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Who Needs Possession? Orlando’s Winning Without It.

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Orlando City is first in the East, averaging less than 50% possession this season.

MLS: Los Angeles Galaxy at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

One in five. That is the number of games the Lions have won while gathering more possession than their opponent. Just one game. That came against the Philadelphia Union, who are still looking for their first win of the season. Orlando controlled 52% of the possession in that match. Outside of that win, Orlando has managed to grab four more victories, proving that it is finding ways to win games without dominating possession.

How much possession has Orlando had this year? Just 45%, according to WhoScored.com. With that number, the team is 18th in MLS. The team with the best possession average is NYCFC with 58%, but five spots lower than OCSC in the standings. What about the Columbus Crew? A team known for passing teams off the park, right? The Crew has had 53% of the ball while picking up four wins in eight tries.

In the west, conference leaders the Portland Timbers have put up slightly better numbers than OCSC with 49% possession. But it’s the fifth-place Seattle Sounders who have the best possession stats in the west, with 54%.

What can we learn from these numbers? Well, for one, possession doesn’t mean wins. It’s easy for fans to get frustrated when a team continues to cough up possession, especially at home. Moreover, it is true that some of the most entertaining soccer involves holding onto possession for long periods of the game — weaving the ball in and out of an opponent’s half. But OCSC hasn’t needed those tactics to be successful this season.

Instead, the numbers suggest what we’ve seen: OCSC, in its current form, is a counterattacking team that enjoys short bursts of possession. A good counterattacking team absorbs pressure for long periods, usually with the whole team committed to defense, and transitions to attack quickly.

Carlos Rivas has emerged as one of Orlando’s greatest threats during transitions from defense to attack. While still waiting to break his goal drought, the Colombian’s speed with the ball has caused problems for defenses since the opener. He has been most dangerous with room to run in front of him, which a counterattacking style affords him.

Along with Rivas, Cyle Larin’s incredible start to the 2017 season has amounted to nearly all of Orlando’s goals. His six league goals have been a large reason why Orlando has been able to win games with so little possession. In Orlando’s opening 1-0 win against NYCFC, the team mustered one shot on goal; but Larin was perfect with his one opportunity. A similar efficiency in front of goal has continued since then for Orlando and Larin. The team has scored just eight goals on 25 shots on target this season — the same amount as the winless Union. Portland has 18 goals so far.

The team’s other hallmark this season has been a stingy defense. Only FC Dallas and Sporting KC have let in fewer goals than Orlando’s five goals against this season. The new-look back line deserves a lot of credit, but the team has also displayed a greater emphasis on team defending, with midfielders and forwards committed to pressuring the ball.

The question for some fans may be whether the team can sustain this kind of efficiency. The alternative to the current style is more possession and more chances, but is this a more reliable style of play? Both conference leaders, Portland and Orlando, seem to cast doubt on that theory.

Does more possession quell fears about the luck running out on Orlando’s current style of play? What are NYCFC fans thinking as their team sits in sixth place while leading the league in possession stats? Jason Kreis has mentioned that he wants the team to solve possession problems during the match, which may suggest he wants to see more time on the ball. Nevertheless, in spite of Orlando’s anemic possession, the team’s ruthless attack and sturdy defending have propelled the club into an unforeseen start to the season. Maybe less is more.