Orlando City deserves much praise for its improved defensive performance in the early stages of the 2017 MLS season. The Lions were among the league’s leakiest defenses in 2015 and 2016 but are the third-stingiest defense in terms of goals allowed per game (0.75) through four matches, trailing only Sporting Kansas City (0.4) and FC Dallas (0.5).
The Lions have been winning with defense in the early season, sitting near the bottom of the league with a 1.0 goals per game offensive output, level with several other clubs and trailed only by D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls.
Perhaps more concerning than the overall lack of goals, however, is the fact that Orlando City has been so largely reliant on one player as the source of those goals. Striker Cyle Larin has netted three of Orlando’s four goals this year, with the only other coming from Servando Carrasco on a point-blank header off a set piece.
As well as City has played on defense, three of its four matches so far have been at home, with the only away fixture resulting in two goals allowed — the highest against the Lions this year. Orlando will face more road matches as the season goes forward and that 0.75 goals-against average is likely to increase, so we know the offensive output will have to improve to continue to hang near the top of the Eastern Conference table.
But by how much will it have to improve?
The league expanded its schedule to 34 games in 2011. The playoff format didn’t expand to 12 teams until 2015, but since a top-six finish in conference will land a club in the postseason now, we looked at the top-six finishers from each conference from 2011 through 2016 to see what kind of scoring output generally lands a team in the top six.
In those six seasons, only four teams have managed a top-six finish in their conference while scoring fewer than 1.2 goals per game. Portland finished sixth in the West in 2011 (which wasn’t good enough for the playoffs back then) while scoring 1.18 per game; Vancouver finished fifth in the West the following season with just 1.03 goals per game; San Jose finished sixth in 2013 with the same 1.03 average; and Colorado managed a second-place finish just last season despite scoring only 1.15 goals per match.
Three of those four teams allowed more goals per game than they scored, with last year’s Rapids being the exception. Colorado scored just 39 goals over the course of the regular season, but its defense surrendered just 32, an average of 0.94 per outing. Colorado lays out the best blueprint for making the playoffs despite a low-scoring offense, which is to put the clamps down on defense.
While Orlando City could try that route, it’s a daunting task, and some extra goals are almost certainly going to be needed. The other three teams to finish in the top six over that span despite scoring fewer than 1.2 goals per match all finished near the fringes of the 2017 standard for playoff qualification, while the Rapids finished second in the Supporters’ Shield standings — a clear outlier.
To average 1.2 goals for the season, the Lions will need to get to 41 goals before the end of the campaign. Having scored four so far, that means there are 37 goals left to be scored to hit that mark. That means Orlando’s scoring average will need to jump to 1.23 goals per match over the next 30, which seems very doable. Of course, every season is different, and scoring 1.2 goals per game doesn’t guarantee playoff qualification — the Lions averaged 1.62 per match last year and missed out, for instance, but given the history it’s a decent minimum. The average scoring output of sixth-placed clubs since 2011 is 1.4 goals per match, so that’s a safer baseline to aim for (assuming the defense doesn’t return to league-worst status). That would require closer to 1.5 goals per match over the last 30, however, a steeper step up.
Hopefully the Lions continue to impress on the defensive end and begin to get more contributions up front. We can count on Larin to keep scoring, but some goals from Carlos Rivas and co. could swing things in a big way. Of course, there’s the eventual return of Kaká as well that could provide a big boost in creativity and scoring, however injury prone the star midfielder may be.
However they do it, the Lions need to find more goals to keep a Herculean defensive effort from becoming a necessity.