Orlando City has closed another season with familiar problems — a late-summer skid, a finish outside of the playoffs and yet another fired coach.
For the Lions, a year of individual and defensive improvement was tinged with disappointment as the team ended on an eight-game winless streak, sinking out of playoff contention and stumbling to a 9-15-10 finish, which led to the firing of coach James O’Connor.
For executive vice president of soccer operations Luiz Muzzi, the result — a No. 11 standing, just one rung up from where the team finished in 2018 — felt like an under-performance by a talented group.
“We feel like we brought a lot of good pieces in,” Muzzi said. “We’re not saying we were gonna win the title this year, but I feel like making the playoffs is very reasonable and achievable goal with the players that we have in place.”
Although the year ended bitterly, the Lions made one key improvement in 2019 — shoring up the defense. Identifying the starting pairing of Lamine Sané and Robin Jansson gave the team a newfound stability along the backline, reducing its goals allowed by 22 after setting a previous MLS record in the 2018 season.
But despite improvement on the defensive end of the ball, many of the team’s statistics throughout the year pointed to a lack of durability on the opposing end. Orlando City still posted a -8 goal differential due to a lack of goal-scoring, particularly in the latter half of the year.
The Lions weren’t at a loss for goal-scoring chances, and newly-signed star Nani netted 12 on his own during a stand-out first year in MLS. But the team consistently failed to convert chances even from point-blank range.
Part of that lack of finishing came from the team’s youth on the attacking end. With striker Dom Dwyer continuing to struggle amid a scoring slump, the next players up were often first or second year strikers — Benji Michel, Santiago Patiño and Chris Mueller.
As the only other player with reasonable experience at the striker position, Tesho Akindele stood out with his best season in MLS, scoring 10 goals behind Nani. Although the team’s finishing lacked throughout this season, the success of rookies such as Michel and Patiño offers a look at what the Lions might grow into in future seasons.
“I just see I’m the most experienced player at the front of the players,” Nani said. “It’s players who have been in college, it’s their first season, so it’s normal. They get a chance, maybe they’re nervous, but they’ll learn. Next season will be much better. We must accept that. We can’t expect too much more from players who are getting their first chances.”
The Lions posted a losing record at home, going 6-8-3 at Exploria Stadium. The team actually lost less on the road and barely performed better with a home-field advantage, notching 21 points in Orlando and 16 points when playing away games.
For Muzzi, this will be unacceptable in future seasons. He stressed he wants the stadium to become a “fortress” for the Lions, creating a more imposing atmosphere.
Perhaps the most frustrating statistic for the team throughout this year was its inability to create a win streak. Orlando City did not win back-to-back league games throughout the 2019 season or at any point during O’Connor’s tenure.
Orlando City often followed solid performances with blow-out blunders. It became critically devastating in the final stretch of the season, as the team failed to win a game during the final eight matches with the playoffs on the line.
Winning streaks aren’t everything. Teams that get hot for a period of time often cool off in the opposite direction, causing skids such as the one San Jose suffered that dropped the Earthquakes from a postseason Cinderella story to a spot just below the playoff line.
But the Lions need to learn how to build on positive results to create a cultural shift.
“Why do you not win back-to-back games?” Muzzi asked. “I don’t know the answer to that. It’s all the winning mentality. You’re gonna lose games, you’re not gonna go a whole season without losing a game… but especially in important moments like the end of the season, we need to win games.”
The Lions now enter the offseason with uncertainties. Who will stay? Who will go? Who is the next coach?
Muzzi insists the latest coaching change isn’t a repetition of the old rinse and repeat routine. Fans, however, will have to wait until next year to see if the Lions can build on progress and finally clinch their first playoff bid.