SANFORD, Fla. — If there was a moment to embody Orlando City’s slew of slow starts, Sam Johnson’s goal last Saturday would be a good place.
The Real Salt Lake forward actually took a tumble while sprinting into the box, got up and still found enough space to get to the ball and squeeze a shot between Lions goalkeeper Brian Rowe and the near post.
Boom. Lions trail 1-0 in less than 20 minutes. Again.
“You think we’re in a good spot,” Orlando City coach James O’Connor said, “and then their first attack — goal. That needs to stop.”
It’s become endemic to the Lions’ uneven opening stretch. Not only has Orlando City given up the first goal in five of seven contests thus far, each one has come within the first 20 minutes.
Johnson tallied in the 17th minute of RSL’s 2-1 victory. One week earlier, Colorado’s Kei Kamara scored just nine minutes in, though Orlando City eventually came back for a 4-3 win. And before that, D.C. United’s Steve Birnbaum needed just six minutes to put the Lions down.
Add it up, and Orlando City has spent just 32 minutes on even footing during its past three games before having to start chasing a result. And that doesn’t count going down in the 13th minute of its opener against NYCFC and the 14th minute against Montreal.
“We’ve made it very difficult to be in complete control,” O’Connor said Wednesday. “We allow a goal at a really poor time, and then you’re chasing the game. I think for our overall quality and level of performance, we’ve been really pleased. But that’s a big factor that we have to stop doing.”
Certainly the Lions’ revolving situation on the back line hasn’t helped. Lamine Sané, Alex de John and Carlos Ascues have been in and out of the lineup with injuries. None made the trip to Salt Lake City last weekend.
Swedish centerback Robin Jansson has started the past four outings, flanked on Saturday by Shane O’Neill and rookie Kamal Miller. It was Miller’s hesitancy to go after the loose ball after Johnson fell that allowed the Liberian international to recover.
O’Connor, though, is quick to note that some goals have been the result of lapses higher up the field.
“Too often, we look back and it’s been created by a poor decision from us and a knock-on effect,” he said. “I think the attention in those transitional moments needs to be better.”
Sané was fairly concise in his assessment.
“It’s just mentality,” he said Wednesday. “It’s your head. We train hard all week for the game on the weekend. At that moment, we have to be ready.”
The question is how to change that mindset – preferably in time for Saturday’s home game against a Vancouver Whitecaps side still seeking its first win.
“I think you bring it up because you have to address it,” O’Connor said. “We’ve had lovely passages where we’ve created a lot of chances during games. But quite often in the focus and the concentration, we get punished. So we need to stop that.
“We need to make sure we’re way more intense and we’re understanding the process.”
As aggrieved as Lions fans might have been to see both Nani and Dwyer start on the bench at Rio Tinto, O’Connor remains resolute in his approach to make sure his most reliable scorers are options for the long haul.
“The easy thing as a coach would be to just play those guys every week,” he said. “But you have to have a little more character and a bit more courage to make the big decisions. I’m not going to shy away from that.
“I’m going to make decisions that I believe is right for us longer-term and not just what is right for us that particular week.”
That’s of particular concern regarding Nani, who is 32 and began his European season last July. O’Connor has made a point of having regular discussions with the Portuguese international about pacing in essentially a 16- or 17-month double season.
“You need a common-sense approach,” he said. “Playing at the level he has, with his intensity — and then you throw into the mix the travel — it’s physically not possible. You need to understand from the outset how you’re going to manage it.”
Dwyer is a different case, O’Connor said, as he regains form after a quad injury. “He’s definitely looking fitter, which is really positive,” the coach said. “We just need to make sure that we manage it.”
Sané, who didn’t make the trip to Utah as he continues to nurse a calf injury, was back at training and indicated he’s ready to step back into the lineup.
“It was a good moment to rest for me,” the Senegal international said. “I worked hard this weekend with our fitness coach and I feel real good.”
Sané had played the full 90 in Orlando City’s previous two games, after coming on as a substitute against the New York Red Bulls. Miller got his first start on the back line since mid-March.
Ascues and de John, meantime, continue to make progress in returning from hamstring injuries. De John was set to do change-of-direction work on Wednesday, O’Connor said, and Ascues was likely to follow Thursday.