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Orlando City’s Trip to Columbus Provides First Away Test for Reinforced Defense

The Lions have been bad on the road in their first two MLS seasons. Saturday’s match at Mapfre Stadium could indicate whether that will change in 2017.

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Orlando City SC Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

Orlando City’s new stadium is among the most beautiful in MLS, and the home-field advantage it provides has been obvious already through only two matches in its history. However great that advantage may prove to be over the course of the season, though, it doesn’t help the Lions’ road form, which has been dreadful in the team’s MLS existence.

In 2015, Orlando City started well on the road, taking seven points from its first three away matches — including a win at Providence Park — but went on to win only three more times in the final 14 away fixtures in league play. OCSC finished the campaign with a 5-9-3 record on the road that represented 18 of the club’s 44 total points on the year.

In 2016, the Lions once again started with a victory — this time at NYCFC — before taking only three points total from their next eight away matches, the seventh of which (a 4-0 drubbing at FC Dallas) led to the firing of then-Head Coach Adrian Heath. Overall for the ’16 season, Orlando secured only 16 points away from home with a record of 3-7-7.

So to recap, in 34 away fixtures in the club’s MLS history, Orlando City has run up a record of 8-16-10, securing only 34 of its 85 total points entering 2017 — just a point per match played outside of the City Beautiful. Orlando’s unimpressive 1.06 points per match average on the road in 2015 actually dropped to a grim 0.94 in 2016. That’s simply not going to get it done.

Orlando’s road form since Jason Kreis took over the reins as head coach on July 19, 2016 has been better, although only marginally. While the club averages one point per league road match over the last two seasons, the Lions’ average in eight such matches since Kreis was appointed has bumped to 1.13 per match (nine points from eight matches).

With Orlando City sitting on a full six points after two home matches to start the 2017 season, it’s time for the team to step things up away from the friendly confines. While the new digs looks set to become a fortress, points must be secured at a better rate on the road in order to contend for the postseason, which would in turn make things easier at home, where Orlando will inevitably drop points at some point.

Fortunately, the Lions have a couple things working in their favor this season that they didn’t in the previous two campaigns.

For starters — as much as we love Inchy — Heath’s approach for road matches was not often conducive to securing points. While wins at Portland and NYRB in 2015 were impressive, more often than not Heath’s open, attacking philosophy set the Lions up for losses on the road. FourFourTwo touched on it this week, but winning — or at least securing a point — on the road is oftentimes facilitated best by playing deeper and with better defensive organization than it is by playing attractive soccer, which Heath hung his hat on (and which has continued to hurt him in Minnesota early on).

Secondly, the returns from Orlando’s revamped defense have been positive over the first two matches. The Lions were out-possessed heavily by NYCFC in the opener (68% to 32%), but managed to keep an attack led by David Villa and Jack Harrison out of the net in a shutout win, before limiting Philadelphia to just two shots on target in a 2-1 win on March 18. Jonathan Spector has been a boon for the team alongside Jose Aja in the center of defense, while Joe Bendik has continued to make big Joe Bendik saves.

Saturday’s match at Columbus will provide the first glimpse at what this new defense is capable of away from home, and it’ll come against a Crew SC side boasting one of the hottest forwards in MLS. A strong showing this weekend could be a great sign of things to come, or a bad result could uphold the status quo.