The talk about Jason Kreis’ additions to Orlando City this off-season has revolved around veteran leadership. It was necessary for one of the youngest teams in Major League Soccer to make the jump to the next level. Players like Will Johnson and Jonathan Spector were brought in to be vocal leaders on the field, to guide the young players around them. It’s something their opponents have noticed.
“They’ve added toughness, they’ve added leadership, so obviously they’re going to have a good road mentality,” New England Revolution Head Coach Jay Heaps said earlier this week. “It’s a team that for me, in that very first game, opened that [new] stadium, and showed a lot of emotion and a lot of character.”
And the season opener against New York City FC was a great moment for the team. Johnson, Spector, and the other recent signees made a strong impression on their new supporters in a brand new building, and all of their successes were met with cheers from almost all of the 25,527 behind them.
But getting to the playoffs will require more than winning in the friendly confines of Orlando City Stadium. The team will need to prove Jay Heaps right and perform well on the road, but it will take another level of mental fortitude to come home with results, even if those results will have to wait with the postponement of the trip to New England. Players like Will Johnson, who has not just playoff experience but championship experience, will need to step up and lead by example. Johnson performed admirably out of position against NYCFC, and he’ll be rewarded with the armband again so long as Kaká is out. He has already been showing the required characteristics in training.
“It’s his wanting to win every single activity that he does out here and instilling that in other people,” Kreis said about Johnson, who was the skipper after Kaká was forced out. “It’s his communication with all the players around him to try to get the best out of all the players around him and to organize the players in front of him as well. So, he kind of has all of the qualities that you’re looking for in a leader and somebody that could and should wear the armband.”
It will be up to Johnson and company to help Orlando get a result when winning on the road is already difficult in MLS. The Lions are a combined 8-16-10 on the road in MLS, averaging exactly one point from away matches. While managing to get a result from over half of your away fixtures may seem positive, it hasn’t been enough for Orlando in the past two seasons.
The biggest problem that Orlando City has faced in its MLS infancy is that its youth and inexperience have faltered when it matters. On Sunday, there were positives as the defense weathered the storm of a potent NYCFC attack. It was something unheard of for the past two seasons, Orlando leaning on its defense to secure a result at home while its offense struggles to put more than one shot on target. But the newfound mentality and grit on the back line — thanks in a large part to the wealth of experience injected this winter — will be what pushes the Lions to that next level and a playoff appearance.