SANFORD, Fla. — If Orlando City manages to make the playoffs, it’ll be after scrapping and clawing its way out of the worst stretch of games in the club’s short MLS history.
The Lions (7-14-1, 22 points) have lost 12 of their past 13 games. Last season included a 13-match stretch with just one win, but there were five draws sprinkled throughout Orlando City’s June-through-August swoon in 2017.
The path to the playoffs is still there for Orlando City, but Saturday’s home match against the New England Revolution — a club battling its own poor run of form in recent weeks — is critical.
The Revolution (7-7-7, 28 points) are in sixth place in the Eastern Conference and would be the last team to make the playoffs if they began today. New England is winless in during its past four matches and lost its last three.
Saturday’s match is an opportunity get within three points of a playoff spot with a win and a Philadelphia Union loss or draw against the Portland Timbers. A loss would mean dropping nine points behind sixth place with 11 games remaining.
The Lions have proven they can score goals under coach James O’Connor. In three of five matches with O’Connor at the helm, Orlando City has scored the first goal.
“I think when you look at the intensity that the guys are training at and the level that we’re trying to get to, we feel as if we’re making progress,” O’Connor said. “It’s just … especially for me, because I lack so much patience, it’s trying to manage my own expectations, which can be frustrating at times.”
Orlando City’s defending, a weakness all season, hasn’t changed much. The Lions have conceded a league-high 51 goals so far this season.
O’Connor said the club has paid special attention to its defense in transition.
“I think what we have to do is we need to stop giving away such silly goals,” O’Connor said. “That’s probably the biggest thing. When you look at the performance levels, they’ve been very encouraging. But you can’t give away the type of goals that we have been.”
“We look like we’re capable of scoring goals, so we just need to stop giving away the cheap goals and give ourselves the opportunity to be able to go and get some points on the board.”
Last season, the New York Red Bulls earned the last spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs with 50 points.
For Orlando City to reach that mark, the Lions would have to capture 28 of 36 possible remaining points.
Right back Scott Sutter, who only recently returned to the starting XI after battling multiple injuries, didn’t downplay the significance of Saturday’s match.
“I think now you’re going into the part of the season where kind of every game is critical, you know?” Sutter said. “We have  games left, a lot of them against people in our conference, a lot of them are against people that are above us in the conference, so every game is huge for us at the moment.
“The more games that you end up with no points, the less time you have to try to make the playoffs, especially playing against New England, one of our direct [competitors]. It’s a huge game and hopefully it will be the kind of startup for us to turn that corner.”
At the very least, the Revs will be well-rested when they visit Orlando City Stadium. New England hasn’t played a match since July 21.
Orlando City, on the other hand, has played twice since July 21, with O’Connor continuing to tinker the the Lions’ starting XI.
Left back (and occasional left winger) Mohamed El-Munir said O’Connor is utilizing all the options available to him.
“He’s showing that no matter who you are on the team, we believe in everyone,” El-Munir said. “If we know that you’re going to help, you’re going to play.
“I remember at the beginning of the season we had a lot of injuries and we were like … we were lost,” El-Munir said. “Like we didn’t know who was going to play in this position or this position.”
Sutter said the winning formula lies in the clubs defending.
“It’s been a problem throughout the season, really,” he said. “We are conceding soft goals. We’re conceding a lot of goals. James knows that. He’s made that clear to us. He made it clear to us after the game in L.A. that it’s not acceptable. It’s not good enough.
“We need to improve in all areas, defensively, as a team. I think we just really need to minimize the individual errors or the lack of concentration sometimes. It’s not good enough to play one really good half. We need to keep this going for 90-odd minutes.”