It’s time to acknowledge that Orlando City is more than just a good team this year. With five wins from the first six matches — and getting a coveted away win in just the team’s second attempt — there is a certain energy and momentum that needs to be recognized in Central Florida. For the first time since 2014, the Lions are sitting in a position to legitimately challenge at the top of the table.
The conservative-minded fans will still say that it’s still too early in the season to make such claims because being on top of the Eastern Conference is superficial in the spring. The season is only six games old, after all, and there is still a summer transfer window to slog through; and as the schedule starts to bunch up in the coming weeks, Orlando’s near-perfect record will certainly collect its fair share of dings and dropped points. There are plenty of cautionary tales like last year’s Philadelphia Union that were in a similar position; their fall from grace has extended all the way into 2017.
But the Union were a fully healthy group that found their stride early in the season and lost steam. Their form dipped in the summer and they trailed off, stumbling into the playoffs. This Orlando City team has its faults as well and will eventually find a rough patch or two. The team will need to pull themselves out of the weeds and right the ship once it eventually threatens to capsize. Bumps and bruises happen during every season.
The difference here is that the Lions may not have even found their form yet. They have been dealing with adversity from the beginning, playing through this opening stretch with at least two starters out injured at all times (or three, depending on whether or not you believe Rafael Ramos still has a chance at unseating Scott Sutter for the right back job and Tommy Redding doing the same for Jose Aja). They have taken their lumps in stride, handling losing Kaká 11 minutes into the season and not having a healthy right back available for almost three full matches.
Injuries have not doomed this team like they once would have and so much of success during the grueling MLS season relies on depth. The extended minutes that supplementary players like Giles Barnes, Matias Perez Garcia, and Servando Carrasco are getting early on will be a boost when they are inevitably called on again later in the year due to rotation, fatigue, or injury.
What we are witnessing is a wounded Lions squad clawing its way to the top of the table in spite of the hurdles. Yes, having a home-heavy schedule has played a part in their surge forward, but their schedule has been loaded with 2016 playoff teams that they have handled and dispatched. Their gritty, defensive identity and organization around the spine of Joe Bendik, Jonathan Spector, and Will Johnson have neutered some of the best attackers in the league. And they’re only going to get better as players get healthy.
The return of Kaká is naturally the biggest talking point, and it’s an important one. The Lions have lacked a creative spark at the top of the diamond and they have struggled to control possession in any environment. Kaká should alleviate both of those qualms and take the offense to the next level, potentially on par with the team’s defense that got them to the top of the pile. The potential for Orlando City to improve from its conference-best position is drastic; where the Lions have survived by hunkering down, they can impose their will on other teams with the Brazilian superstar back in the fold.
The best part is, as they get healthier, they already have a tangible lead on the opposition. Orlando City has two games in hand on the nearest clubs in the standings — the Columbus Crew and the New York Red Bulls — and at least four points on the teams where they have a single game in hand. It’s been a dream start to 2017 even with all of the pitfalls. And with this early season success and the lead that the Lions have built, it’s time to move the marker on what makes 2017 a successful season.
There should be an expectation — rather than a hope — that Orlando City makes the playoffs. A downward spiral like the 2016 Union should also be considered a disappointment; backing into the sixth seed and getting bounced in the first round would technically be an improvement on the City teams of seasons past, but that’s not an accurate representation of this team’s ability and potential. With a pocket seemingly still full of allocation money from the Kevin Molino trade, the Lions will still be able to bolster this squad in the summer transfer window and fix the deficiencies that arise.
Being in contention for an Eastern Conference championship and competing with the likes of reigning conference champs Toronto FC is the next step, and a step that City can definitely accomplish this year with what the club has put together. This team has proven that it is capable of a higher standard of play and it’s time to hold the Lions to that.