It’s starting to look like déjà vu for Orlando City. Last summer, an injury crisis hit and the team suffered a horrible run of form, going 1-6-3 in league play during July and August and derailing what had been a promising campaign. It took a miraculous win streak toward the end of the season to get the Lions back in contention for a playoff spot in the East.
We’re only two games into July, but the injury bug seems to be back with Kaká, Tommy Redding, and Rafael Ramos sidelined in recent weeks and joining Pedro Ribeiro on the treatment table. A shellacking at the hands of FC Dallas to start off the month was the last straw for Adrian Heath, and flashbacks to last season are starting to kick in. In the thick of the MLS playoff race, the Lions have been set adrift while the front office searches for Heath’s replacement.
Enter Bobby Murphy, the academy’s technical director and the man tapped by the higher-ups to right the ship and keep it afloat for the time being. Murphy, along with Anthony Pulis and the remaining City staff, have the unenviable job of keeping the team in contention for the foreseeable future and it comes at a pivotal moment in the season.
Even with the coaching search reportedly narrowed down to a shortlist, contract negotiations and extraneous circumstances likely mean Murphy and company will have to navigate the month of July. With the New York Red Bulls, Vancouver Whitecaps, Columbus Crew, and New England Revolution on the docket, almost all on the road, Murphy’s going to need better performances than the lackluster 0-0 draw against Houston.
It’s a bit of a David and Goliath scenario; can Murphy, who has spent the majority of his coaching career at a residential academy, take a team that has one win away from home this year on a road trip against perennial MLS Cup contenders and survive? If he does, Orlando will remain in the playoff hunt. If he doesn’t, it will be difficult to ask a new coach setting up a new system and learning the ropes in Orlando to overcome the odds at the end of the season. The good news is, Murphy has the element of surprise on his side.
No one expected him to play Darwin Cerén as a winger or to start Harrison Heath over Servando Carrasco against Houston. It’s a modicum of change, but a good sign that Murphy is coming in with a different perspective and is willing to mix things up. With such a quick turnaround after Heath’s departure, it would be difficult for Murphy to make too many changes. But, as Murphy said the day after Heath’s sacking, "pain is a wonderful motivator for change." Murphy’s ability and willingness to change the lineups or play style, if even a small amount, can be an important factor in surviving the summer gauntlet. Murphy focused on two things after the Dynamo match that will remain the key points of his tenure: staying above the red line and keeping clean sheets.
The good thing is that there is very little tape on Murphy’s version of Orlando City. As the month rolls on, opposing teams will need some guesswork in their preparation. As Murphy himself puts it, he and Heath "saw things in a similar way, doesn’t mean we always do things the same way." He says attacking soccer will remain, but he’s already addressed some issues that Orlando City has had with handling the high press against the Red Bulls. In his pregame press conference, he insinuated that the Lions will sit back and focus on keeping possession and preventing turnovers, something that has plagued City all season. If he can convert that theory into practice, the Lions can survive and avoid a mid-season collapse.
It doesn’t have to be pretty.