5 Things That Need To Happen For Orlando City To Make The Play-Offs In 2020
Updated: Jun 1
So here we are, right around the corner from the start of the MLS season. Matt Doyle has once again decided Orlando City are a waste of time. None of the 'experts' have predicted us even contemplating breaking the top seven in the east. Our good friend Matt has us down as Eastern conference also-rans, whilst simultaneously predicting Beckham FC will earn a top 6 finish. Fort Lauderdale has yet to kick a ball in anger, whilst Orlando City currently boasts a former UEFA Champions League winner and multiple EPL medal holder as it's captain, the current Peruvian number 1 goal keeper and a coach who won a Supporters Shield with FC DALLAS.
Anyhoo, with the critics already writing us off the more casual MLS observer could be forgiven for doing the same. It's not like the Lions haven't been here before, with critics pointedly laughing and sneering at Orlando City SC like bullies in a school yard. And let's be honest, they've always been proved right. In 5 seasons the Lions are yet to earn an invitation to the MLS after-party. This year could be different. But in order for this particular dream to become a reality, I believe there are 5 things that need to happen.nyhoo, with the critics already writing us off the more casual MLS observer could be forgiven for doing the same. It's not like the Lions haven't been here before, with critics pointedly laughing and sneering at Orlando City SC like bullies in a school yard. And let's be honest, they've always been proved right. In 5 seasons the Lions are yet to earn an invitation to the MLS after-party. This year could be different. But in order for this particular dream to become a reality, I believe there are 5 things that need to happen.
1. Talisman, skipper and all round nice guy (i'm assuming) Luis Nani needs to have at least as big a year as 2019, if not better. The former Manchester United man posted a very respectable 10 goals and 12 assists from 26 starts and 4 substitute appearances last season. Nani has had time to adjust to the demands of MLS and will be feeling well rested after his mammoth season last year. The Portuguese's season actually started in August of 2018 scoring 7 goals from 18 games for Primera Liga giants Sporting CP. He then joined the Lions late into their pre-season and still had a stand-out year. He looked jaded towards the end of last season, but what a lot of people seem to forget is he played for 14 months with very little in terms of breaks, aside from an enforced break (injury) over the winter of 2018. Despite all of that, he still came through with some big plays towards the end of season. Who could forget the golazo he netted against the Revs to tie the game up?
Whilst the Lions have made big strides to improve other areaa of the team, the forward line remains pretty much the same with Daryl Dike being the only real addition in that area. Orlando was rebuffed in its efforts to recruit Alex Castro and Germán Cano, and they continue to chase Florinel Coman (although if recent reports are to be believed, that deal could be a non-starter). The likes of Chris Mueller and Mauricio Pereyra will be looking to step up to the plate, but you still get the feeling that much of the creative burden will fall on Nani's shoulders. And with a full pre-season under his belt, it'd be a brave man who bets against him improving on last season's numbers. And he'll have to if the Lions are going to improve on their goal output, which was the 4th worst in the entire league in 2019.
2. Dom Dwyer needs to get back amongst the goals. That much is clear, in 2 of the last 3 seasons the former SKC striker has failed to hit double digits. The striker's 2019 was marred by fall-outs with the club hierarchy, a number of big misses and by consistently finding his way into the referee's note book. His wife Sydney LeRoux had a very public Twitter fall-out with a local journalist, which was then followed by an incredibly awkward MLS Media Day appearance. Dwyer had the look of a man who just didn't want to be here. And his poultry total of 7 goals in 16 starts and 11 substitute appearances. Which for a DP, earning on excess of $1.3m dollars a year is nowhere near good enough. Fans' patience was wearing thin, and you got the sense a winter departure was inevitable. However, the Englishman is back and raring to go. 2020 has got to be Dom Dwyer's year. He remains Orlando's main cente forward.
