SANFORD, Fla. — Dom Dwyer didn’t really celebrate when he broke his 10-week scoring streak.
Orlando City was still trailing New England when Dwyer nodded in the goal in the first minute of the half. He pumped his arms at the supporters’ section twice and slapped palms with Nani and Carlos Ascues as they passed. But as the striker jogged to midfield, his emotion flashed for a moment as he clenched both fists, dropping his head with a grin as he clearly yelled one word — “Yes!”
When Dwyer repeated the feat the following week against Houston — again, with his head — the celebration was even more joyous. Lamine Sané pretended to polish off Dwyer’s head, the entire team laughing and embracing the designated player. With goals during back-to-back games, it seemed that the striker was back to his finishing form.
“He finally got that monkey off his back,” forward Chris Mueller said of Dwyer. “He knows that those kind of things occur in football. You might go through a drought but you can’t lose faith of who you are or what you’re doing as a player. He constantly reminds me of that.”
For Orlando City, seeing Dwyer get his mojo back offers a breath of reassurance. Before breaking that drought, the striker had netted only five goals, three of which came during the opening month of the season. The drought followed his highest year of production with Orlando City at the MLS level, leading the team with 13 goals in 2018.
The striker took multiple shots during most of his scoreless starts, often creating exciting chances in the box that veered just to wide or too close to the keeper. The sight of Dwyer running his fingers through his hair in frustration became consistent as the scoreless run continued.
His teammates, however, said Dwyer’s attitude in training didn’t dip. Fellow striker Tesho Akindele said scoring droughts are just part of the game. Finding a way to remain focused despite droughts is the key to creating consistency.
“I don’t think it ever really affected him,” Akindele said. “He was still working hard every day. He seemed confident enough, so we all knew it was just a matter of time.”
The change in Dwyer’s play marks an important turning point for Orlando City, which is now seeing increased production from all three of its designated players for the first time all season. Before the acquisition of Mauricio Pereyra, both Nani and Dwyer were stuck in a goal-scoring rut, with the captain going on an 11-game scoring drought of his own.
With diminished production from two of its designated players — and the third on loan — Orlando City wasn’t operating at its peak efficiency. Now the designated players’ combined five goals and three assists during the past three games reflects the importance of the ability of the three highest-paid players to feed one another.
High production from all three designated players has been a necessity in MLS, and clubs across the league have made considerable financial investments to make the most of the three positions. Coach James O’Connor pointed to the example of Gustavo Bou, a designated player for the New England Revolution who has scored seven goals in 11 games since the club signed him for $7 million in July.
“It’s not rocket science,” O’Connor said. “You can point to the [designated players] throughout the league and say they’re game-changers and difference-makers. That’s why they’re paid the money they are.”
Although Orlando City’s designated players have performed well the past three games, this weekend will mark the first time the trio is at full strength. Fully healed from his adductor injury, Pereyra is expected to play 90 minutes Sunday in Cincinnati.
Regardless of the team’s postseason prospects, the final two games of the season could give a glimpse of what an Orlando City team could look like with three efficient designated players.
Cristian Higuita is sidelined with a Grade 1 adductor tear he suffered during Saturday’s game in Houston. The midfielder had already earned a suspension for this weekend’s game due to yellow-card accumulation, but a return to the field could be challenging due to the severity of the injury.
At halftime in Houston, Higuita alerted O’Connor that he was feeling pain and would need a substitution quickly in the second half. He muscled through almost 15 more minutes of play before signalling to the sidelines for a replacement.
“It’s really frustrating for all of us,” O’Connor said. “The challenge moving forward is trying to make sure we don’t get that as often, that we have guys out there who can compete and who can go for as long as they possibly can.”