Since MLS expanded to six playoff teams per conference in 2015, the top six Eastern Conference teams in terms of goal differential in each of the past two years have made the postseason, although not in exact order. This supports the fact that goal differential is a good indicator of success — there’s a direct relationship between goal dominance and point accumulation.
Orlando City currently sits level on goal differential for the 2017 season, having scored 11 and shipped 11 through its first nine contests. Although this even differential is the fifth-best in the East at the moment, the Lions find themselves just a point off the top of the conference table with a game in hand on Toronto, so things are still good standings-wise despite back-to-back losses.
Much of the season is obviously left to play, but given the fact that goal differential is such an accurate predictor of playoff qualifiers over the course of a full MLS regular season, it’s not too early to take a look at this factor. Orlando’s zero in the GD column would likely get it into the playoffs if it remained constant through the end of the regular season, as an even goal differential would’ve been good enough for the playoffs in both of City’s first two MLS seasons in 2015 and 2016 (three teams qualified for the postseason in that span despite a negative differential — Columbus in ’15, and Montreal and Philadelphia in ’16).
If that goal difference held through the end of the season, though, the Lions would likely see themselves fall much closer to the playoff cut line before it’s all said and done; a goal differential of zero would’ve been the fifth-best in the East in 2015 and tied for fourth-best in 2016. There’s generally been a steep drop-off from playoff teams’ goal differential to those of non-playoff teams, with the exception of Orlando City last season, which missed the GD cut by only one goal (thanks to shipping a league-high 60 goals) — and the Lions also missed the playoffs by only one point.
The good news for City in this regard is that we can safely assume the 4-0 loss at Houston is an outlier. Prior to that drubbing, the Lions had surrendered only seven goals through eight games — an average of 0.88 goals per match that ballooned to 1.22 after one bad night in H-town — with a +4 differential. With Jonathan Spector returning, we can probably count on Orlando returning to a less 2016-like form on the defensive end.
The bad news for the Lions is that their attack has not proven to be especially potent. The Lions’ 11 goals this season are fewer than seven other Eastern Conference teams have managed, and only D.C. United has managed fewer (nine), while NYRB and the Union sit even with Orlando.
Orlando City has yet to score more than two goals in a game this season, and it has been shut out completely on two occasions. While Cyle Larin has been mostly great, Carlos Rivas has showed flashes of brilliance, and Kaká is still rounding into shape after a long injury layoff, we can’t assume that the Lions’ offense will start rampaging and open up a significant goal-differential gap. Until they prove otherwise, the Lions will likely to continue to rely on solid defense and doing just enough offensively to get by, which isn’t a recipe for the type of +19 and +17 goal differentials we saw from NYRB as it topped the East over the last two seasons.
While Orlando is firmly in line for a playoff berth based off its early goal differential returns, we could see the Lions move into a battle for the fourth or fifth postseason spots in the East rather than the first or second if they don’t start winning more comfortably and widening their goal differential a bit. But there is much soccer still to be played, and if the Houston scoreline was the type of aberration we believe it was, that should begin to reflect over time with a recovery in the GD column.