Maybe Orlando City's biggest problem this season is its geographical location.
The Lions will finish their inaugural season with a record of 5-3-2 against the Western Conference this season, posting a monster 1.7 points per game average against competition from the supposedly stronger division in Major League Soccer. (And, let's face it, few would argue the East is anywhere near at the West's level from top to bottom.)
To put that into perspective, only three teams in MLS are securing better than 1.7 points per game -- New York Red Bulls (1.73), Vancouver Whitecaps (1.71) and FC Dallas (1.74). That's the East's first-place team and the top two teams in the Western Conference.
Because the Lions have played 29 games, while NYRB, Vancouver and Dallas have all played fewer, Orlando City would actually be in pole position for the Supporters' Shield had the club been able to replicate its success against the West when playing within its own conference. City would be sitting atop the Eastern Conference on 49 points right now had it been able to match its level of success against Western Conference opponents when playing Eastern teams.
Orlando has been abysmal against the Eastern Conference during its inaugural MLS season, taking just 0.79 points per game against teams from their own side of the country. OCSC has 15 points from 19 games against the East and 17 points in just 10 games versus the West. It wasn't until June 6 that the Lions finally won a game against the East, taking a 3-2 decision at Chicago and snapping a 0-4-4 winless stretch against their home conference.
Against the West, the Lions have racked up victories over the Houston Dynamo, Portland Timbers, LA Galaxy, Colorado Rapids and Sporting Kansas City this season. In fact, Orlando City's record against the West could be even better had star players Brek Shea and Kaká not been sent off in road games at San Jose and Real Salt Lake, respectively. Both games ended in 1-1 draws. And let's not forget that the winning goal in a 1-0 home loss to Vancouver came in the sixth minute of four minutes of stoppage time (hey, thanks, Jorge Gonzalez!).
Is it simply a matter of playing better against the West?
Well, much of it is timing. Orlando City nailed down road wins over Houston and Portland before Kevin Molino went down with his season-ending knee injury. The win against LA Galaxy came with a number of that team's key players out of the lineup. The Colorado win was the last time City started with Shea on the field. Sporting Kansas City marked Shea's return.
There's a theme here.
Orlando played eight games against the East with both Shea and Molino both out of the lineup, going 1-5-2 in that span (0.63 points per game) after going 2-5-4 (0.91 points per game) with one or both healthy. Half of the team's Eastern Conference losses came in that 73-day span between Shea's sports hernia and his return. In addition, two of City's three losses against the West came in that same stretch (Seattle and FC Dallas).
Other than timing, what else went wrong in that stretch? Well, six Lions -- plus Head Coach Adrian Heath -- were sent off during that 73-day span (including, wrongfully, Cyle Larin). I'm not sure what that says. Does the team just stay more composed with Shea and/or Molino on the field or was that just a coincidence?
Other important factors should be considered when discussing City's success against the Western Conference. I won't discount how tough travel is from the West. LA, Colorado and SKC all traveled across the country -- the latter two on short rest -- to play in the hot, humid conditions at the Citrus Bowl on an unfamiliar artificial surface. That can't be easy on the legs.
Still, plenty of Eastern teams have flown in on short rest and gotten results in the Citrus Bowl in the same heat and humidity and on that same unfamiliar field.
To me, the biggest factor is probably Brek Shea. Although not scoring goals, Shea provides something when he's in the lineup that the team hasn't been able to replicate without him. The club was able to weather a few of his brief international absences (going 1-0-2), but in the time he was injured, Orlando City went 1-7-3 (0.55 points per game) overall. Shea comes back, even as a second-half substitute, and the team hands SKC a convincing 3-1 loss, scoring twice after he's introduced.
Maybe it's a coincidence. Who knows? But with just five games remaining, four of which come against the teams fighting for the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot (Chicago, Montreal, NYCFC and Philadelphia), we'll soon find out if Shea can help Orlando right the ship in time.
To do that, the Lions should probably just pretend they're playing Western Conference teams.