack in the 2016 season and give up.

But in the days that followed there was a much more energetic performance against the New York Red Bulls, which seemed to show signs of life even in a loss, and then there was an inspired performance against Vancouver which felt like a win even though the record books recorded a draw. And in the last three days the club have announced the hiring of new head coach Jason Kreis, and the signing of Uruguan defender Jose Aja. And news from the club today, as reported by the Orlando Sentinel, indicates that Aja has traveled to Colombus and is cleared to play with the team.

But the new coach will not be in charge. The terms announced upon the hiring of Jason Kreis indicated that interim head coach Bobby Murphy will coach the team in Saturday night's match with Columbus, and Kreis will take over coaching duties when the team returns from the trip.

Players to Watch

Last season the biggest threat in Columbus was a player named Kamara--Kei Kamara. This year, the leading scorer in Columbus is also named Kamara, but it's Ola Kamara. Kamara has 9 goals for Columbus in 13 matches played. Additionally, Federico Higuaim comes in scoring 3 goals on the season and Justin Merim has scored two goals. And in terms of setting up the offense, Ethan Finlay comes in leading the Crew with 6 assists on the season, Justin Merim has 5 assists, and three other players have 3 assists each. And goalkeeper Steve Clark is one of the few netminders in MLS who have more saves on the season than Joe Bendik. Clark has 69 saves from 98 shots on goal. Columbus also have new players they have signed: Norwegian defender Nicolai Naess, and goalkeeper Zack Steffan. 

For Orlando City, the club not only have new defender Aja available, but some familiar faces will be back in action. Somebody finally called T. G. Lee dairy and got Kaka off the milk carton. He has traveled with the team to Columbus and is scheduled to play in this match. Out of 19 matches in the season so far, the Captain has only appeared in 9, making him more like one of those B-list celebrities that always was in rotation as "special guest star" in those episodic TV dramas from the 1970s and 1980s. Brek Shea is also back from his one-match suspension for yellow card accumulation, and Carlos Rivas will be available for the game as there are no visa issues getting into Ohio... at least not yet.

Prediction

I am really curious how the team will respond to the meeting that new head coach Jason Kreis had with them. Quoting from his introductory press conference on Wednesday, he said the following about his first scheduled meeting with the players, which happened Thursday morning:

"My most immediate priority is... to get with the player tomorrow morning [and] spell out for them our vision for the club going forward, and let them know this is what it is going to mean to be an Orlando City Soccer Club member, and ask the players if that's what they want."

He went on to articulate that successful clubs demonstrate to players that a level of commitment and sacrifice are required to achieve the highest levels, and he wants to know sooner rather than later if any of the players will not buy into that so, as he said, "If you do not want to be here we need to learn that quickly and move you on."

I think perhaps Coach Heath showed a degree of patience with players in terms of them finding their motivation because of the potential skills they brought to the club; it sounds like Kreis will not tolerate this. I have felt at times watching matches this season that there have been times when several players have looked like they lacked motivation or sufficient desire to win, and I felt like they needed someone to light a fire under them. In this, I am pleased with the comments of Coach Kreis, and if the players look like they are being lazy or apathetic, then they do not deserve to wear the crest of this team--whether they make seven-figure salaries or the MLS league minimum. Full stop.

Given his comments at his introductory presser, I will be very curious how the team performs tomorrow. I would hope that they all know their jobs are on the line, so that they will all play with even more energy and enthusiasm as they did in Vancouver. If the club gives us that kind of effort every match, then I can accept those occasions when their best is just not good enough to win against a superior team. It's when they get sloppy and lazy and lethargic and disinterested in whether they win or lose that I start to feel betrayed as a fan and a season ticket holder of the club.

We are fortunate in the timing of the match, as Columbus sits 9th place in the East, so it should statistically be a good matchup for us. Orlando City comes in scoring 30 goals on the season while Columbus only have 24 goals. Orlando City also have a better goal differential (-3) than Columbus (-6) on the season.

I think the motivation from Coach Kreis will have the team attentive, on point, and eager to prove to their new coach that they want to be on the team and that they have the skill to deserve to be there. Given that, I'm going to predict a big win for the club, and say that they will come back with a 3 - 0 victory and three important points.

What about you? Do you think the club will win on Saturday night? What do you think about the Coach Kreis hire? Do you believe it was a good hire, or is there someone else you think they should have brought in if they were determined to change coaches? Let me know in the comments below!

Stoppage Time: July 19, 2016

This week: Orlando City names its new coach! Jason Kreis led RSL to the MLS Cup in 2009 and scored 100 goals as an MLS player. Learn more about him and what he needs to be successful at Orlando City.

And your questions! Remember you can use twitter to send questions for Stoppage Time to @lionsteethblog with the hashtag #STQ for "Stoppage Time Questions."