A common theme surrounding Jason Kreis’ young regime in Orlando has been change. It’s meant a change in tactics, a change in personnel, and most importantly a change in philosophy.
“First and foremost, I believe that we’re gonna be a fitter, stronger, and more tactically astute team,” Kreis said after training on Monday. “It’s establishing an identity of who Orlando City wants to be. And those are the sorts of things that you get when you ask your players to work extremely hard in an off-season, those are the things we’ll get when we all work together, collectively, extremely hard in the preseason.”
“Fitter” may be the most important improvement that Orlando City can make outside of a more organized defense. Kreis has gone on record saying that he was shocked by the level of fitness around the team when he arrived in the summer. He pushed the team harder during practice and it showed in some struggles during the transitional period. The lack of fitness would explain an obvious issue that City has struggled with during its last two seasons in MLS and doomed its chances at playoffs on back-to-back occasions. Late defensive miscues, often as a result of a missed man or tired legs, resulted in several matches and precious points slipping away. The formula to remedy that is simple: increase the team’s stamina and fitness level and they should be able to prevent at least some of those results from slipping away.
The Lions have dropped points in eight different matches over the past two years by allowing a goal within the final 15 minutes of play. Of those matches, five of the finishing blows came in added time. When the team has come just a single point shy of the playoff places in both of its first two years in MLS, these late lapses hurt a little more. Yes, Orlando had its fair share of late comebacks and heroic finishes, but the Lions will need to fix what were often mental mistakes at the back that cost them dearly.
It’s a league where every single point matters in the end. The fact that it’s happened so often to Orlando City points to a worrying trend, but one that can be remedied by Kreis’ new methods. The Lions dropped a whopping eight points in 2016 alone from these poor late performances in the past year. Five of those were against the Philadelphia Union and New England Revolution, the two teams that finished a single point ahead of Orlando in the table.
Fans won’t be pleased to remember that during two of those occasions, questionable refereeing decisions impacted the final results, including an illegal free kick from Tranquillo Barnetta and a handball that was incorrectly called a penalty that Lee Nguyen buried to collect a draw. You can’t hold those results against the players or the coaching staff. Outcomes decided by the officiating staff are going to happen. But the referees didn’t stand by and watch as Ken Tribbett latched on to a rebound to steal a point for the Union in Camping World Stadium. Had the Lions hung on, the extra two points would have earned them that coveted playoff spot even with the other results going against them.
The problems were not limited to the league. Orlando City lost their second U.S. Open Cup match to a non-MLS side in the same fashion, allowing a late strike to seal their fate. Now a Lion, PC knocked Orlando out of 2016’s edition after skipping by Servando Carrasco, Kevin Alston, and Seb Hines and scoring with the final kick of the ball. It was an embarrassing display in the dying moments that could have, and should have, been prevented if the defenders weren’t on their last legs.
And while it’s simple to point to the goals that changed results, they are just the most obvious examples of the issue. Orlando City has allowed 15 goals in stoppage time over the past two seasons. While 10 may not have affected outcomes directly, it’s a clear symptom of the issue. With all of the talk of the poor defending, the common fix among fans and media alike has been to fix the personnel defending. And yet Kreis has entered preseason with nearly the same corps of defenders that City fans have grown accustomed to, going so far as re-signing Seb Hines and Kevin Alston. New addition Jonathan Spector will be a welcome sight manning the defense, but if Kreis can tweak the rest perhaps the team could take that next step.
So while Kreis has preached change, don’t be surprised that the bulk of the roster remains the same. The talent and instruments to make a playoff push are there; they just need to be tuned better.