Orlando City’s first two matches of the season have been a far cry from their playing style even at the tail end of last season. It’s not just the formation or personnel, it’s a complete switch tactically. The Lions have gone from working the ball through the midfield, playing passes along the ground, and trying to unlock defenses to hoofball, chipping passes right behind defensive lines for the attackers to chase.
It’s not great to watch, but it’s been effective. Carlos Rivas’ speed and ability to collect the ball in the air have made this style possible; any time Orlando’s opponents make the mistake of playing a high line, Rivas has the capacity to break it, find himself in acres of space, and deliver service to whichever purple shirt happened to catch up in the penalty area. When it works, it creates clear chances for Orlando’s offense; the only problem is that it doesn’t work very often.
If the defenders decide to sit deep, the window for success continues to grow smaller. It’s a tactic that will only work against teams that creep forward, not the Colorado Rapids and New York Red Bulls of the league that are more than happy to let opposing teams come to them. It doesn’t help that teams that watch the tape from City’s first two matches will see a simple formula to defend against. Head Coach Jason Kreis will likely have to make adjustments to continue the Lions’ early success.
But Rivas’ particular skill set is only part of the reason Kreis has employed this bombardment of long balls. Yes, it helps that Cyle Larin is a prototypical target striker and poacher, but injuries to Kaká and nearly every right back on the roster have forced Kreis to adapt to a less-sophisticated style of play. But while Giles Barnes has been more than adequate in Kaká’s absence, the biggest problem lies in central midfield.
With Antonio Nocerino, Servando Carrasco, and Cristian Higuita as Kreis’ only options in the central midfield, there’s a distinct lack of an ability to get forward and connect the back line with the attackers. Nocerino has attempted to be the more attacking of the pair, but that has generally proved ineffective bar the sequence on the winning goal against the Philadelphia Union. So Kreis has been left with a trio of defensive options who have been outmanned by New York City FC and Philadelphia, who both used three central midfielders in some capacity. It resulted in lopsided possession in favor of NYCFC for the home opener and defaulting to long balls to avoid the issue of trying to weave through crowded midfields.
Luckily, Orlando has not had to deal with a goal deficit so far, trying to unlock a parked bus late in games. That could change this weekend, on the road to a Columbus Crew team that just downed the hottest team in Major League Soccer in the Portland Timbers. Even with a strengthened defense, stopping all of the firepower the Crew have in Ola Kamara, Federico Higuain, Ethan Finlay, and Justin Meram on the road will be no small feat. Columbus’ defenders also possess tremendous pace with Harrison Afful marauding down the right-hand side, definitely capable of catching up to Rivas. If the Lions go down, their current tactics may not be good enough.
The answer potentially lies at right back for Kreis and the Lions, who finally have an available defender to slot in for Will Johnson, who can make his way back to central midfield. Johnson’s ability as a box-to-box player is exactly what Orlando has needed to at least minimize its reliance on hoofball. He can shuttle from end line to end line, acting as the connector from defense to attack, providing much-needed extra support on both ends. Having Johnson’s engine paired with Nocerino’s ability to pick out a pass, it makes both the counter and general attacking phase more intimidating for City.
It’s not just the Crew that pose this problem for Orlando. The coming matches are crowded with teams capable of both hurting the Lions on defense and playing to keep the lead. Columbus, the aforementioned Red Bulls, the Los Angeles Galaxy, and especially an away match against NYCFC all pose problems in the next four weeks. With Kaká’s availability still up in the air even toward the end of that run, if City wants to keep the momentum going, it will likely mean a shift in mentality.