A goal scorer is a key component of any successful team, and MLS I'd certainly no exception. If you look at the 7 teams who made the East Conference Play-Offs in 2019, 5 all had forwards who broke double digits. Of the two that didn't (Revs and the Red Bulls), New England had serval forwards who regularly found the back of the net in Bou (9) Penilla (6), Bunbury (6) and Ceicedo (5). The Red Bulls, had Brian White on (9), with a significant helping of goals from the midfield, with Daniel Royer notching 11 on his own. Whilst a double digit striker doesn't guarantee you a play off spot, it certainly helps.
3. The defence needs to continue its improvement. One of the main improvements for this squad in 2019 came in the defensive third of the field. The Lions were rock bottom of the whole of the Easter conference in 2018 having shipped a massive 74 goals across 34 games. That's 2.18 goals per game. Those numbers are eye watering. They'd put Einstein's head in a spin. Fast forward to 2019 where 52 goals were conceded across the year for a 1.53 goals average, there was significant improvement. This needs to continue into 2020.
The Lions have made significant moves in the off-season to improve on their defensive line. Rodrigo Schlegel has joined the likes of Antonio Carlos and Pedro Gallese in making the move to Central Florida this summer. Robin Jansson has had a full season under his belt and will only continue to improve as the season goes on. The same can be said for our Ruan and only (had to get that in there). The Brazilian has adapted well to life in Major League Soccer, and under the tutelage of Oscar Pareja I believe this year could be an even bigger year for the former Pronte Peta right-back. João Moutinho will be looking to put his fitness problems behind him and really establish himself as one of the top full-backs in the Eastern Conference. The Sporting CP academy graduate only featured in 16 games for the Lions in MLS, and had begun to develop a promising partnership with Nani down the left hand side. The likes of Kamal Miller and Kyle Smith will benefit from playing and training with the likes of Jansson and Carlos. The Lions also have decent depth at goalkeeper with Brian Rowe and Mason Stajdhuhar providing back up. This will be particularly important assuming Pedro Gallese is called up to the Peru squad for the 2020 Copa America. And when you combine all of this with a greater goals scored output (Orlando notched 44 in 34 games) you'd fancy them to have a more sustained assault on the play off places.
4. The Lions need to actually do what it says on the back of their jerseys, and defend the fortress.
Let's not dance around the elephant in the room here. Orlando City were shocking at home last season. The Lions were 6-3-8 at Exploria Stadium, accumulating 21 of their of their 37 points whilst playing in the Central Floridian melting pot. Orlando were humbled at home by the likes of Montreal Impact and Chicago Fire. Never been to Montreal personally, but I've been reliably led to believe it can get a bit nippy up there. It's cold. So for me, it baffles me that a team who is used to playing in the heat can be outrun, outfought and outplayed by a team that simply isn't used to playing in the heat. The climate in Orlando should be one of our main weapons. It simply isn't, or rather hasn't been. This has got to change.
A lot was made of Orlando's lack of adequate training facilities last season, it's possible this could have had an impact. We'll never know for certain. With the recent opening of the club's new Osceola County training facility the players will certainly have the re-cuperation and cool-down facilities to help them cope with the heat a little better.
5. Orlando needs to learn how to win the big games against conference rivals. In 2019 Orlando were 1-3-8 against the top 7 in the Eastern Conference in 2019. Which is a telling statistic. The one win came at Red Bull Arena early in the season where a late Sacha Kjlestan strike was enough to earn a 1-0 win against a below par Red Bulls side. Orlando lost far too many points against teams that ended up finishing above them. They need to find a way to play to the big occasion, and not to wilt under pressure. Even the famous Open Cup game against NYCFC nearly saw Orlando lose it's nerve by conceding a last gasp equaliser. This record is something Oscar Pareja will be desperate to crack next season. Orlando has a tough end of season run in with games against NYCFC, Atlanta, Philly, Toronto and D.C. down the stretch. These games could be crucial in determining whether Orlando finally earns that coveted invitation to the post-season party.