With just nine games left in this pieced together, pandemic-interrupted Major League Soccer season, Orlando City is sitting almost comfortably near the top of the Eastern Conference standings — and firmly in the driver’s seat, controlling their own destiny from here on out.
The Lions trail the Columbus Crew, the top team in the league, by just four points, in a tight race with the Philadelphia Union and Toronto FC as the top four teams in MLS. As things stand today, Orlando would not only make the playoffs for the first time in six seasons, but they’d also host a game in the opening round.
We’re in uncharted waters with this club. Orlando City has never been this close to the top this far into the season. After a strong showing that caught the attention of everybody around the league at the MLS is Back Tournament, the Lions have carried that momentum over into the resumed regular season, with just one loss in nine matches, riding a club-record eight-game unbeaten run into Saturday’s home contest against the New York Red Bulls.
For the last three months now, the biggest question surrounding this Orlando City club has been both simple and complicated: is this team for real?
The simple answer: yes.
Oscar Pareja is being lauded as a Coach of the Year front-runner for a reason. Orlando City has never made the playoffs and coming into this season, expectations weren’t set this high — at least outside of the locker room. In just a short time, Pareja has managed to turn Orlando City into a real MLS Cup contender this season.
The team’s performance at MLS is Back, making a run all the way to the Final, showed an ability to go toe-to-toe with the league’s best clubs — picking up wins over the Philadelphia Union and Los Angeles FC along the way before falling to the Portland Timbers in a tightly-contested Final.
Granted, the Lions haven’t faced relatively great competition since the tournament, seeing most of its action against Inter Miami, Atlanta United, and Nashville SC — three clubs in the lower-tier of the East — but road results against Sporting KC and FC Dallas — two of the top teams in the West — put some notoriety on the resume.
The more difficult answer to the question raised above: nothing is guaranteed.
This is Orlando City after all — a club often so hilariously bad for the last five seasons that it’s hard as someone that’s been here since the beginning to not have negative thoughts of a potential collapse in the back of my mind.
On one hand, the level of play has been consistent. From the beginning, Pareja has instilled an aggressive, pragmatic message in the group — carrying that message in many of his media availabilities as well — and we’ve seen that from his side in every match. Not every game is perfect and there have even been some lackluster performances throughout this seven-game run, but the style of play hasn’t changed and that’s worth noting.
On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that Orlando does regress back to the mean and these three months of over-performing does come to an end given the situation in front of them.
According to American Soccer Analysis, Orlando has an expected goals for (xGF) total of 18.55, with 24 actual goals scored this season. Defensively, they have an expected goals against (xGA) number of 18.15 while having allowed just 15 this season. In all, that’s a goal differential minus expected goal differential (GD-xGD) number of 8.59 — the 5th highest numbers in the league, actually behind teams like the Crew and Union.
So that tells us, obviously, Orlando City is over-performing what the computer models expected. Breakouts from guys like Chris Mueller, Daryl Dike, and Benji Michel have certainly helped what the team has done offensively — especially in the season-long absence of Dom Dwyer.
The challenge for Pareja now is navigating the remainder of the challenging schedule in front of him, but also doing so in a time when the Lions are dealing with injuries to several key players on the roster.
As far as the schedule goes, the Lions will see the Red Bulls twice, Atlanta United twice, New York City once, and most notably, have a matchup against the Crew at home on October 11. That schedule isn’t unfavorable by any means, but there are few easy points up for grabs, despite how poorly Miami and Atlanta have been this season.
For the time being, Pareja has to prepare for these games without his two starting fullbacks, Ruan and Joao Moutinho, and he’s still waiting for Uri Rosell to return while Sebastian Mendez now sits out this Saturday against New York for a red card suspension. Those first three players are crucially important to Orlando on both sides of the ball. Ruan and Moutinho are two of the league’s best attacking full backs, as Orlando loves to play with Ruan pushed up the right wing and Moutinho has a top chance-creator on the left. In Rosell’s case, he’s the kind of deep midfielder that touches the ball, in most games, more than anybody on the field. He’s the link to the backline and the guy that pushes the ball forwards and helps kick-start Orlando’s attack.
You can see Rosell’s absence in the way Orlando struggles to control possession at times, but without all three in the lineup, the Lions are truly handcuffed in what their potential is offensively. And that’s an important challenge for Pareja to figure out now as he awaits those returns.
Oh, and these final nine games are packed into 37 days — so depth and squad rotation is even more crucial as Orlando deals with the injury bug taking bites right now.
Whether Orlando City can truly hang on or not over the this final stretch of the regular season, one thing we know for sure: October is going to be a wild month of soccer.
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