The countdown to March 2017 has begun in Orlando, and Jason Kreis has a lot of work to get through between now and then.
Orlando City, a club so heavily draped in minor league history and carrying such lofty goals of continuing that success in Major League Soccer, has failed to secure a playoff spot for the second consecutive season.
Kreis, who took over the club in late July after Adrian Heath was let go, now has 12 games under his belt with two more to go this season. His work is now very much cut out for him — more so than ever after the team’s recent skid, having lost four of its last five matches as the team struggles to both score goals and stop them.
And now, Kreis will have roughly five months to turn his new club into the winner that both fans and the ambitious ownership group were hoping to build from the get-go. The new stadium in 2017 should keep many non-hardcore fans invested in the club through next season, but will it be enough time for the former Real Salt Lake and New York City FC boss to see through the long-term vision he has in mind?
The question following Sunday’s 1-0 loss to the Montreal Impact at Camping World Stadium, simply put, is what now?
Well, as previously mentioned, Orlando City still has two games remaining on the schedule this season — at Philadelphia on Oct. 16, and D.C. United at home on Oct. 23 — and from there, only one thing is certain: last winter’s roster purge — nine players cut, including fan favorite Tally Hall — won’t seem like it was ever really a big deal.
And that means Kreis has some tough decisions to make.
"I think certainly you’re going to want to go into the off-season feeling as if I’ve given everybody a chance, I’ve given everybody an opportunity to be critically evaluated, because we will have to make some difficult decisions going into this off-season," Kreis said on Sunday about his goals heading into the final two games. "We are doing everything we can to build a club that has the capability to be successful consistently for a long time, and that means that you have to make difficult decisions when you’re wanting those types of goals."
Objective No. 1: fix the defense.
Kreis said point-blank on Sunday that the club is not going into the off-season thinking it needs to upgrade the attack, meaning most of the focusing will be spent on rebuilding the defense, which has been the team’s Achilles heel throughout the entire season, and that could mean shedding a couple of high-priced contracts.
Orlando City has conceded a league-high 58 goals this season, five more than the second-worst team in that department — 13 of those coming in the team’s last five games.
Miscommunication among the back line has been a massive issue of late. The team has struggled to defend opponents on the break, looking mostly lost at times. And we’re talking about a back line that has spent the entire season together — sans Jose Aja, who only started making appearances in August.
David Mateos is making close to a half a million dollars and has so far not lived up to anywhere near that expectation. Seb Hines can be valuable on set pieces from time to time, but not so much on the other end of the field, where his performance really matters. It should be mentioned somewhere that Kevin Alston, an average right back at best that hasn’t started more than nine games in any of the past three seasons, has started every game but one since late May. And Luke Boden, as loved as he is here among many fans, is not the answer on the other side over at left back.
What that all means is we might be looking at an entirely different back line next season. What direction Kreis decides to go in will be interesting to see play out. He already has a couple of shining prospects to play with in Tommy Redding and Rafael Ramos, two players that have started to prove their upside within the league. You could even throw Mikey Ambrose into that mix of young players with upside. He could decide to give those guys the opportunity to win the starting jobs alongside a mix talented MLS veterans.
We know what having an anchor like Aurelien Collin can do, and so do the New York Red Bulls now. Same can be said with Montreal and Laurent Ciman. Nat Borchers in Portland (and even with Kreis at RSL). Drew Moor in Toronto. And so on. So, there’s enough things to chew on, finding that core piece to build around. Again, that goes along with the tough decisions he has on his plate.
Objective No. 2: set up the diamond for success.
Obviously, we got a glimpse of Kreis’ 4-4-2 diamond formation against Toronto FC last week, and though the game play didn’t quite work out how he maybe would have hoped, everyone is expecting Kreis to make the permanent switch of systems next season.
That means figuring out who his No. 6 will be — will it be an Antonio Nocerino, Cristian Higuita, or even a Servando Carrasco type player, someone that’s not all glitz and glamour but puts in a hard effort? Is Carlos Rivas your No. 1 option alongside Cyle Larin up top? Does Bryan Rochez finally somehow fit into the club’s plans after spending the latter half of the season on loan in Honduras?
And also, where does Brek Shea fit? He’s running on a very high salary and his production has not suggested he should be paid what he’s making. Currently, it doesn’t seem this club has a true need for Brek, but that’s up to the head coach to decide.
These are just some of the things Kreis has to think about as he looks ahead to 2017.