The promise of the best start in club history evaporated into a slow, painful death march, as Orlando City came into 2017 like proverbial lions and went out like lambs — ones that were repeatedly led to the slaughter.
Jason Kreis led his team to a 6-1 start to the season, including a 1-0 home win to christen Orlando City Stadium with a win over fellow 2015 expansion side New York City FC back on March 5. The Lions followed with a 2-1 home win over the Philadelphia Union, showing great resolve to bounce back after the Union had equalized. While the team wasn’t playing the most scintillating soccer, the Lions were showing grit and spirit — something that disappeared later in the season and was rarely seen after the calendar flipped to May.
The first bump in the road of 2017 came in a 2-0 loss at Columbus on April Fool’s Day in Scott Sutter’s first match — 19 minutes of action in all — with Orlando City. An early defensive lapse allowed Justin Meram to score the first of his two goals that day and Orlando was unable to come back, suffering the first loss of the year.
But then the Lions bounced back, winning their next four games. And not all of those were at home. City began their season-best run by dumping the New York Red Bulls, 1-0, on a Servando Carrasco header on April 9. Then came the dramatic 2-1 victory over the LA Galaxy on Cyle Larin’s late winner, as the big Canadian discarded Jermaine Jones in the first minute of stoppage and blasted home Will Johnson’s cross.
The wins over the Galaxy and Union both showed an Orlando City squad that would not fold when the pressure was on. But it turned out later to be nothing but fool’s (purple and) gold.
The first road win was next, showing Orlando City could get it done away from the club’s new soccer palace. The Lions used a Larin brace to dispatch New York City at Yankee Stadium, 2-1. The final game of the run was a 2-0 home win over the Colorado Rapids, with the Lions wearing down the visitors and getting goals from Carlos Rivas and Kaká — the former being one of the best strikes of the year.
We didn’t know it at the time, but that win over the Rapids would be the last one until the last day of May. Orlando City stood atop the table as April ended, with a 6-1 record, having outscored opponents, 10-4 and kept three clean sheets over the first two months.
The turning point came in the first game of May. It didn’t even seem like a warning sign of things to come at the time. The Lions went to BMO Field on May 3 and lost 2-1 to Toronto FC, but Orlando played great soccer for much of the game and Larin uncharacteristically missed two sitters that could have extended City’s winning streak to five games. From there, the Lions traveled directly to Houston and got waxed by the Dynamo, 4-0, in what was the true first warning bell of the year. Kreis rotated his squad and the team’s young center backs and tired fullbacks were overrun by Alberth Elis, Mauro Manotas, and Romell Quioto.
Orlando’s first consecutive losses of 2017 became a six-game winless skid, which included the first dropped points at home — a 2-2 draw vs. Sporting Kansas City on May 13 — a heartbreaking late 1-1 draw at San Jose on May 18, and back-to-back embarrassing losses. The first of those was the club’s initial loss at Orlando City Stadium in a 3-0 New York City FC romp at the purple palace. The second was a 1-0 shutout loss at a dreadful Minnesota United squad playing without Kevin Molino.
The promise of that 6-1 start was proving to be an illusion, but there was still plenty of time to get back to grinding out results, playing solid defense, and showing that iron will to overcome adversity.
D.C. United provided an oasis in the desert of poor results. Orlando City captured a home win over the Black & Red, 2-0 on May 31 to avoid a winless month. But even that game was harder than it should have been, including a gift goal that Bill Hamid gave Giles Barnes.
June was a chance to turn the page and right the ship and it didn’t quite come off, even though it nearly did. The first three matches in June were draws, but two of those were of the “good” variety and one was not only “bad,” but also extremely fortunate.
A nine-man Lions squad withstood a bad early red card and the high flying (at the time) Chicago Fire for a 0-0 home draw on June 4. That heroic defensive effort couldn’t be replicated, however, as a horror show of a game by Jose Aja led to a 3-3 home draw vs. the Montreal Impact on June 17. Matias Perez Garcia’s goal probably shouldn’t have counted, as it appeared the ball went over the end line before being crossed into the box for him, and Jonathan Spector’s header late in overtime rescued the lone point.
MPG’s first goal as a Lion turned out to be his last as the Argentine couldn’t come to terms with Orlando City on a new deal, was waived on June 28, and left for his home country.
The run of Orlando City draws reached three games when Scott Sutter’s stunner in stoppage gave the Lions a 1-1 tie at Seattle — the club’s first ever point against the Sounders. But the team stayed on the road for the second time on consecutive road games, as it did on the Toronto-Houston trip, and the result was the same in the second match. The Chicago Fire smashed the Lions, 4-0, showing the team that staying in hotels was not conducive to success. Two early David Accam goals got things rolling for the hosts and Orlando never found a way into the game.
As it did in May, Orlando City avoided a winless month in the final match of the month, with a surprising 1-0 win at Real Salt Lake. Johnson sunk his old team as Jason Kreis was victorious in his return to Rio Tinto, where he’d had so much success throughout the years.
Little did we know, that would be Orlando City’s last win for quite some time. July was nearly a carbon copy of the previous two months. Orlando lost its first two games of the Gold Cup-shortened month and took a lead into stoppage time in the last match of the month before Hector Villalba’s 92nd-minute dagger earned Atlanta United a 1-1 draw at Bobby Dodd Stadium on July 29. That was part of an overall run of eight Orlando City matches without a win, as the club also went winless in August, capping the string of futility with another embarrassing 4-0 loss at the New England Revolution on Sept. 2.
The Lions won two of their final seven games of the year (2-3-2), but the damage had been done and we rarely saw more than an occasional glimpse of the grit, resolve, and spirit the team had over the first seven matches. At year’s end, Orlando City had turned a 6-1-0 start into a complete free fall of 4-14-9 over the final 27 games, including three months without a win (July, August, and October) and two months with just a single victory in both May and June — both in the final game of the month.
What happened? The team started off so promisingly that a playoff appearance seemed all but certain if Orlando could just be average the rest of the way. It couldn’t.
Even if Orlando City was a bad team, a 4-14-9 run seems inconceivable for a squad that managed to beat New York City FC twice — including once on the road — in the first seven outings. Isolated good outings after May 1 weren’t rewarded with three points — the loss at Toronto comes to mind. The 0-0 draw against Chicago with just nine men was a throwback to the resolve and determination the team showed early on. Where was that late in the first two meetings against Atlanta when Villalba was breaking hearts?
It’s hard to say how things spiraled so completely out of control. A more congested schedule — particularly in May — more road games, inconsistency at the center back position opposite Spector, and Larin’s mid-season scoring slump all contributed, to be sure.
Still, this team stopped playing like a team at some point, and that was all the difference to me. It’s likely the team was never as good as its record in March and April indicated, and yet could it possibly be as bad as the 4-14-9 nosedive suggests? If so, the 2017 Lions who began the year so brightly truly were the great pretenders.