It was nearly a year ago to the day that I was sitting here, in my Jacksonville apartment, writing the 2019 Orlando City season preview. The Lions were coming off the worst yet of their first four seasons in Major League Soccer, with nowhere to go but up.
Luiz Muzzi was just a couple of months into his new role as Executive VP of Soccer Operations, James O’Connor was heading into his first full season as head coach after taking over a sinking ship the previous summer, and there was just as much skepticism as there was optimism surrounding the team going into the new campaign.
A year later, we’re here once again, this time with a new head coach in Oscar Pareja chasing down the same goal as the previous four men that held the job before him: make the playoffs. That’s it, that’s the one goal that been unreachable for the Lions over the last five seasons.
While Orlando City rebuilt most of its roster yet again this offseason, it isn’t calling this season a throwaway or a rebuilding campaign. The expectations, like every year before, is still to make the playoffs, and this group and its coaches believe that can be achieved.
The Lions finished 2019 in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, a modest nine-point improvement over their disastrous 2018 season, but if not for the tire fire that was FC Cincinnati, the club might have been looking up from the very bottom once again. When there’s nowhere to go but up, it’s hard to look at any minor improvement as anything but that — a climb back into Below-Average Ville, you might say.
But despite those improvements, O’Connor wasn’t able to keep his job after a second-half collapse that saw the Lions fall from the cusp of the playoff race into irrelevancy again.
If you’re new to the program, here’s how things typically play out for Orlando City:
- Step 1: Find your footing with mixed results in March-April
- Step 2: Start to pick up steam and more consistency around May-June
- Step 3: The summer collapse
- Step 4: Miss the playoffs and start over again in the offseason
Step 3 has been the ultimate killer. It’s been Orlando’s downfall for years.
- 2016: the team dropped 14 of 15 available points from mid-September into October, falling out of the playoff race during the stretch
- 2017: the collapse started in early July, as losses came in nine of their final 14 games, including just one win during that stretch
- 2018: Oof… I guess you can say this one started a bit earlier than others, as the Lions finished the year 2-20-3 after the six-game winning streak ended
- 2019: winless in their final eight games, going 0-4-4 after climbing into the playoff picture
So that’s the challenge this season for Pareja, to break the curse and get the team past the summer slump and find a way to bring about stronger consistency. That more than anything is the key to Orlando City making the playoffs this season.
I’m going to close this preview introduction with the closing line from my 2019 season preview, one that can pretty accurately sum up everything above and put a bow on Orlando City’s outlook heading into the 2020 campaign:
The jury is still very much out on whether any real change will occur this season, but there is, for the first time in a while, optimism that the club is heading in the right direction under Muzzi’s leadership.
Goalkeepers: Adam Grinwis, Greg Ranjitsingh
Defenders: Lamine Sane, Danilo Acosta, Carlos Ascues, Shane O’Neill
Midfielders: Will Johnson, Cristian Higuita, Sacha Kljestan, Cam Lindley, Dillon Powers
Goalkeepers: Pedro Gallese
Defenders: Antônio Carlos, Rodrigo Schlegel
Midfielders: Jordan Bender, Jozy DeZart, David Lorea, Andres Perea, Junior Urso
Forwards: Daryl Dike
Gavin’s Projected Starting XI
Because of how little information we’ve been getting this preseason regarding lineups and play, this is almost purely speculative. This is also a “when everybody is available” lineup because as of writing this, Dom Dwyer is dealing with his injury and Nani won’t be available for the first two games of the season due to a suspension carrying over from last season.
We know Orlando wants to be a more offensive-minded team, and we’ve heard Pareja talk a lot this preseason about wanting his team to be pragmatic and hold possession with a purpose, some things we didn’t see a lot of last season under the more defensive-minded approach from O’Connor.
Now back to the lineup above, in soccer there’s more than just one formation happening in a game — teams have attacking shapes and defensive shapes, and those can vary depending on the situation, the score, the opponent, etc. So with that, we can make some guess on what Pareja might do with what has been seen in limited available action.
Against Montreal a couple of weeks ago, Orlando used two different shapes: an attacking shape that looked like a 3-4-3 with Ruan and Benji Michel pushing up the wings, and Nani-Dwyer-Pereyra as a three-man front line and a three-man backline hanging back. That allows Orlando to, obviously, push numbers forward, suffocate the box and be in a position to press and win the ball back if they were to lose it. In a defensive shape, those numbers shifted back into a 4-4-2 with Ruan coming back, the three defenders sliding back over and creating a stronger defensive block.
Again, we won’t really know how things will play out until we all get our chance to see on Saturday against Real Salt Lake, but based on the players Pareja has, it’s a set up that fits and could work with this group.
It takes a full roster to be successful, but Orlando’s playoff hopes this season could hang on a guy like Dom Dwyer, who’s coming off an abysmal 2019 season. When you look at this roster, the big question that still pops out is “where are the goals going to come from?” Is Nani going to be able to replicate his double-double season from last year? Is Tesho Akindele for real or was 2019 a fluke? Daryl Dike is a No. 1 pick, but untested at the pro level. And Dwyer, of course, has been a shell of the player that Orlando thought it was getting in 2017.
If Orlando City can get 15 goals from Dwyer this season, with the rest of the supporting cast contributing, it’s hard to see a scenario where Orlando doesn’t finally finish above the playoff line this season.
Orlando City will make the playoffs if…
…they score goals. Obviously, right?
The Lions were much-improved defensively last season, but scored just 44 goals, the fifth-lowest total in MLS. I think it’s okay to assume that the team will be able to hold it’s own defensively again, but it’s all going to be for nothing if the team is losing or drawing a lot of 1-0 and 1-1 games, which is entirely possible with this unproven group of forwards and midfielders.
Like I said, they need Dwyer, they need Mauricio Pereyra to be a catalyst in the midfield, they just need to find the back of the net ten more times this year to tip the results into their favor. It sounds simple, but it’s no easy task.
Orlando’s also going to be ushering in a new center-back pairing this season with Lamine Sane gone, and a new pairing in the defensive midfield with Junior Urso slotting in alongside Sebastian Mendez. How those two pairings come together, and the defense as a whole will make a big difference for a team that conceded early and first in roughly half of its games last season.
The Lions need to make about an eight-point improvement to climb into the playoff picture this season based on the 45 points from 7th place New England in 2019, so if this group can work through the early bugs and figure out how to balance the attack with its defending, the playoffs are a good bet for Orlando City in 2020.
Orlando City will miss the playoffs if…
…the home record doesn’t improve, there is impact production from the forwards, and the first 20 minutes of games continue to be rough.
The Lions finished 2019 6-8-3 at home last season — only Cincinnati and Vancouver won fewer home games than Orlando City did. Exploria Stadium is supposed to be a fortress for the Lions, but it was anything but that in 2019. If you can’t win the majority of your home matches, you’re not going to be successful in this league — or any league for that matter, plain and simple.
Every playoff team last season scored at least 50 goals, so that should be the minimum benchmark to reach.
And finally, successful teams aren’t fighting themselves out of early holes every other match. The Lions conceded the first goal 20 (!) times last season. Constantly playing from the backfoot with the pressure to score not only one but now at least two goals to win puts any team in a tough position. Being pragmatic, as Pareja said he wants to see, was when Orlando was at their best early in games last season, and often saw them as they early scorers. Bring that approach and a higher level of intensity from the opening whistle will make a much bigger difference this go-around in 2020.
(Photo Courtesy of Orlando City SC)
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