There are three universal truths that you can always count on: death, taxes, and a social media meltdown by Orlando City fans after a loss. Sometimes fans will blame the coach; sometimes fans will blame the players. More often than not fans will blame the referees. Poor calls by PROReferee officials happen so often you would think fans would get used to it, but the level of outrage shown by Orlando City fans after a loss is something that activists should study regardless of which issue they support--for or against some elected official, some protected Constitutional right, or some privilege or entitlement that has been established by Supreme Court decision and a long precedence of case law. I have some thoughts from that could help Orlando City fans channel their frustration more productively that I will get to a little later, but for now, I'm going to return to a post-match wrap-up format that hasn't seemed worthwhile doing since the team fell into its long losing streak a couple of months ago.
The team fought for 90 minutes last night, and they managed to take the lead not once but then took the lead a second time after Columbus managed to level in the 51st minute. It was far from a perfect game, but it showed evidence that Coach O'Connor's leadership is gradually eroding the bad habits the team fell into that led them to the long losing streak. I've said numerous times in the past few weeks this is not going to be an immediate remedy--they took a long time to become this bad and it's going to take time to reverse those bad habits. Examining the specifics, we can see evidence the team is going in the right direction, even if the results on the scoreboard and the table don't show it.
- Scoring First - For the second league match in a row, Orlando City managed to score the first goal of the match. This is something that the team only did twice in the first 17 matches of the season. Now under James O'Connor, the team has managed to score first in two of three matches. This is tangible proof of progress.
- Leading Twice - For the second time in 2018 across all competitions, Orlando City managed to take a lead twice. The only other time that happened this season was on March 31 when Josue Colman's 86th-minute winner hit the back of the net to lift Orlando City over the New York Red Bulls at home. That game came as the club's six-game winning streak was gaining momentum and the team was brimming with confidence. Once the losing streak started, the club became a shell-shocked shadow of itself, collapsing into despair at the first sign of resistance from the opponent.
- Diverse Contributors - The two goals that Orlando City scored last night were the results of good buildups and involved several players. The first goal scored by Sacha Kljestan came off a lovely crossing ball from the far right corner sent in by RJ Allen and deflected to Kljestan's foot by rookie Chris Mueller. Mueller continues to grow his game and shows a knack for knowing where to be. His skill is also growing so that the accuracy of his passes and shots continues to get better. And Allen has challenges in defense, but he's an asset on the attack with his ability to get forward. The second goal involved both Yoshimar Yotun and Sacha Kljestan in the assist, with the final strike provided by Stefano Pinho. On a night when Dom Dwyer didn't play, it was going to require others to step up, and it was good to see that happen.
- Better Organization in the Attack - All the shots didn't go in. I don't think I've ever watched a soccer game where they did (I haven't watched as much soccer as some, so I don't have the hubris to claim that has never happened). But a huge frustration during the losing streak was Orlando City not being organized enough to jump on second-chance balls. It always seemed like one guy running in with teammates standing around watching, and when the ball rebounded off a keeper's hands or the frame of the goal, there was nobody for Orlando City to try to put a follow-up boot on the ball. Last night, that changed.
In the 62nd minute, there was a beautiful sight. After Orlando City had already re-taken the lead, Mohamed El-Munir started a break just to the left of the center line with Tony Rocha on his left side. He tipped the ball off his foot to Rocha and the counter-attack was on. The beauty was not that Rocha and El-Munir were starting a break, but that out to their left, no fewer than three other Orlando City players were sprinting down the pitch with them, creating a 5-on-2 attacking chance with all of the players in white kits remaining onside. Just outside the penalty area, Rocha dumped the ball back off to El-Munir and started crossing inside. El-Munir shepherded the ball into the box and took the first shot, which Zack Steffen parried away. Instead of being collected by a Columbus player, the ball literally hit Stefano Pinho in the arm as he was one of the trailing Orlando City players running in on the play. Within several yards of Pinho were Rocha and two other Lions. Had the referee not called a foul (apparently a handball) and awarded Steffen a goal kick, there were ample players to put the ball in the net for a third Orlando City goal. Remember how bad this team has been--to see them playing with such purpose and organization is a huge improvement. It's a little unrealistic to expect all the bad habits to evaporate immediately, but I am very happy to see how Coach O'Connor is putting these players in the same chapter if not yet completely on the same page with each other.
There are still plenty of problems on the team. Orlando City can only hope to control what the Lions players, coaches, and front office staff do. They can't control the opponent or the league or the officials, so I don't think it's a very productive use of time to complain about those elements in the "Bad" section of a Good, Bad, and Ugly review. So I'm only going to focus on the controllable elements that it seems like Orlando City's coaches and players can directly control.
- Lack of Vision - Since I watched the match on TV in a bar with no sound, I was limited in seeing what the camera chose to show. But reports from people in the stadium say that there were a number of times that Orlando City players failed to recognize open teammates out on the edge. This does not surprise me, since that was a bad habit they fell into during the long losing streak. For two straight months, Orlando City failed to play as an organized team and played instead as 11 individuals each trying to do their own thing. Expecting all that to evaporate at once is a bit foolish and naive on the part of any fan, so we're just going to have to watch for evidence of it getting better. Scoring multiple goals is some evidence, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.
