It seems like just yesterday Orlando City was filling the Bowl for the MLS debut against New York City FC. The team has overcome some setbacks for the last few months to still be vying for one of the last Eastern Conference playoff spots. The team has changed from the first game to now, due to injuries, transfer window pickups, and in its tactics.
Kaká's Role as Facilitator
No one can argue that when Kaká gets the ball for Orlando City great things can happen. During the first half of the season, it seemed like his teammates were in awe of his play. Every time a player like Kevin Molino and Lewis Neal got the ball, it was going straight to Kaká.
There were many times that Molino would have an excellent chance to go to goal, only to try to thread the needle to Kaká making a run. Many other MLS teams started to realize if you can deny Kaká getting the ball, Orlando City's offense would struggle.
Orlando City's play began to change around mid-May against the LA Galaxy. Kaká was still a focal point of the attack but the ball wasn't being played to him every time Orlando City looked to get forward. We saw more outside back runs from Luke Boden and Rafael Ramos, which placed more pressure on the opposing teams' outside backs. Kaká was given more freedom to play underneath the lone striker and collect balls that were being held up by Pedro Ribeiro and Cyle Larin. This put Kaká in a better position to do what he does best and slot balls into the spaces between the back four.
Team Shape: Compact to Organized
The 4-2-3-1 team formation has stayed the same for most of the season, however, how Orlando looks in the formation has changed drastically over the season.
Here we see Orlando City denying a cross to a New York City FC forward. The back four look excellent in the spacing on how to handle the cross. The issue here is the midfield of Cristian Higuita and Amobi Okugo. There is no one to collect the ball if it is cleared out. This is game one and these things do get ironed out because we have seen excellent play out of Higutia and Ceren in the defensive midfield position.
This is the second example from the game where the defensive midfield is not organized. Ramos is out on the sideline and Higuita comes out to help. Higuita's responsibility is Mix Diskerud and the space at the top of the penalty area. Diskerud is in a more dangerous space than the New York City FC forward that Ramos is marking. If the forward gets past Ramos, the back line can shift over and everyone is still marked. Higuita has left a dangerous space unattended, and Molino and Kaká -- not known for their defending -- are ball watching, and Diskerud gets his goal.
Later on in the season, we see a cross by a Columbus Crew SC player, and in this situation you have Corey Ashe working back and a sprinting Servando Carrasco to occupy the space at the top of the penalty area and mark the Crew player running in. The work ethic and positioning of the defensive midfield started off very inconsistently and has grown to be one of Orlando City's strengths.
The space between the midfield and the back four has evolved over the season as well.
In the first match you can see a lot of space for players to play in. The space between the back four and the midfield has large gaps that the ball can be played into. The gaps can allow Diskerud, David Villa, or Adam Nemec to receive a ball. The second part here is the defense has stepped too high. There is a lot of space for a ball to be played into. Remember, at the beginning of the season Donovan Ricketts was the goalkeeper and he was not as mobile as Tally Hall.
This is a picture of defensive shape at its best against the New York Red Bulls.Though the ball is in a different position on the field, the elements of the defending are the same. The back four is compact. Brek Shea is on the outside and in a great position to take care of the outside back. There is pressure on the ball from an Orlando City defensive mid. The space behind is minimal at best and anything over the top will be Tally Hall's ball. Lastly, the space between the midfield and back four is four to five yards, leaving the Red Bulls with nothing but to play the ball back.
Orlando City has made an excellent run down the home stretch of the MLS season. The way this team has been coached and managed by Adrian Heath with the numerous injuries and discipline issues is nothing short of extraordinary. Heath probably won't get the Coach of the Year notoriety he should but the small adjustments he has made has put this team in position to be in the playoff race.