Let’s not sugarcoat it – missing the playoffs sucks. Watching other people’s favorite teams battle it out for a trophy while yours is playing golf, vacationing, or whatever. So, I get why there was so much gnashing of teeth on social media and in the comments section of this site after the loss to Montreal on Oct. 2 stuck a dagger in the Lions’ playoff chances.
Since all we’re left with is picking up the pieces and dissecting the 2016 season, we’ll be doing a number of postmortem pieces over the next few weeks. Today I thought I’d break down where Orlando City went particularly wrong in amassing enough points to make the 2016 MLS playoffs. Had the club but duplicated the 44 points from 2015, the Lions would have finished two points ahead of Philadelphia and we’d have had an additional game this week. But instead, the Lions ended the season on just 41 points. Let’s break down where dropped points really hurt the most by splitting the opponents into groups.
Orlando City by Conference
- Orlando City vs. the Eastern Conference: 8-7-9, 33 points
- Orlando City vs. the Western Conference: 1-4-5, 8 points
The Lions did OK against the East. At 1.375 points per game, this kind of production across the board would have had Orlando City in the middle of the table at about 47 points. That would have earned the Lions a home playoff game. The 1-4-5 record against the West is a big drop from last year’s mark of 5-3-2. Orlando City beat Portland, Sporting Kansas City, LA Galaxy, Houston Dynamo, and Colorado Rapids in 2015. In 2016, the team mustered only a win over Portland, albeit a fun and convincing one.
But East teams playing poorly against the Western Conference is not unique to Orlando City (Philadelphia was 1-6-3 vs. the West, for example). Four of the six Eastern Conference playoff teams had .500 or worse records against the Western Conference, so the answer probably lies elsewhere. By eliminating a poor cross-conference record, we can focus solely on the Eastern Conference.
Orlando City vs. Eastern Conference
- Orlando City vs. East Playoff Teams: 7-6-4, 25 points
- Orlando City vs. East Non-Playoff Teams: 1-1-5, 8 points
Now we’re getting somewhere. The Lions actually had a good record against Eastern Conference teams that made the playoffs. The club went 2-0-1 against New York City FC; 2-1-0 versus Montreal Impact; 1-1-1 against both Philadelphia Union and Toronto FC; 1-1-0 against D.C. United; and 0-2-1 against conference regular-season conference champion New York Red Bulls.
Meanwhile, the Lions managed only one win in seven matches against the East’s bottom feeders and drew five times against those teams. While Orlando City pulled in 1.47 points per game against the conference’s six best teams, the Lions mustered barely over a point per game against the other three clubs that missed the postseason. The lone win came at home against New England in Jason Kreis’ first game as head coach. That goes along with the infamous handball draw at home and another tie on the road against the Revs. Orlando failed to beat Columbus or Chicago, going 0-1-1 against the Crew and 0-0-2 against the Fire. Woof.
If Orlando City would simply have maintained the same points-per-game average against the worst teams in the East as it did against the best, that’s a jump of about four points and the Lions leapfrog New England and Philadelphia and finish level on points with the Impact.
This can be taken a bit further. The Lions went 1-0-3 against the four non-playoff teams in the Western Conference. That’s a total of 2-1-8 against the dregs of Major League Soccer. Eight times Orlando failed to score one goal more than the opponent to break a tie against the most meh competition the league had to offer.
In fairness, some of those draws were better than others. Rallying from two goals down on opening day was a satisfactory tie. Going to Vancouver on short rest and getting a result under an interim head coach was a good draw. Failing to find the net once against Houston at home was not. Allowing a goal at (beyond?) the death against San Jose at home was abysmal.
Just one more win among the group of Chicago, Columbus, New England, Houston, San Jose, and Vancouver would have pushed the Lions above the Union and into the postseason. The win over defending MLS champion Portland seemed a lot bigger in March when everyone expected the Timbers to make another run toward the MLS Cup. Now it seems like the kind of result Orlando City should have expected against teams below the line.
To make matters worse, of those dropped points against bad teams, five of the games were at Camping World Stadium: the draws against New England, San Jose, Houston, and Chicago, and the loss to Columbus. The Lions drew all four away games from that group: at Vancouver, New England, Columbus, and Chicago. Maybe drawing those road games is OK, but those dropped points at home were a killer.
Is Orlando City’s bad play against the bottom feeders a disturbing trend or was this year just particularly bad?
Looking back at 2015, the Lions were 3-2-3 for 12 points (1.5 ppg) in eight matches against Eastern Conference non-playoff teams (1-1-1 vs. NYCFC, 0-1-1 vs. Philadelphia, and 2-0-1 vs. Chicago). Further, Orlando was 2-0-2 for eight points (2 ppg) in four matches against Western Conference non-playoff teams a year ago (beating Houston and Colorado, and drawing vs. RSL, San Jose). That’s a total of 5-2-5 for 20 points (1.67 ppg) in matches against the league’s worst in the club’s inaugural year. That kind of production would certainly have helped the Lions get above the red line in 2016.
The club did perform better against Eastern Conference playoff teams this season, despite collecting fewer overall points through the 2016 MLS campaign. The Lions were just 4-9-3 for 15 points (0.94 ppg) against Eastern Conference teams that made the postseason in 2015. Toronto FC alone clobbered Orlando three times in those nine City losses.
To summarize, Orlando City got better against the Eastern Conference overall and especially against Eastern playoff teams from 2015 to 2016. However, the Lions also got substantially worse against non-playoff teams, dropping from to 1.5 points per game vs. Eastern Conference non-playoff teams in 2015 to 1.14 ppg in 2016, and from 1.67 ppg vs. all non-playoff teams in 2015 to 1.27 ppg in 2016.
The key to the lads in purple reaching the playoffs for the first time might possibly be as simple as beating the bad teams in 2017.