Orlando City has concluded its inaugural season at the Major League Soccer level, and while the Lions missed out on the postseason, it was still a season to remember for the club. Now that the dust has settled, we take a look back at a few of the most important things we learned about the Lions over the course of the 2015 MLS season.
City Has a Formidable Midfield Pairing
Entering the season, Amobi Okugo was expected to be a reliable figure in the Orlando City midfield playing in the No. 6 role, but that changed quickly. After failing to make much of an impact in the middle for the Lions, Okugo was shipped to Kansas City in exchange for Servando Carrasco. Carrasco would be a solid contributor for City after his arrival, but the real development in the central midfield was the emergence of Darwin Cerén and Cristian Higuita.
The duo forms an excellent double-pivot pairing for manager Adrian Heath, who is a well known proponent of the 4-2-3-1 formation. The rise of the 21-year-old Higuita was massive for Orlando, as the Colombian hounded opposition attackers and broke out to lead MLS with an average of 4.3 tackles per game. Higuita was also adept in distribution, ranking sixth in pass accuracy with an 87.1 percent success rate.
Cerén was also ranked in the top 10 in the league in these categories, coming in at No. 9 in both tackles per game (3.0) and passing success rate (86.5 percent). Together the pair combined for nearly three key passes per match while tallying three goals and three assists. This success instilled massive confidence for the future while also gaining recognition from opposing coaches throughout the league.
The young Higuita will undoubtedly garner attention from bigger clubs in the future, but for now he remains as a cornerstone of the OCSC midfield next to Cerén.
Cyle Larin is the Real Deal
After being selected as the No. 1 overall pick in last year's MLS SuperDraft, Larin managed to defy even the highest of expectations in his rookie campaign for Orlando.
After starting out of the gate with one goal in his first five matches, Larin seemed to find his groove and notched 10 goals over the course of his next 11 games. As he continued to apply what he learned in training in league matches, Larin became a goal-scoring force and was soon among the league's leading scorers. Larin mixed some amazing finishes from distance with shorter, easier finishes created by lethal runs at goal to finish with 17 goals, level with Bradley Wright-Phillips and only trailing the likes of Sebastian Giovinco, Kei Kamara, Robbie Keane and David Villa league wide.
The scoring turnout was very encouraging for Larin, especially considering that 2015 was very much an acclimation year for the rookie. He had never seen such a heavy workload across so many months in his soccer life, as the grind of a seven-month MLS season is not comparable to the short NCAA season or anything Larin experienced at the youth level.
As Larin continues to learn and grow as a striker and improve his fitness levels to better weather the fatigue of a long season, the potential ceiling for the 20-year-old is sky high.
Goal Differential Absolutely Matters
While Orlando City ultimately missed out on the postseason due to points, things could have been much different entering the final match of the season had the Lions not let a few games get out of hand and absolutely kill their goal differential.
Instead of entering Philadelphia on Sunday facing a mammoth goal differential, the Lions could have had an easier task at hand -- and probably a bit more motivation to go with it -- were they looking at a smaller goal gap between themselves and teams like Toronto and New England.
We are all too familiar with the Lions' horrific stretch of results through July and August, a run of futility that ultimately killed their playoff hopes. Even if the Lions had dropped some of these games, though, simply keeping them respectable on the scoreboard could have kept them in the race for the goal differential tie-breaker that could have come into effect had NYCFC lent a hand by beating the Revs.
During August and early September alone, Orlando accrued a massive -15 in goal differential with four horrendous matches. On Aug. 6, Orlando fell at Toronto 4-1, then lost by a 4-0 score at Seattle on Aug. 16. On Aug. 22, OCSC fell 5-0 at Toronto (again) before dropping a 3-0 result at New England on Sept. 6. In total, Orlando was outscored 16-1 in these fixtures, which put their goal differential at an insane deficit that couldn't be fixed even with a five-match win streak thereafter.
Red cards were detrimental in two of those matches, but if City could have dug in and fought to keep the score lines closer in some of those outings, perhaps they would have had a more realistic shot at catching New England or Toronto without an eight-goal win over Philly on the last weekend of the year.
Heath lamented this Tuesday evening on his coach's show.
"One of the lessons we learned this year is that every single game, if you can stop it from going from three to four to five, it might come back at some stage to haunt you. That's what happened to us in the end."
Ultimately, New England and Toronto didn't need to rely on goal differential to qualify for the playoffs, but the lesson still applies for OCSC moving into year two.