It was improbable that Orlando City was going to continue on the hot streak that started the season. May was slated to be a minefield of difficult matches on short rest and the Lions came up short in back-to-back fixtures in Toronto and Houston. Road wins are notoriously difficult in MLS.
But with another tough run of games coming up next week (Sporting Kansas City, San Jose, and New York City FC in the span of nine days, followed by Minnesota United, D.C. United, and Chicago in quick succession), there’s another threat besides the fatigue that comes with that. Orlando has made a habit of letting poor results turn into disastrous months in its MLS history. The Lions’ inaugural season was marred by winless stretches in July and August that ultimately doomed their playoff hopes. Last year, they had three separate winless streaks that lasted for at least five matches and again finished just below the red line.
There are obviously extraneous variables that can be accounted for in the Lions’ last two losses; Cyle Larin’s misses from point-blank range against Toronto cost points for Orlando and the cross-country travel and short rest were obvious factors in the blowout loss in Houston on Saturday night. Orlando responded well from its first loss of the season in Columbus, but it will be interesting to see how the Lions rally from dropping two in a row.
In Orlando’s MLS history, it has never followed two straight losses with a win. Orlando managed to draw twice in 2015 after dropping two in a row, and on the other two occasions it picked up a third loss. All four times were part of Orlando’s win droughts over the past two seasons; the pattern is seemingly that if the Lions can’t turn it around quickly, they risk devolving into poorer form. Having said that, this is not the same Orlando City team we are accustomed to.
But the road doesn’t get any easier from here. City has little respite in its schedule until after its match with the Chicago Fire on June 4, with only small windows to regroup and recover. It will take an incredible level of mental fortitude to keep the results coming in a quick amount of time, but Jason Kreis’ infusion of veterans into the roster should see to it that the ship doesn’t begin to sink.
There will be plenty of excuses for dropping points, be it the travel or the congested schedule. But at the end of the year these points count the same as all of the others. It’s easy to chalk the losses up to lack of rest or injury, but had Orlando managed to turn just one loss from those poor stretches in previous years into a win, the club would have made the playoffs. We have seen firsthand how one result can impact the standings at the end of the year.
Players like Will Johnson have been here before and experienced these hectic MLS schedules only to come out on top in the end. His leadership on the field and in the locker room will be vital to potentially securing a few more points than Orlando might have in the past. The same can be said for Jonathan Spector, who has seemingly turned around City’s defense with his commanding presence on the back line. He may not be used to MLS competition, but the Lions definitely missed his presence in Houston. And of course City’s captain, Kaká, has lifted the team’s offense when he’s made his appearances coming back from injury.
But rotation is necessary when the matches are crammed together so closely, which will mean Kaká, Johnson, and Spector dropping in and out of the lineup over the next few weeks. It will be imperative that one is able to pick up the slack if the others need rest. Kreis has made sure to keep at least one in the starting lineup even while rotating; on Wednesday, it was Spector starting in Toronto. When the central defender needed a rest on Saturday, Johnson made his way back into the team even though he wasn’t fit enough to go the full 90 minutes.
How Orlando responds on Saturday against Sporting Kansas City will be a marker for its next slew of matches. SKC has proven to be one of the toughest teams in the league so far in the young 2017 season. Can the Lions shake off their last poor performance and win? If they understandably drop points against the league’s staunchest defense, can they pick themselves back up against San Jose or NYCFC? It’s up to the veterans to set the tone.