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MLS Eastern Conference Preview: Orlando City SC

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Signs point to more of the same for the Lions in 2017

In 2015, Orlando City looked dead in the water. A middling opening half of the season gave way to a horrid 1W-3D-7L run through July and August, leaving the expansion side looking like road kill. However, with elimination staring them in the face, the Lions reeled off five straight wins, briefly extending their hopes until the penultimate game of the season. It wasn’t enough, but it seemed to bode well for 2016.

In 2016, Orlando had done enough to still be truly alive in September, only to follow up a 4-1 win at Montreal with three straight losses in which they conceded four goals each time. Wins at Philadelphia and over a D.C. United reserve team got them even closer to the final playoff spot, but it was once again a late flourish that distorted the real picture of how their season went.

The question that looms over the club is obvious: did Orlando do enough in the offseason to finally make the jump?

Last season

Regular season: 41 points (9W-14D-11L, +??GD) | 8th in East
Playoffs: Did not qualify
Season form: DDWWLDLDDLWDDDWL DLDDWLDDLWWLLLDLWW

Orlando nearly split the season in half, firing Adrian Heath after 16 games. Heath really hadn’t done that poorly - the Lions were 4W-8D-4L at the time he was let go - but there is real pressure to win from Orlando’s ownership. A 4-0 debacle against FC Dallas, even though it followed a five-game unbeaten run, was the final straw after missing the playoffs in 2016.

Things did not improve under Kreis, who seemed unable to mesh his preferred style with Heath’s roster. The former RSL and NYCFC boss did get more wins in his 18 games (though only just barely), he also saw his side lose more regularly. 5W-6D-7L actually amounts to a worse record on a points-per-game basis (1.25 vs. 1.17). That probably means that Kreis, like Heath, will find his seat pretty hot if the start of the season isn’t a good one.

Projected starting lineup

Let’s start with what we do know: Jason Kreis intends to start both Cyle Larin and Carlos Rivas as a forward duo, rather than the various one-striker formations used under Adrian Heath (and Kreis, for the most part, last season). With Larin offering the size and finishing ability, and both players having legitimate track star speed, it’s a potentially high-end pairing. There’s no depth to speak of, but we’re talking starters here.

We also know that Kreis will stick with a back four. Jonathan Spector has been brought in, and while his USMNT days saw him treated as a defensive utility knife, Orlando wants him to be a full-time center back. He’ll partner Jose Aja, who was the least bad of the many bad Lions center backs last season. Out wide, more defensive options like Kevin Alston and Donny Toia will compete for time with attack-minded youngster Rafael Ramos on the right, while Toia will also be battling for PC (a player I have praised repeatedly, and who looked very good against D.C. United in the Open Cup last year).

That leaves four midfield roles, and that’s where the question is. Orlando worked hard to not let that information out in the preseason, and while it’s easy to figure out who the starters will be - Kaka, Matias Perez Garcia, Will Johnson, and another defensive midfielder - it’s less clear how they’ll line up. I’ve got them listed here in a 442, which would play narrow with both Kaka and MPG either cutting in from their natural wings or inverted.

They could also lineup in a Y-shaped 4132, or a diamond with Johnson as the left-center midfielder (though that means Perez Garcia having a ton of defensive work to do as the right-center midfielder, which wouldn’t be ideal). We won’t know for sure until Sunday, and even then this might be in flux for a while.

Key signing: Jonathan Spector

Orlando’s defense was laughable last season, so a new center back was in order. Actually, I think they should have copied the Revs and added two, but Aja is not a disaster by himself. Spector has played all across various back fours in his career, and even some defensive midfield, but has more appearances as a right back than anywhere else.

However, the Lions badly need him in the middle. I rate PC quite highly, and even if that turns out wrong, Toia is a solid left back. On the right, each of Alston, Ramos, and Toia are viable options. Up the gut, though? Seb Hines and David “no future at this club” Mateos looked lost as a duo, while young options Tommy Redding and Conor Donovan look quite raw (and Donovan has missed a big chunk of time in his short career due to a torn ACL).

With Joe Bendik hardly the kind of goalkeeper who can keep a team in games single-handedly, and a defensive midfield that appears set to rely on an oft-injured Will Johnson to carry one of three less-than-ideal partners (Higuita is a legit talent, but he’d be better off in a three-man central midfield as the anchor than in any of these 442 variants), Orlando’s central defense will be tested every week. If Spector turns out to just be a right back who happens to be able to fill in elsewhere than he is a center back who was miscast in England, the Lions are in deep trouble.

Key player: Kaka

Kaka has been great in MLS whenever he’s been healthy. Therein lies the rub: he’s missed 16 games since coming to MLS in 2015, and Orlando has not coincidentally missed the playoffs by a total of 8 points split over two seasons. Given what Kaka means to their attack, it’s highly likely that they get into the postseason in at least one of their two years if he plays just 2-3 more games. Last year, especially, the issue is glaring: Kaka played 24 games, and the Lions missed the playoffs by 2 points. If he gets to 26 or 27, they probably get that one more win and finish ahead of Philly.

There has been talk about an intense fitness regime in the offseason, but Kaka has always been a dedicated professional. It’s just that he’ll turn 35 in April (I feel your pain, Ricky) and has had injury issues through most of his career. While the Lions did him a huge favor by finishing construction on their new stadium - grass is a lot easier on old joints than turf - it still stands to reason that 2015’s 28 starts are probably his ceiling.

So Orlando needs to maximize those games. We saw last year that he can still be irresistible (ask Sean Franklin about that last regular season game of the season) when he’s not carrying a knock of some kind, and Orlando badly needs him to be at that level on a regular basis. With Larin and Perez Garcia available, the secondary players are in place to make the Lions a nightmare to defend, but it doesn’t come together unless Kaka is the star of the show.

Overall prospects

I don’t know that Orlando did much of anything to actually get them over the red line. Their front six is unchanged aside from Johnson, who has a) picked up major injuries in each of the last two years and b) looks like a reduced force even at full fitness. Spector is a decent add, but it’s not really enough to fix a defense that allowed sixty(!) goals last year. Even if PC is an outstanding addition immediately, this was a team that needed to do more in the winter.

That said, the Lions are going to score goals. Larin should clear 17 without a problem, and could be a legit Golden Boot contender. Rivas, who has looked better under Kreis than he ever did under Heath, might not quite get to 10 goals/10 assists, but he won’t be far from it. Kaka will also be in that range while also drawing massive amounts of defensive attention, and Perez Garcia could also get 10 assists despite everyone else piling on stats.

The killers for Orlando will be defense and depth. There are no good alternatives at center back, no true “MLS starter” caliber player to spell Kaka or MPG (sorry Giles Barnes, but it’s true), and the forward depth consists of Barnes and Hadji Barry. If Richie Laryea breaks through, things get better, but as a first round pick last year he received zero minutes. I don’t even recall seeing him make the subs bench. That does not constitute good depth.

As such, I see no real change for Orlando. They’ll score goals, they’ll entertain, and they’ll finish 7th or 8th on the back of a furious late push for a playoff spot that falls just short.