It’s a simple question, really, but it’s almost impossible to answer with 100 percent confidence: will Orlando City make the playoffs in 2017?
Three years in a row we’ve asked this question now, and unlike the first two attempts, year three seems to bring about a much greater uncertainty for the club, even as it gets set to open its brand new, much-hyped downtown soccer stadium. The friendly confines bring a new dynamic for the club, which has spent the last two seasons playing in the spacious and turfy artist formally known as the Citrus Bowl.
In addition to a new home and some new threads, Head Coach Jason Kreis heads into his first full season with the club. Expectations will be high on the former Real Salt Lake and New York City FC boss to see through his vision of returning Orlando City to the trophy-winning ways the club enjoyed in USL.
The returning core of players looks very much the same as it did when we last saw the Lions take the field in 2016. Kaká returns in what could be his final season in the Sunshine State. Cyle Larin looks to continue setting goal-scoring records in what could also be his last season in Orlando, as interest among clubs outside of MLS continues to grow. Matias Perez Garcia, Antonio Nocerino, Carlos Rivas, Jose Aja, Tommy Redding, Joe Bendik, Servando Carrasco, Cristian Higuita, Rafael Ramos, and several others all return, looking to improve on last season’s playoff-less campaign.
Joining the Lions are Will Johnson, Johnathan Spector, Donny Toia, Josh Saunders, Victor “PC” Giro, and Giles Barnes.
Players left, too. Among the most notable: Brek Shea and Kevin Molino, a two-time USL MVP with Orlando City and one of the team’s most dangerous attacking pieces. Moving on without Molino will be one of the bigger talking points early in the season. If the club can survive on the field without him, it can survive without anyone.
So back to my opening sentence: will Orlando City make the playoffs?
That’s where things get sticky.
MLS is a crapshoot most of the time. I can tell you who I think the best team in the league is, and I can tell you who I think is the worst, but that doesn’t really mean much. As we’ve seen quite a lot in recent years, any team can go on any run and finish anywhere in the standings in any given year. Yes, there are good teams and there are bad teams, but the middle-of-the-road teams, like Orlando City, are hard to project.
Can Orlando City make the playoffs? Of course they can. This roster, one might argue, is easily better than what the club trotted out last season, and the additions of Johnson and Spector could be big difference-makers throughout the campaign. The Lions were one of the highest-scoring teams in the league last season, but also let in more goals than everybody in the league. That’s not going to win you a lot of ballgames.
Even without Molino, this team still possesses strong attacking pieces and is capable of putting up three goals on any given night. The back line is better, easily, but how quickly it can mesh will be key, especially given the early injuries at the fullback spot to open up the season.
The second big key is the team’s ability to stay healthy. As I mentioned, the team has already lost three fullbacks and a midfielder this preseason due to injury. The club has to stay healthy or risk running into depth problems as it has so often in the past, and Kaká can’t miss 10 games again as he did last year.
I’ve mentioned the new stadium, and it can’t be overstated how important the new home and pitch will be. It’s not just an imaginary talking point, the players are genuinely excited about not having to play their home games on turf anymore. I can’t speak from personal experiences, but it does make a difference. Orlando City lacks pace, and the turf was a big negative against them because of that alone. Plus, The Wall will forever be a foe for visiting players.
So, will Orlando City make the playoffs in 2017? That answer is better left to the folks on the field, but since I brought it up, I’ll say they are still playing meaningful games after Oct. 22.