- Defensive Lapses - The first goal for Columbus was the result of a complete mental collapse by the Orlando City defense. Gyasi Zardes is the leading scorer for Columbus, so job number one for any defense is to be sure Zardes never gets a chance to have an easy shot on the ball anywhere near the goal. As Niko Hansen dribbled the ball up the right side of the pitch in the 51st minute, Zardes ran up the center of the pitch with Shane O'Neill and Oriol Rosell in his general vicinity, but with neither Orlando player marking him closely. As Hansen reached the corner, Zardes backed off from the goal and became wide open, also putting himself in a clearly onside position in case there had been any doubt. Because both O'Neill and Rosell were not paying attention, it gave Hansen an easy passing lane to chip the ball across to Zardes and his shot deftly kissed off the left goalpost at an angle keeper Joe Bendik couldn't reach and found the back of the net. Zardes is a great player and he still may have beaten a tight defense, but attentive play may have resulted in Hansen never making the cross that led to the goal. Pay attention. Mark your man. No lapses. No excuses. No exceptions. Period.
- Lack of Situational Awareness - According to official MLS stats, Columbus took every corner kick in the game. The stat line on corners was 17 - 0 to be exact. After the goalkeeper change due to injury, I couldn't help but notice the disturbing tendency Joe Bendik has to parry the ball on shots instead of smothering and catching the ball. Every time the ball is deflected it has a chance to go out of bounds, giving the opponent another opportunity for a corner kick. That none of the Columbus goals came from set plays is something of a minor miracle; the point is that Orlando City should not be permitting an opponent that many corners and that means every player, including the goalkeeper, minimizing the chances to give the other team corner kicks.
- Statistical Underachievement - Almost every statistical category was led by Columbus. Viewing the game from a statistical standpoint alone, the numbers show Columbus was completely in control of the match, regardless of what optics may lead anyone watching the game to believe. Columbus led in Shots (15-9), Shots on Target (6-5), Corners (17-0), Crosses (48-7), Passes (438-354), Passing Accuracy (87% - 79%), Possession (57.3% - 42.7%), Duels Won (47-37), and Tackles Won (10-9). In fact, the only significant positive stat that Orlando City led was Clearances (33-6). And leading Clearances by that margin simply shows that the Lions were desperately standing in front of their goal trying to parry away wave after wave of attacks from the opponent.
- PRO Referee - It seems like every year, officiating in MLS gets steadily worse, and every year you hear more and more pundits, coaches, and players complaining. In the last month, fiery RSL coach Mike Petke had a post-match rant against poor officiating go viral. And as I alluded at the top of this post, it's a common occurrence after Orlando City losses to see the social media sphere around the team's fan base go into meltdown mode over bad calls. Often I agree with other fans that calls are bad, but I try to restrict my prescriptive advice to the team to those elements which they can control. Orlando City's coaches, players, and even ownership can't control MLS officiating by themselves. The only elements they can control are their execution on the pitch. So as fans, I think we should restrict our annoyance and frustration toward those parts of the game that our team can control. Certainly, we can complain to MLS directly about the general quality of officiating. If we do so, however, we should be sure that we complain about inaccurate calls that impact other teams as well as ours, whether they happen in games where Orlando City plays or not. That's the only way to convince MLS that they have a genuine problem in officiating that impacts many teams and not just a bunch of whining fans in one city who feel like the universe is out to get them.
Recipe to Counter PROReferee
Einstein is credited with saying, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." If Orlando City keeps going into matches and expecting PROReferee to call matches accurately and correctly, that's just plain foolish. Until and unless PROReferee is replaced by a better organization or it is completely overhauled to deliver better results, fans, players, and coaches just need to learn to execute better in order to take the game out of the hands of the officials. Here are three simple things that Orlando City can do that will guarantee better results without any changes in MLS or the officiating:
- Create more chances - As I documented above, our players tend to miss seeing a lot of open teammates in prime attacking positions. Find the open player. Get them the ball. Give them a chance to attack. In the match last night Orlando City only managed nine shots. If we have better vision and find the open player more often, we may be able to increase that by 30% or more, so nine shots can become 12.
- Better shooting accuracy - We had nine total shots and only had five shots on target last night. That means only 56% of the shots were on target. If we can raise that figure by 30% that could mean seven or eight shots on target. If we also raise our vision in the attack and get more shots, that could mean up to 10 shots on target from last night's match. Better shooting equals better results and it doesn't require forces outside the team's control (like an incompetent officiating organization) to improve the outcomes.
- Control the match - There are three "heart and hustle" stats that often show which team is controlling the match: Duels Won, Tackles Won, and Clearances. As I said before Columbus controlled two of three of those stats, and thus showed more heart and hustle than Orlando City on the night.
I don't think my fellow Orlando City fans are wrong to be frustrated with the officiating in MLS, but I do feel like it's far too easy of a cop-out to blame this or any loss solely on officiating. Since the team can't control the officials, it's far better to focus our advice, energy, and exhortations for the team on those things that the club can control. Gripe at MLS if you want to, but don't show yourself to be so petty and ignorant that you choose to accept that as an excuse for the team losing. The team has plenty of faults on their own to help them lose without having to rely on the officials to blow the game for them.
The bottom line is we don't need better officials to see Orlando City win more games, we need Orlando City players to execute better and more consistently. I think James O'Connor is starting to get the team going in the right direction, and I expect more ups and downs to come before we can see real consistency in better play by the team.