Orlando City’s campaign has been a roller coaster.
The Lions started the season 0-2-1, which led to questions about whether it was time to hit the panic button early. The club won its first match of the 2018 season on March 31, defeating the New York Red Bulls 4-3.
After that, club CEO Alex Leitao said there were no more excuses for the team. For a time, then-coach Jason Kreis and the Lions delivered. After beating the Red Bulls, Orlando City rattled off five more wins in a row.
Then things went off the rails. The goals dried up. Key players missed time for assorted reasons. The club’s leaky defense continued to be an Achilles heel.
Orlando City is still trying to right the ship. The Lions have lost eight consecutive matches in MLS play. After loss No. 6 in the skid, Kreis was fired. Interim coach Bobby Murphy oversaw the club’s two most recent losses in league play. Now James O’Connor is set to take the reins.
Orlando City is still alive in the U.S. Open Cup – Kreis and Murphy each led the club to wins – but the team is in ninth place on the Eastern Conference table. After City’s 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Atlanta United, the club is officially at the midway point of the season, with 17 matches left to play.
Here are three takeaways from the first half of Orlando City’s season:
O’Connor can fix this
More accurately, a coach with a fresh perspective and a willingness to change things up can fix Orlando City’s season.
O’Connor has a drive to succeed that by all accounts is practically unmatched.
He also has players who are talented.
It’s just a question of how he’ll use those players. Orlando City’s collective defending has been an issue, sure. But the club’s attack has been pretty bad over these last eight matches, too. At first, the Lions created chances and didn’t finish them. Lately, Orlando City hasn’t created much of anything.
Orlando City’s attack, up until this point, has been dependent on players producing individual moments of magic to produce goals. The Lions are far removed from the beautiful sequence that led to a Will Johnson tap-in against the Red Bulls.
Lately, those players haven’t produced those moments. Instead, they’re losing the ball in the final third and leaving defenders to try to run down opponents in transition.
Clearly, that hasn’t worked. No one other than Mohamed El-Munir has proven capable of doing that on a consistent basis.
So, it’s up to O’Connor to find out what works. A quote from winger Justin Meram – who has dealt with his own struggles this season – was telling.
“I think every coach is different,” he said. “Last coach in Columbus was all about tactics. The coach before him was about freedom. Here, it was a bit of about freedom and expressing yourself. We’ll what the next coach will be like.”
The system O’Connor puts in place will determine how successful the 2018 Lions will be. Will Orlando City continue to rely on individual moments from its attacking players, or will the new manager switch things up and demand a more compact approach to attacking?
Depth not the strength Orlando City thought it would be
This could easily be an MLS problem. Toronto FC, the 2017 MLS Cup Champions, the club that nearly capture the CONCACAF Champions League Crown, sits in 10th place on the Eastern Conference table with half its season gone.
The Reds devoted resources to winning the Champions League and have tumbled without certain key players.
Orlando City’s situation is different from Toronto FC’s, but the result is the same. Clubs struggle to win without their best players on the pitch. When Dom Dwyer is out, no other player can mimic his presence. Yoshi Yotún is Orlando City’s best midfielder, and he’s been in Russia. The Lions’ backline was held together with glue at times – remember when Chris Schuler played with a broken arm?
Players have stepped up with varying levels of success. But there’s no hiding the fact there’s a noticeable drop off when certain players aren’t on the pitch. Cristian Higuita has struggled without Yotún. Stéfano Pinho hasn’t recaptured his early-season magic and couldn’t fill Dwyer’s role when Dwyer was hurt. Backup players thrust into starting roles have struggled.
The first half of Orlando City’s season was marred by absences.
Mueller is a Rookie of the Year candidate
The praises of Chris Mueller have been sung since he first stepped on the pitch and showed he has an almost never-ending supply of effort to give.
Mueller has three goals and four assists – he’s the only top-10 pick in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft with more than one of either – and, at times, he’s been Orlando City’s most valuable attacker.
More than that, he carries himself like a seasoned vet. He has a club-first mentality and hasn’t folded under the pressure of an eight-match losing streak. In fact, Mueller’s play hasn’t fluctuated that much since the Lions started losing.
Some insight into how much of Mueller is like a veteran trapped in a rookie’s season came from Murphy after the Lions lost to Montreal at home. Murphy asked individual players – Mueller included – how much they could give after a grueling U.S. match against D.C. United that went into extra time.
Mueller said he could only give 30 to 45 minutes.
That’s not a player trying to take a night off. That’s Mueller understanding his limits and knowing if he tried to give more, he’d only hurt the already-ailing Lions.
Mueller has been a consistent bright spot over the first half of Orlando City’s season.