Orlando City's disappointing performance against the New York Red Bulls on Sunday night drew a lot of attention to the performance of the referees. But even if calls were missed or game flow was affected, Hilario Grajeda wasn't the one letting Bradley Wright-Phillips and Mike Grella get in space and score.
Defense has always been an issue for Adrian Heath's side in MLS and the early season indicators are that is hasn't improved. In fact, if not for some heroics from Joe Bendik, it would likely be worse. The old adage of "defense wins championships" applies to MLS, and the Lions won't even find themselves in the postseason without it.
In 2015, only D.C. United qualified for the playoffs with a negative goal differential, and only Columbus and Toronto qualified while allowing more than 47 goals, largely thanks to the stellar goal scoring of Kei Kamara and Sebastian Giovinco. Orlando City finished with 56 goals allowed and a goal difference of negative 10. And so far this season, they are the only team above the red line in the Eastern Conference with more than 10 goals allowed.
On paper, the defense should have devolved. Seb Hines struggled to keep his starting job with Sean St. Ledger and David Mateos competing with him for most of last season, and Tommy Redding only made brief cameos when City center backs were dropping with injuries weekly. Redding's improvement and talent has been noted, but he still makes youthful mistakes. The pair has managed to post one clean sheet this season, thanks in large part to Bendik's six saves at Yankee Stadium.
While the offense has managed to grind out results, they aren't going to outscore opponents every week. Asking for a minimum of two goals, and more often three, per match is not something the Lions can keep up for months on end. Stopping the silly fouls in and around the box can help stem the free kick goals, but the goals from open play are the far more worrying issue.
There are two ways this problem can be solved: change the system or buy a better defense.
Heath's attacking 4-2-3-1 is extremely prone to being caught by counter attacks. With the fullbacks bombing forward, there is extra pressure on the central defenders and one of the central midfielders to cover for them on the defensive end. The one thing that cannot happen for this to be effective is giving the ball away cheaply, which seems to be the trend of 2016 -- especially when the center backs lack athleticism.
The formation should be able to absorb offensive pressure from the middle of the pitch with the added help from the midfield but, as we saw against the Red Bulls, that doesn't always matter if the center backs can't deal with crosses into the box from wide positions. But Heath likely won't change his preferred style of play. After all, it is attractive soccer when the team is performing and, given the right personnel, it can be highly effective against multiple schemes.
The simplest way to solve City's defensive woes is to buy better defenders. Hines is a good option, but perhaps not as a starter. Redding has a ridiculously high ceiling, but he's not quite Matt Miazga yet. Orlando City's defensive spending has been wide of the mark so far, which has caused some problems. Aurélien Collin and Mateos, now bench warmers, make a combined $800,000. In a salary-capped league, money like that can't just sit idly by. Laurent Ciman, the 2015 MLS Defender of the Year, made $370,000. That number doesn't even sniff the top five for defender base salaries, with Liam Ridgewell ($1,000,000), Matt Besler ($650,000), Gaston Sauro ($583,200), Collin ($500,000), and Brek Shea ($475,000) in that exclusive club.
But making room for a new defender would be difficult. Because of Collin's salary, lack of performance, and international status, he will be difficult to move. Mateos might be slightly easier due to his smaller budget charge, but he fits Heath's system better. If Orlando City could somehow make room, there would potentially be new, high-profile defenders available in the summer. Chelsea legend John Terry is reportedly considering MLS and will be available on a free transfer in July. If the club is sticking with its high profile players having a Kaká connection, Brazilian Dante would reportedly consider a move stateside. Both of them would be Designated Players, but would be immediate improvements. Whether or not the club could afford to bring them in, on top of buying down the DP tags on Carlos Rivas or Bryan Róchez, is another matter entirely. There are smaller-profile options, but, like Mateos, they run at a higher risk of failure. The club cannot afford to swing and miss too many more times.
It looks to be an uphill challenge for Orlando for any significant improvement. Barring a major shakeup to the team's budget and roster, they may just have to wait for Redding to improve. Perhaps bringing in a defensive assistant coach would make moderate improvements, but Mark Watson was supposed to be that assistant. Perhaps a shakeup in the backroom would make more of an impact than player personnel. Whatever the case may be, Orlando needs to find a solution this season or the team could be on the outside looking in when the postseason rolls around.