As the start of the MLS season nears we thought it would be good to take a look back at expansion teams from recent years past (Portland Timbers & Vancouver Whitecaps from USL in 2011 & Montreal Impact from NASL in 2012 ) and see how their last season in the lower division ended and their first season actually treated them after making the step up to MLS. And then we will tell you how Orlando City can beat the current trend for expansion teams in their inaugural MLS season.
Portland entered MLS after a final season in USL where the Timbers finished third overall in the regular season. They chose to retain 10 players from their days in USL, and were able to finish sixth in the Western Conference (just outside the playoffs) and 12th overall. They won 11, lost 14 and drew 9, and Kenny Cooper was their top scorer with eight goals.
Vancouver moved up to MLS after finishing second in their final season in USL and the Whitecaps renegotiated with 13 players to take them up to MLS. However, past successes were no indicator of future performance. They only won six games, lost 18 and drew 10. They finished ninth in the Western Conference and at the bottom of the league overall, however, one bright star in the season was Camilo, who was the team's top scorer with 12 goals.
The Impact entered MLS after finishing seventh in their final season in the NASL and they only retained four players from that disappointing final season in the lower division. During their first season in MLS, Montreal garnered 12 wins, 16 losses and six draws to finish seventh in the Eastern Conference and 12th overall, with Canadian Patrice Bernier the team's top scorer, with nine goals.
So, can Orlando City buck the trend when it comes to expansion teams and their first season in MLS? The answer is probably yes and here is why.
Orlando may be right in the middle of the pack by retaining eight players from its days in USL, however, only two of those players have been with us from the beginning (Kevin Molino and Luke Boden), and the other players who made the transition were players that were signed with MLS in mind and virtually all have at least U-20 international experience with their national side. The decision to not be too attached to players that made the team successful in the past shows that the Orlando front office knows that MLS is a step up in competition and, therefore, other players needed to be brought in so that success could be achieved immediately.
All recent expansion teams have had at least one DP at some time during their inaugural MLS season. Portland had Diego Chara (and still do), Vancouver has Eric Hassli & Mustapha Jarju ("Who?" you might ask..) and Montreal didn't start their inaugural expansion season with a DP, but they eventually signed Marco Di Vaio to rectify a bad start to the season.
The choice by Orlando City to start the season with two Designated Players also highlights that the Lions have not come to just make up the numbers. When you highlight that one of those players is World Cup winning, three time FIFPro World XI and 2007 Ballon d'Or winner Kaká, you realize that Orlando is already ahead of previous expansion teams. When you couple Kaká with the team's second DP, Bryan Rochez, who has been scoring a goal every other game in his career so far, then Orlando City should be able to make the playoffs in their first season.
The Head Coach
The words "In Inchy We Trust" have become synonymous with the belief in Orlando's Head Coach Adrian Heath's managerial ability. Any time a signing is announced that seems strange, or a decision that doesn't quite add up, those words can be found plastered on social media and elsewhere that highlight the supporters' devotion to the coach and his belief in his players and the franchise. So what could be said about the recent expansion teams head coaches?
Well unlike Heath, who has been managing soccer clubs on and off since 1996, Portland and Montreal decided to start their first seasons in MLS with head coaches that had no prior managerial experience whatsoever. Both John Spencer (Portland) and Jesse Marsch (Montreal) had never managed a professional soccer team before. Vancouver went with a bit more experience in its first season by retaining Teitur Thordarson, their coach since 2008. However, Thordarson had never coached at the highest level before and he only managed Montreal for three months before being replaced by Tom Soehn.
So, of the past three expansion teams, two had no previous head coaching experience and the one coach that had any coaching experience didn't last longer than three months. Don't expect this from Orlando. With the club's clear devotion and faith in Heath, he will be our head coach at the end of the season, even if we don't start the season well or make the playoffs.
Expect these three things to be the difference for Orlando City in its inaugural MLS season, bucking the trend of recent expansion teams and becoming the first expansion team since Seattle in 2009 to make the playoffs in their first season.