Beyond the Scoreline: New formation, better play, same results for Orlando City

MLS: NYC FC at Orlando

March 2, 2019; Orlando, FL, USA; during a soccer match at Orlando City Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters – Orlando Soccer Journal

Orlando City finally kicked off the 2019 season on Saturday hoping to put every bad thing that can be said about them in the rearview mirror.

They’ve had enough of your jokes, they’re tired of the criticisms, and they’re ready to be a playoff team in Major League Soccer for the first time in five seasons.

Their quest for glory, however, started off with a New York City FC goal in the 13th minute and another in the 45th. That put Orlando down 2-0 heading into halftime, where the doubts cast on Orlando were being justified.

But all of that happened before Sacha Kljestan drew a free-kick in the second half, leaving Chris Mueller to kick it straight into goal, then Dom Dwyer and Nani coming into the match to set up Tesho Akindele for his equalizing goal.

Life was brought back to Orlando City Stadium, and a point went home with the Lions on opening day.

For all the talk this preseason about what shape Orlando would play in, who would play in those specific spots, and how it would all look when it came together in a competitive match, the Lions actually played pretty well. And even though they weren’t able to capture James O’Connor‘s third win as head coach of Orlando City, a draw is much better than a loss, and it’s a helpful start to begin the season.

So let’s dive into the stats and tactics that made the 2-2 draw happen.

The Starting Lineup

Only a few surprises came up with the lineup was released. Everybody’s attention immediately shifted to the top of the formation, where Mueller and Akindele got the start up top instead of Nani and Dwyer, who both would come off the bench later in the second half. Josué Colmán, for no particular reason outside of a coaches’ decision, also started on the bench, keeping the attacking flair out of the lineup to start the match.

That would give O’Connor to pull from his deep bench late and give the players on the field a spark of life if need be down the stretch, which eventually ended up being the case when Orlando was down a goal with 30 minutes to go.

The Lions’ gameplay from the start was clear: the push of a high line forced NYCFC to beat them over the top. Check out this passing chart for the Lions’ three center backs in the first half:

Screen Shot 2019-03-04 at 10.59.28 AM

The defensive mids — Sebastián Méndez and Will Johnson, found themselves high up the field as well, pressuring NYCFC into their own penalty area throughout much of the first 45 minutes:

Screen Shot 2019-03-04 at 11.01.46 AM

Stats on Stats

Orlando dominated possession throughout the match, finishing with a 58-42 split in their favor, one of the better games they’ve had under O’Connor in that category. They held the ball for 446 passes (322 in the attacking half of the field), completing 80 percent of those, compared to NYCFC’s 73 percent accuracy — much of which hinged on long heaves down the field to Maxi Morales and Alexandru Mitriță.

For all the talk of possession, Orlando only got 13 shots (the same total as NYCFC, which also put more of their’s on target).

A good start, but nothing to show for it

Orlando City, by all means, was the better team for the entire 90 minutes and arguably should have walked away with all three points. They started the match aggressive with possession, patient on the buildups, and organized both in the midfield and in the final third.

Their problem, however, was their ability to create a final ball — or anything for that matter that would challenge Sean Johnson in net.

Prior to scoring their first goal in the 13th minute, this is everything NYCFC actually accomplished in Orlando’s half of the field:

Screen Shot 2019-03-03 at 1.39.56 PM

And by comparison, this is how much more Orlando had done:

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And it’s all worth to point out that just because you have possession, it doesn’t make you a good team.

Last season, Orlando City was 10th in all of MLS in average possession (49.9), better than clubs like New York Red Bulls, Houston Dynamo, Portland Timbers, and D.C. United — all playoff teams last season.

So yeah, while it’s worth noting that Orlando held a high percentage of the ball throughout the game — especially high early on — it’s not something to hang your hat on considering that in MLS, road teams typically bunker down and wait to strike on the counter, especially in places like Orlando, where atmosphere and humidity made it harder for visiting teams to settle in. If you have the ball, you still have to do something with it.

Same old City

One of the big talking points at training this week needs to be man marking. It’s been a point of O’Connor’s new shape and system this season is the team’s ability to man-mark, and those holes were exposed on Saturday. It showed when Ebenezer Ofori had so much room 25 yards out that he felt confident to take a shot on goal — and scored — and even more so when Mitrita laced a perfect pass through the Orlando defense to find Alexander Ring, who scored the second NYCFC goal completely unchallenged.


Mar-04-2019 13-57-12

The GIF is from the second goal. Watch as Ring stands at least five yards apart from defenders on any given side of him, and look especially close as Kamal Miller is caught heavily ball watching, failing to break in on Ring as he all but walks that ball in for a goal. With nobody else in sight, his attention should have been on Ring.

It was his MLS debut, and I’m sure that play will come up during film sessions, but it needs to be a learning moment for the young rookie that shows him this isn’t college ball anymore and plays like that happen.

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2 thoughts on “Beyond the Scoreline: New formation, better play, same results for Orlando City

  1. High possession, while not always an indicator of the better team, is highly relevant when that possession is forward (in the final third and not lateral (back in forth in midfield) or backward, unless under severe pressure. Negative possession does have a use – to manage the clock (kill time). Of course, Orlando last year and on Saturday had negative possession because for most of the season and the game they were behind. Its all about the final 1/3rd.


    • “Possession with a purpose” is a term you see a lot, and it definitely applies in this case. Consider how much time they had on the ball in the final third and only had four shots on goal out of 13 shows they didn’t actually do a lot with that possession. That’s not to say they played poorly, just means they need to be more aggressive when it comes to taking chances.


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