The area of the field in which Orlando City most heavily invested during the off-season is paying big dividends already in 2017, even if we’re only five games into the Lions’ 2017 campaign.
Orlando has plenty to be happy about up to this point, with four wins through its first five games and a spot near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, thanks in large part to a defensive effort that has seen the club concede just four goals, with a pair of shutouts already on the books. Four goals against have the Lions at the third-best mark in the league, behind only Sporting Kansas City (2) and FC Dallas (3). That’s a notable accomplishment for a club that let in a league-high 60 goals across 34 matches last season.
Orlando City Assistant Coach C.J. Brown said the biggest difference has been the players finally buying into defending and what Head Coach Jason Kreis and the coaching staff have been trying to implement.
“Getting everybody on the same page of how we want to defend as a group from front to back, and the bringing in a few guys with a strong sense of leadership and organization,” Brown said on Tuesday when asked about what’s improved the defense after Orlando City’s morning training session.
Kreis has always been a coach with a heavy focus on defense. Last season, he brought in Matias Perez Garcia, an attacking midfielder with a great defensive work rate. Prior to the start of the season, the club acquired Giles Barnes, a forward, and another player willing to step back and defend. The Lions focused heavily on defense this winter, bringing in tough veteran players like Jonathan Spector and Will Johnson, in addition to fullbacks Donny Toia and Scott Sutter. Orlando also signed 23-year-old center back Jose Aja to a new four-year contract.
With the new system, the Lions have preached defense as an important piece of winning games. It’s a system that needs all 11 guys on the field to buy in for it to work.
Brown also mentioned Spector as an important piece of the puzzle on the back line. He called Spector a guy that brings a “sense of leadership and organization.”
“He’s a guy with a voice that is not overly loud, but can get people to listen,” Brown said of Spector. “And just his willingness to put his body on the line to make saves and keep the ball out of the net.”
The Lions have also been aided by the addition of Sutter, who was signed by the club on March 3. The Swiss-English right back made his debut against the Columbus Crew on April 1, as a sub. He has since started each of the last two games, playing two very solid games against the New York Red Bulls and LA Galaxy. He also picked up his first assist with the club, helping Johnson score against LA.
"I think he's done very well with it,” Brown said of Sutter’s quick settlement into the team. “I don't think there was ever an issue with the soccer part, it was more of him getting used to the physical part of the game, the pace, the stuff like that, and the weather. And I think he's adjusting to it very quickly, and he's been very good for us."
Orlando City’s defense will face another big test this weekend when it hits the road for just the second time this season when the Lions visit Yankee Stadium for a meeting with New York City FC, which Orlando has already shut out once in 2017, at Orlando City Stadium to open the season on March 5.