Orlando City is currently just outside the Eastern Conference playoff race after a poor run of form that began after a draw at Real Salt Lake on July 4, while playing down a man for the vast majority of that match. Since that hard-fought 1-1 draw, the Lions are just 1-5-1 in league play (1-6-1 in all competitive matches) and have tumbled down the Eastern Conference table.
Injuries, suspensions and international absences have been a problem all season for a team that lacked depth. The team has experienced similar absences in the first 18 MLS matches as it has during the recent swoon. But the cumulative effect of being shorthanded and shuffling lineups through the dog days of the season certainly appear to be affecting the club.
It isn't just the results.
A lethargy has crept over the team, particularly in recent weeks, prompting harsh post-game words by Head Coach Adrian Heath, particularly in recent games such as yesterday's 4-0 loss at Seattle, in addition to last week's 4-1 loss at Toronto and the 3-1 U.S. Open Cup loss at Chicago on July 22. Heath also said his club was lucky not to have lost its home match vs. Philadelphia last week, as the club faded down the stretch.
Since the Real Salt Lake match, Orlando City has been badly out-shot in four of eight matches, including 21-5 at both Seattle and Toronto, 20-8 at Chicago in the U.S. Open Cup match, and 14-5 by FC Dallas at home. In those games, the Lions have mustered only four shots on target. Total.
In fact, opponents have a 52-21 edge in shots on target in the last eight competitive matches. The team can't muster an effective attack and seem hard-pressed to keep up with attackers in front of their own goal. They seem worn down.
Are all the missing pieces finally catching up with Orlando City?
Since the start of the season, the club has endured several long-term injuries and periodic international absences. Some, like Tally Hall's delayed start to the season, were expected. Hall missed the team's first 10 MLS matches.
Most of the missing players, however, were a surprise. For example, the club expected veteran striker Martin Paterson to serve as an effective leader to provide goals and give players like Cyle Larin and Bryan Rochez time to develop. Paterson missed 17 matches due to multiple injuries and one more due to personal leave before he and the club parted ways recently.
Starting right wing Kevin Molino was expected to provide a midfield link-up partner for Kaká, and potentially to spell the Brazilian at center mid over the course of a long, grueling MLS campaign. Molino has missed 17 matches already and is out for the remainder of the season. Molino's injury forced Brek Shea forward from left back to left wing, but he's missed 12 games this season, including the last eight due to injury, three for international duty and one for a red card suspension.
Even key backups, who were expected to provide depth and give the club relief when starters went down have been lost for prolonged stretches. Midfielder Tony Cascio has already missed 22 games this season. Lewis Neal has been out for 12 games. Pedro Ribeiro was an early bright spot in relief of Paterson and then he tore a hamstring and went down for seven games.
Recently, Rafael Ramos has been a crucial absence on the right side, missing the last five games through injury just as Molino's replacement, Adrian Winter, arrived.
Most clubs can weather even multiple key starters being out, at least for awhile. But it's possible that the continuing grind of missing pieces has worn an already thin team down to the point it can no longer function at a level that will allow any sustained success. The team dominated Columbus a couple of weeks ago, but was unable to carry any of that momentum forward to Toronto with captain Kaká sidelined with a knock.
The reinforcements who have recently arrived haven't had time to integrate with the team and they are likely to struggle to find any rhythm when paired with different players, week in and week out.
By my unofficial count, below is a list of the key player absences for Orlando City this season. For the purposes of this discussion, I have considered someone a "key player" if they would likely have been in the 18 with a full, healthy lineup available. You could technically add Amobi Okugo's one-game suspension to this list if you're so inclined.
- GK Tally Hall - 10 games missed (10 via injury)
- LB Luke Boden - 1 game missed (1 via suspension)
- CB Aurelien Collin - 5 games missed (4 via injury, 1 via suspension)
- CB Seb Hines - 2 games missed (2 via injury)
- RB Rafael Ramos - 7 games missed (5 via injury, 1 via suspension, 1 via international duty)
- DM Cristian Higuita - 5 games missed (4 via injury, 1 via suspension)
- DM Darwin Ceren - 3 games missed (3 via international duty)
- LW Brek Shea - 12 games missed (8 via injury, 1 via suspension, 3 via international duty)
- CM Kaká - 2 games missed (1 via injury, 1 via suspension)
- RW Kevin Molino - 17 games missed (17 via injury)
- FW Cyle Larin - 4 games missed (4 via international duty)
- FW Pedro Ribeiro - 7 games missed (7 via injury)
- MF Carlos Rivas - 4 games missed (4 via injury)
- FW Martin Paterson - 18 games missed (17 via injury, 1 via personal leave)
- MF Lewis Neal - 12 games missed (12 via injury)
- MF Tony Cascio - 22 games missed (22 via injury)
- FW Bryan Rochez - 9 games missed (9 via international duty/visa issues)
The Lions have already amassed an incredible 140 man-games missed by the above 17 key players, including 113 of those through injuries. Six players have missed double-digit games, including four would-be starters.
And it won't end soon. Defender Tyler Turner and midfielder Darwin Ceren will each miss the next match via suspension. Shea, Hines and Ramos are all yet to return from injuries, although they are getting closer. Some players have international responsibilities in the upcoming weeks. With so much turbulence in the lineup, it's astounding Orlando has any playoff shot at all, when you really think about it.
All teams may go through injuries, call-ups and suspensions, but few can claim as many lost man-games as the Lions have faced in this inaugural MLS season. Let's hope the return of a few key players along with the recent summer signings will bolster the team over the season's final weeks.