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Stacking Up Orlando City’s First Three Seasons in MLS

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A look at recent expansion history to see how Orlando City’s first seasons compare to other MLS franchises.

MLS: Chicago Fire at Orlando City SC Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

The MLS season has officially ended, and it was one that City fans most likely want to forget. Making it much tougher was rival Atlanta United, gaining more success in year one than Orlando City has achieved to date. To make it worse, our expansion partner in 2015, New York City FC, has also seen great success over the couple years.

These types of results can lead to fan outrage, calling for the coach’s head, and a misunderstanding of what it takes to build a franchise. So we have to ask: is it realistic for an MLS franchise to achieve this type of success so quickly? Are there common denominators among young clubs that’ll make us all feel a little better about Orlando City’s current state? We can certainly hope so. Throughout this article I’ll compare Orlando City to the last eight expansion teams, dating back to 2009.

Records

Expansion Comparison

Atlanta Minnesota United Orlando New York City FC Montreal Vancouver Portland Philadelphia Seattle
Atlanta Minnesota United Orlando New York City FC Montreal Vancouver Portland Philadelphia Seattle
2017 2017 2015 2015 2012 2011 2011 2010 2009
15/9/10 (4th) 10/18/6 (8th) 12/14/8 (7th) 10/17/7 (8th) 12/16/6 (7th) 6/18/10 (9th) 11/14/9 (6th) 8/15/7 (7th) 12/7/11 (4th)
9/11/14 (8th) 15/9/10 (2nd) 14/13/7 (5th) 11/13/10 (5th) 8/16/10 (8th) 11/8/15 (3rd) 14/10/6 (6th)
10/15/9 (10th) 16/9/9 (2nd) 6/18/10 (10th) 13/12/9 (7th) 14/5/15 (1st) 10/18/6 (8th) 18/7/9 (2nd)
Note Records are in W/L/D and positions are regular season conference standings

Looking at the first year of existence, only Seattle and Atlanta were fortunate enough to garner winning records. Most teams notably struggled in year one, with Portland the only other team to finish above seventh in its first year.

It’s in year two that there seems to be the haves and the have nots. Or rather, there’s the Lions, who have not, and everyone else made progress. Almost every expansion side in year two improved its standings, with Seattle posting the only winning record that actually fell in the standings. We’ll talk about management changes a bit later, but clearly Orlando City took an unusual step back in year two compared to its counterparts.

Year three ends up being a mixed bag, as only three of the teams actually improved. Some of the clubs, like Philadelphia and Montreal, saw precipitous drops from playoffs to the bottom, whereas Portland made a massive jump to the top of the league and NYCFC held serve by adding one more win to its total.

Unfortunately, City sits in the worst way in this category on so many levels. The team has never improved in the standings (or point total) in any year, whereas every single expansion franchise had done so at one point or another. The Lions were the only expansion team to actually drop in the standings all three years, which isn't optimistic for the future.

Playoffs

Orlando City fans have been clamoring for the playoffs ever since our highly regarded USL team graduated to MLS. We all know that hasn't happened yet, but how has recent expansion fared? Well, that’s another category in which City lags behind as every single team — minus first-year Minnesota United — made the playoffs within their first three years.

Reaching the Playoffs

Orlando New York City FC Atlanta Minnesota United Montreal Vancouver Portland Philadelphia Seattle
Orlando New York City FC Atlanta Minnesota United Montreal Vancouver Portland Philadelphia Seattle
No Years 2, 3 (conf. semis) Year 1 (KO) No Year 2 (KO) Year 2 (KO) Year 3 (Conf finals) Year 2 (conf final) Years 1, 2, 3 (conf. semi)

Seattle was an extreme case where it was only the third-ever MLS side to make the playoffs in all of its first three years of its existence. But, as you can see, year two was again a turning point for most of these clubs. It also should be noted that the Sounders won the U.S. Open Cup in their first three years in MLS as well.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that all of the above MLS clubs — despite their success — never achieved an MLS trophy in their first three. Only Portland and Seattle have even won the MLS Cup and it took them five and seven seasons, respectively. This shows that a title may be out of reach for quite some time, Lions fans.

Management

This category will make you feel slightly better, I promise. Only Seattle held onto its coach and GM throughout its first three years in MLS. Every single club either replaced its coach by year three, with Montreal shockingly having three coaches in three years (note I did not count interim head coaches).

If you wanted to point to a common denominator, each coach that was hired directly impacted the club’s position positively; none more than Caleb Porter, who pushed Portland from eighth to first in his first year. But each club, upon hiring the new coach, improved its standings each year.

Does that mean Jason Kreis is a problem? Not necessarily, but it doesn’t help that he’s only downgraded the win total.

The general manager’s position is one that had much less transition, however. Only Vancouver replaced its GM (year three) and Philadelphia allowed its then-head coach, John Hackworth, to manage player selection.

This would be the area that has killed the Lions, as Paul McDonough did not put the club in a good place in year one with poor Designated Player signings and roster construction. This is something I believe Niki Budalic is righting and we should hopefully see come next season.

Overall Assessment

I really came into this research and the plan to do this article as a “be patient, Orlando” type of spin. I thought Atlanta’s or NYCFC’s recent success could be a bit of an outlier. While the ultimate prize hasn't been there for most of the expansion teams over the past eight years, there has been clear success by an overwhelming majority of the franchises. It would be nice to say we’ve even seen some improvement on any level, but clearly Orlando has a lot of work to do to show up positively in comparison to our expansion counterparts.

You should still be patient, City fans, because it beats pulling your hair out. But if this article proves anything, it’s that you have the right to be griping.