When Orlando City arrived in our nation's capital earlier this season, for a rare weeknight clash with D.C. United, a lot of things just didn't feel right. Not many were giving Orlando a chance against a first-place United squad, with the Lions on the road and playing on only a few nights rest.
With cavernous RFK Stadium as the backdrop, Orlando City got off to an early lead and looked headed for a huge road win. But D.C. would find the equalizer in the 69th minute and the winner just minutes later. When the final whistle blew, United had claimed a 2-1 victory.
The worst part about that loss wasn't the defeat itself, but that it felt so routine. It was Orlando's third loss in their last four games, and it appeared that the Lions were headed for a season of typical MLS expansion club frustration.
But just over a month later, it's amazing how things have changed.
Since that loss to United, Orlando City has reeled off a six-game unbeaten streak, capped off by Wednesday's thrilling U.S. Open Cup penalty shootout victory over the Charleston Battery. The improved play has energized the fan base and put the Lions right in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
So, what's been different for Orlando City during this impressive streak?
Well, the emergence of Cyle Larin as a consistent attacking threat atop Adrian Heath's 4-2-3-1 formation has been huge. Early in the season, Orlando City struggled to find a player who could provide Kaká and the rest of the club's talented midfield with a target in the final third. Carlos Rivas struggled playing out of position, Pedro Ribeiro got hurt, and Bryan Rochez dealt with fitness issues as Orlando cycled through forwards trying to find someone who fit the mold. It wasn't until Larin burst onto the scene that Orlando City's offense truly started to come alive.
The top pick in this year's MLS SuperDraft, Larin has shown an ability to find the back of the net in a variety of different ways. His first goal as a Lion came off a cross from Kevin Molino that Larin willed in off his chest, but he's taken a more traditional route to the score sheet in the games that followed. His 2-on-1 goal with Kaká against the L.A. Galaxy may have been Orlando's most technically sound offensive play of the season.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of Orlando's new-found offensive finesse (besides all those goals) has been the amount of penalties Orlando City is drawing. The Lions have gone to the penalty spot in five of their last six matches, an incredible statistic that speaks to how aggressive Orlando has been in creating havoc in the box. And with a penalty taker as skilled as Kaká, those opportunities are leading to goals more often than not.
Ribeiro's return has been icing on the cake for Orlando City, as the Lions' other Brazilian international has shown his early season offensive surge was no fluke. While unfamiliar with the lone attacking role he's been deployed in under Adrian Heath, Ribeiro's output has been breathtaking.
He's scored two goals, recorded an assist, drawn a game-clinching penalty, and forced two own-goals in just seven appearances with Orlando. Ribeiro has already surpassed his total minutes with Philadelphia last season, but with these kinds of performances, expect that to continue.
How long will Orlando City keep winning? Well, the party's going to have to stop at some point. But Adrian Heath's men have already made one thing perfectly clear: Orlando City has arrived on the MLS stage, and they're here to stay.