Orlando City is now 11 matches into its inaugural season in Major League Soccer, and at this point we can say pretty definitively that the Lions' two most impressive outings came in a 2-0 victory at Portland on April 12 and this past Sunday in a 4-0 rout of the LA Galaxy.
In each of those matches, Orlando was able to dictate play with the advantage of playing in front, which – at the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious – completely changes a team's approach in terms of mentality and style of play.
Against Portland, OCSC took the lead courtesy of a Cyle Larin finish inside the six-yard box in the 30th minute. Against LA, the Lions took the reins even quicker out of the gate when Eric Avila finished off a beautiful bit of build-up play from Kaká, Rafael Ramos and Brek Shea in the 12th minute.
In both of these outings, the Lions would go on to win without controlling the majority of the possession. But despite conceding control, Orlando was able to generate a high number of opportunities relative to its possession. With the opposition pressing for goals after falling behind, the Lions could maintain their defensive shape and create opportunities on the counter, as we saw on the second goal against LA from Larin via a Kaká assist.
Unlike some of the earlier games in the season – NYCFC, Vancouver, and the first match against D.C. on April 4, in particular – where Orlando maintained more possession and fired more shots than its opponent but was unable to come away with a win (and walked away with losses on two occasions), the Lions were able to find breakthrough goals to build confidence and set the tone against Portland and LA.
"I thought we started a lot quicker [against LA]," OCSC manager Adrian Heath said on Thursday. "I thought we got the ball in the right areas - we got more men in the box, we got crosses in the box. As I've always said, goals change games, and we got the goals at the right times."
Goals change games. While the principle is simple, scoring said goals is not always as straightforward.
This was even evidenced to an extent in Orlando's recent loss to D.C. United on May 14, where an 11th minute goal from Larin allowed City to dictate play for much of the first half and things only unraveled after the unfortunate departure of stalwart center back Aurélien Collin in the second half.
When Orlando is able to operate with a cushion, it can play relaxed soccer and run things through its primary play-maker in the center of the pitch. When given time and space – which is facilitated when Shea can make effective runs behind the defense, as he did on Sunday – Kaká is able to carve out opportunities with the type of precise passing and vision that helped him achieve Ballon d'Or status earlier in his career, and the rest of the team thrives.
Contrarily, Orlando has had otherwise solid performances ruined by early mistakes that led to goals for the opposition. The Lions were forced to dig out of holes in draws against New England Revolution and Montreal Impact, games in which they played well for stretches but were ultimately unable to win, after granting 2-0 leads in both games.
As Heath said on Thursday, this Orlando squad has shown an ability to go on the road and get results, it's just a matter now of carrying over the recent early success into Sunday's road trip to Northern California.
"We went up [to Portland]; we went to Houston and got a result, so the team has proved that it can win on the road," Heath said. "Our last [road] performance, for 70 minutes, was excellent in D.C. Can we follow that on?"
That remains to be seen on Sunday evening at Levi's Stadium. It won't be easy against a stout Earthquakes back line of Marvell Wynne, Clarence Goodson, Victor Bernardez and Jordan Stewart, but getting on the board first would be a big step towards another positive result for Orlando City.