SANFORD, Fla. — Despite being eliminated from playoff contention, Orlando City will enter its final game of the season on Sunday with one goal nearly achieved — shattering the club’s fewest goals allowed record.
Entering the finale against Chicago, the Lions have only allowed 47 goals this season, a massive drop from the club’s previous record low of 56 goals. This season’s performance marks an improvement of more than 25 goals since last season, when the team ceded 74.
Part of that success has stemmed from goalkeeper Brian Rowe, who reached 100 saves last weekend, becoming the second Orlando City goalkeeper to ever do so. Another factor has been the combination of Lamine Sané and Robin Jansson, who have provided the Lions with a consistent base for the backline.
But one of the quiet ways the Lions have improved this season is in the ability of the entire team to react defensively. When defenders talk about goal scorers such as Dom Dwyer and Tesho Akindele, they don’t talk about the strikers’ finishing abilities, they talk about the way they track back to defend in transition situations.
Forward Benji Michel says that this comes from a team-wide culture of playing as a unit.
“We want to have each other’s back,” Michel said. “Whatever it takes for the team to help them from scoring. A lot of the wingers track back to help the defenders out and it’s helped a lot.”
This lower margin of error has meant that the Lions have played consistently closer to teams this season than in any year prior. When coach James O’Connor looks back over the season, he said there are only three or four games when the team was truly wasn’t competitive.
O’Connor understands this fact is, in some ways, a positive note for his team and the culture he is looking to build in Orlando. But the coach said it’s equally frustrating, finding that the improvement only shines light on areas where the Lions should have been better.
“When you go from the starting point of where we were, I think there’s been massive improvement in that area,” O’Connor said. “There’s equally other areas that needs more improvement. That’s the biggest thing for us to manage.”
The most important aspect of the defense O’Connor hopes to improve also is the least tangible — its ability to deliver in big moments. Although this is often a frustration with finishing on the attacking end, the Lions have also struggled to defend in high-pressure situations.
This past weekend, for example, Orlando City allowed a completely unmarked FC Cincinnati attacker to float in the box and hammer home a goal to take an early lead.
These key moments mark the difference between wins and draws, and between teams that make the playoffs and teams that fall just short. For O’Connor, his team’s ability to improve is more important than any statistic moving forward.
“There’s always statistics that can back up any argument,” O’Connor said. “I could go and produce a load of stats and paint a picture whatever way I want it. For us, it’s always trying to get the balance of the growth where you need it.”