Not to start complaining about how time flies when you’re an adult, but it feels like the Justin Timberlake memes were flooding my social media timelines signaling the start of May. Now suddenly here we are in the first week of June already preparing for the Women’s World Cup to kick off this week and the Gold Cup following it.
Orlando City played six games over the past month, winning two and losing four. While losing four times in six games is not good, that doesn’t mean it was a bad stretch for Orlando City, which is below the playoff line on a tiebreaker almost midway through the season.
Historically, this has been one of the toughest times of the year for Orlando, but despite the poor results the Lions have been playing well enough to be excited for the rest of the season.
Here’s what we learned about Orlando City in the month of May (and one day in June):
The Lions are good, but not good enough yet
I wrote back in March while we were still trying to figure out who Orlando City is this season that they’re likely somewhere in the middle of average to above-average, at best. Not a top tier team, but also not nearly as poor as last season’s team either.
So far, this team has exceeded my expectations for what we’d see this season and has made me cautiously optimistic for what lies ahead, not just through the first half of the season but over the next couple of years if James O’Connor stays in charge and continues to build his vision with Orlando City, alongside Luiz Muzzi.
Defensively, this is somehow one of the best jobs Orlando has done over their first four and a half years in MLS. The Lions have conceded just seven times over their last six games, and although I would still argue for the addition of a first-team quality center back in the summer transfer window, you have to be pleased with the job Robin Jansson and Ruan have done since joining the club this season. Lamine Sane still has more negative moments than positive ones, Joao Moutinho is improving every week, and Brian Rowe is leaving fans with less and less reasons to not like him.
Offensively, the ball movement is getting much better and the Lions are becoming more dynamic in the attack. Where they used to live almost exclusively through the wingbacks in their first handful of games, the possession is being spread out more, more players are getting involved, and the ideas are looking better.
The Lions still lack the finishing quality and creativity in the final third, another thing they should look to address in the summer window if they want to really want to challenge for a playoff spot.
They can compete with any team in MLS
May was supposed to be a tough month for Orlando City, and while the results show it was, it wasn’t all that bad.
The Lions could have easily walked out of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium with all three points, challenged the Seattle Sounders on the road on short rest, out-played the LA Galaxy for a full 90 minutes, and were just as good as Toronto FC until a flat second half destroyed their chances at points.
Three of those four losses were decided by one goal, and the common denominator in all four contests with the Lions lack of finishing in front of goal.
May was another rough month for Dom Dwyer, who has just one goal over the last two months, a goal against FC Cincinnati, which has made things harder for Orlando City, because without their star striker finding goals have been struggling to see them through other players on the roster not named Nani.
Coming into the weekend, Orlando City had an xGD of 3.5, meaning they should be scoring more goals than they’re giving up. But they’re real goal differential was -2. They’re 21.7 expected points total was also the fourth highest in MLS. Altogether, it means they’re unlucky in front of goal and underperforming.
Cristian Higuita is back and making City better
As far as individual player performances go, Cristian Higuita has been lighting it up for the Lions in the midfield. The Lions are a better team thanks to his passing and ability to make tackles and win the ball back.
I don’t think it’s a huge coincidence that Orlando City is playing their best soccer of the season since he was put into the starting lineup. That’s not giving all of the credit to the Colombian, but he does a lot of great work in the midfield that has helped Orlando City over this stretch. His energy and ability to set-up the high tempo make him valuable to the kind of soccer that O’Connor wants and what we’re now seeing from Orlando each week.
When he’s playing this well, it’s no surprise he was once linked to the likes of AC Milan.
I asked folks on Twitter what else they’ve taken away from the month of May that maybe I missed:
Mendez absolutely gets credit too for how Orlando’s playing. Like I said, he’s the most influential player in every match. He touched the ball 112 times in Montreal, 97 times against Los Angeles, 102 times against Cincinnati — you get the picture, nobody sees the ball more in a match than he does. He was pegged as someone who could move the ball, and he’s done that from a deeper role in the midfield.
He doesn’t push forward, be helps build play from the back, and he’s been a big part of Orlando becoming a more possession-based team of late.
As far as Dwyer goes, it did help that he was forced out of the next two games after finally breaking his scoring drought against Cincinnati. A big second half of the season from him could really push Orlando City to the next level.
That’s the next big hurdle, isn’t it? We’ve seen Orlando play well through the first few months before and then it all starts to fall apart when the dog days of summer roll around.
O’Connor has prepared well for this, I think, so far by rotating his more essential and older players out throughout March and April — despite angering many people. This Gold Cup break will be a great time to reenergize for players like Nani, who hasn’t had a real break since last summer. Dwyer didn’t have a proper preseason, and now you have a handful of guys away on international duty too.
I’m not sure we’ll see too much squad rotation in the Open Cup because of the three and a half week break, O’Connor is going to need to find minutes for guys to keep them game-ready. Historically, Orlando doesn’t put out a first-choice lineup in that Fourth Round Open Cup game, but I expect this to be different.
Also, not that you asked, but Orlando should absolutely go all-in on the Open Cup this season. I think they can win it with how well they’ve been playing.
This bounces right off of Brent’s response. Orlando’s got a light training schedule this week. I’m sure they’ll ramp up a bit again for the Memphis match next week, and then take things easy for another week before they start preparing for league play when they travel to D.C. on June 26.
I agree the workload is going to be critical this time around. We’ve seen a history of teams in MLS go on second-half runs and make an impact in their conference, and Orlando has a chance to do that if they don’t flame out.
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