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I’m not really a Harry Potter fan, but J.K. Rowling was onto something when she said “The best of us must sometimes eat our words.” So here it goes, pass the salt?
Just did my SB Nation predictions for the Eastern Conference... I picked Orlando City as last. That hurt. I hope I'm wrong.— Kevin M. Mercer (@KevinIsHistory) February 26, 2017
Despite my dedicated support for Orlando City, I caught a severe case of cynicism after last season. As the off-season moves came and went, nothing stood out as being “game changing” enough to really make a difference. So, when the time came to make preseason predictions, I rated every team in the Eastern Conference ahead of Orlando. And here I am, openly, publicly, candidly admitting...I was really really wrong. Here’s how I got it wrong:
East of Beasts
Let’s start elsewhere. I overestimated the Eastern Conference. I expected the New England Revolution, D.C. United, Montreal Impact, and Philadelphia Union to be better than they are. MLS parity makes for some dramatic shifts in team’s fortunes year to year, and these four have massively underperformed — the Impact and Union especially. While this accounts for why I might have overestimated them in the preseason, Orlando’s play is really where I came up short.
I’ve always liked Jason Kreis, but early on I wasn’t sure I saw him implementing his system as quickly as he has. I honestly thought we had another rebuilding season in the works. Safe to say the undefeated (at home) Lions have bought in completely. As noted in a number of early season interviews, Kreis was impressed with the way the team came into camp in shape and ready to go. This team has his work ethic and grit written all over it. The ability to grind out wins and take advantage of moments has marked this as Kreis’ team now, and the confidence of a team fully buying into a system shows.
While I don’t get to spend a lot of time around the team, it seems there is a different spirit around this group. Last season ended with rumors of locker room disharmony. I won’t speculate on the what or who that is different between this year and last, but Kreis seems to have created locker room harmony.
The Importance of Being Will Johnson and Jonathan Spector
These weren’t under-the-radar players when they came to Orlando, but I underestimated the impact they would have. Johnson is the consummate MLS iron man, while Spector comes to Orlando with a long career in England. They are certainly an addition to any team they play on, and their arrival brought a quiet appreciation. I did not expect them to be complete game changers. On the offensive side of the ball Johnson is the engine in the midfield that pushes a team forward. On the defensive end, Spector’s leadership and outstanding play has turned one of the league’s worst defenses into one of the best. Both have been heroic at times and brought talent and a host of intangibles to the club.
Defend the Wall
Spector’s role in the defense is just one part in a whole that is massively improved. The addition of Scott Sutter and Donny Toia has brought a new level of energy and tenacity on the defensive wings, while it seems Jose Aja has settled in, and Tommy Redding has continued his development. Collectively they have come together to create a defensive line as solid as any in the league. Buoyed by
fan favorite folk hero Joe Bendik in back and a reinvigorated Antonio Nocerino and Cristian Higuita, the pieces have combined to help the back line create a stingy defensive core.
What a long and confusing road Carlos Rivas has tread in Orlando so far. Despite flashes of brilliance, his play has been an enigma for the faithful. This summer, most transfer rumors attached to Orlando involved him either leaving or taking a pay cut to make room for a new Designated Player. The frustrations of the past two playoff-less seasons, fairly or unfairly, had been pegged to him and fellow frustrating DP Bryan Rochez.
This season, Rivas is a shell of his former self. He plays with swagger that isn’t cocky but confident. He has learned to look up, read the field, and work with Cyle Larin and other attackers. And, as we saw yesterday, he is slowly dialing in that rocket shot. This Rivas goal felt like the start of something, not the island of success in a sea of frustration that his past goals in Orlando City purple felt like.
Rivas seems to have won over Orlando City Stadium as well. He has spoken recently that he feels appreciated by the fans, and for a player like Rivas who plays with such emotion, that has to mean a lot to him.
While I was always an advocate for the new stadium, knowing it would be the proper stage to view the game, I didn’t realize how thoroughly amazing it would be. If you’ve never been to a game, the best way to describe the atmosphere would be to imagine the sound of a cloud of Africanized killer bees released into a Slayer concert. A constant buzz augmented by a cacophony of rattling rafters, a purple wall of noise, and thunderclaps. Now, put that at a massive vertical angle so all that energy is nearly leading down onto the field. There is more home field advantage right now than you could measure.
If you add to all of this a team that looks committed and playing to its full potential, you have a completely different club than the one I envisioned languishing in the basement of the Eastern Conference. While there is still a lot of soccer left to be played, I am pretty confident that my last place prediction was thoroughly, completely, ridiculously wrong. And I’m enjoying every minute of it.
So what do you think? Did you underestimate the Lions like I did? Did you think this was the year? Are you confident this level of play will survive into the summer? Do you see an Achilles heel? I’d love to hear your thoughts either here in the comment section or reach out to me on Twitter: @KevinIsHistory.