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Handicapping Orlando City’s Dark Horse Odds in the Eastern Conference

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Winning the East may be difficult, but there is hope for the improved Lions.

New York City FC v Orlando City SC Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images

Orlando City returned home and claimed yet another home victory, making it the third home win of the season in as many tries. To put it simply and fairly, the Lions have looked rather solid at home and, most importantly, their defense has been up to a lot of good.

Joe Bendik has quite literally been a wall of a goalkeeper at home. For Bendik, 11 of his 12 saves on the season have come at Orlando City Stadium, while he only managed one save on the road against the Crew and two goals were scored against him, albeit a small sample size. It is almost as if Bendik refuses to be scored on in the new stadium that Orlando City has so elegantly christened, and he’s been a joy to watch play thus far.

But now, Orlando City, a third-year MLS club, is pushing to do something extraordinary. As a long season still awaits us, it is only fair that we look ahead to what Orlando could possibly do by season’s end with its current run of form.

Is Orlando City a Dark Horse to Win the East?

It is not a simple question to answer, even though many outsiders, and even fans of the team, will automatically say no. But not even a chance? That seems a little unfair at this point.

Two things are for certain as of now. One is that Orlando City is going to be a very tough team to beat at home. The Lions have proven this as both New York clubs have come to town and lost, along with Philadelphia. Orlando City has only given up one goal in the three home games and scored four. The second thing to know is that Orlando City has a powerhouse in the goal-scoring department — Cyle Larin.

However, even with the young powerhouse, the offense is still lackluster to say the least. The offense failed to put together a goal in its one trip away from the new stadium and has only managed a total of four goals in four games. Only one game has seen multiple goals to this point, which came against Philly. Three wins and one loss doesn’t sound like a team that is struggling, but in some ways it can be argued that the Lions are.

The Lions currently sit tied for last in the league in goals scored, although they’ve played fewer matches than anyone but Dallas and Colorado. The leader, Portland, has 16 goals and then there is Atlanta, the new kids in town, who have managed 13 goals on the season. Orlando City hasn’t had the one big outbreak in goal scoring quite yet, but luckily the team has been successful in its own way — it’s winning matches. While this is happening, the important thing to remember is that Orlando’s best facilitator — Kaká — is out with injury. His return could spark the offense and hopefully shift the tide in the right direction.

While the offense is struggling, what about defense?

Well, the defense has been good minus an away defeat to the Crew, and even then it wasn’t all bad — it just wasn’t all good. The games at home have been excellent, led by Bendik and defender Jonathan Spector. Both players have been excellent in leading the defense and the home stand has been absolutely outstanding lately because of their efforts.

A dark horse is explained as a candidate or competitor about whom little is known but who unexpectedly wins or succeeds. It is not a head-scratcher: Orlando City is a dark horse to win the East.

Why?

  • Kaká is still set to return, and with him returning the offense should improve. Right now the offense is just solid, some finishing issues notwithstanding, but adding in that mix of Brazilian flair will really improve the team in possession and the ability to push the ball forward (which is already solid). Kaká brings a skill set that is extremely difficult to find in this league, and with it, there is no doubt that this team improves.
  • Larin will aim to be the top goal scorer in the league by the time the 2017 season is over. With three goals to his name already, Larin is continuing to prove that he is a top threat in this league after totaling 31 goals in his first two seasons. A lot of whispers loom around him as far as moving across the pond at the close of this season. While that is a possibility for the future, for now Larin is set to dominate MLS, and with Kaká on the comeback trail, all I can say is watch out.
  • Carlos Rivas is bound to break out this season. Rivas is playing at a high level currently, as he has become a major threat in attack. For now it has only led to setting up other players, which is wonderful, but in the blink of an eye I fully expect Rivas to start scoring goals and lighting up defenses even more.
  • Spector has changed the mindset at the back; his play has been excellent this season. Spector’s ability to read the game and defend crosses with relative ease has bolstered the defense tremendously. As fans know, the defense has been a touchy subject over the past two seasons. With the way things are going now, expect things to be different with Spector leading the back line.
  • Bendik is unbreakable. Well, not entirely, but you get the gist. Bendik has been a wonder in goal and, in times of need, he has come to the rescue. His ability to be a shot stopper and a goalkeeper that attacks the ball with authority has helped the defense look great at times. When the defense has a lapse, Bendik has been there to save them, and while it is him just doing his job, he has done it exceptionally well.
  • Jason Kreis is finding his rhythm as Orlando City manager. The lineups and formations are coming together nicely for Kreis and his staff. Kreis has added exactly the right pieces since his arrival with the team, and for those guys that he didn’t find, he found new homes for them. Kreis is coming into his own at Orlando City and even though I hate to harp on it, with Kaká inevitably returning you can only expect the roster to deepen and improve.

So it can certainly be argued that Orlando City is a dark horse to win the East, but only time will tell if this is merely a fantasy or a reality. Right now, a lot of things are looking good and have a great chance of only getting better down the road. The three home wins have been wonderful and if that keeps up, then you should at the very least expect playoffs.

Winning the East will be hard, but it is not an impossible or undoable task — in fact, with each win, it becomes a more believable task.