It’s been an interesting beginning to the year for the Orlando City offense. After losing its biggest play maker just 11 minutes into the season, the club bunkered down and ground out results by single-goal margins. But even with Kaká’s return and the goals he’s added, the Lions have still struggled to score.
The 14 goals scored by Orlando is third-worst in the Eastern Conference. Orlando has done well to get results in spite of scoring so few goals, relying on its defense more than its offense. But as the fixture list gets congested and rotations fracture a sturdy back line, offense becomes paramount to keep up. It’s no secret that Orlando has bled goals while its defenders have been in turmoil. With Jose Aja returning from injury, Tommy Redding leaving for the U-20 World Cup, and rest more than necessary for the starters, there just hasn’t been the same cohesion that we saw in the three clean sheets in March and April.
The number of goals the Lions have conceded to date isn’t alarming — only five East teams have conceded fewer — but if the defense is going to continue to regress more to the mean of the division, the offense is going to have to step up to keep pace. And while the most notable figures on the team, Cyle Larin and Kaká, have shouldered most of the load, it’s going to take a team effort to improve.
The Lions’ offense has relied on its front three to create for themselves with occasional help from the fullbacks. Larin, Rivas, and Kaká account for all but two of the team’s goals and 37% of the Lions’ assists. While it’s worked so far for City, there’s a genuine concern about being too reliant on the attackers and the club isn’t getting too much help from the bench, which further exacerbates the problem. Add in that the outside defenders can’t always commit to going forward, and you’re left with the attackers on an island. Half of the deeper midfield’s contribution to the score sheet have come from Will Johnson’s corner kicks; in open play, the Lions haven’t been able to get the central players involved in the offense.
It’s part of what the diamond asks of its central midfield, to control the center of the park and dictate the pace of the game. But when the team needs a goal, the bulk of the Lions’ midfield has been incapable of consistently getting forward. Compare that to the New England Revolution — the only other MLS side that consistently uses the diamond — who have been getting more production out of Diego Fagundez, Scott Caldwell, and Kelyn Rowe and scoring more goals because of it. The Revs’ trio, led by Rowe, creates 3.5 chances for every 90 minutes they’re on the pitch, and also adds goals. Fagundez is coming off a brace that led New England to victory against the Columbus Crew, increasing his total to three for the year. That’s the biggest difference in the two diamonds; Rowe, Fagundez, and Caldwell have four goals and nine assists between them compared to one goal and three assists for the Lions’ central mids. The Revs have gotten just as much production from their front three (Lee Nguyen, Juan Agudelo, and Kei Kamara together have as many goals as Orlando’s entire team and almost half the number of assists), but it’s the extra help that’s giving them an edge.
The biggest difference is that Orlando isn’t getting help from both of its box-to-box midfielders. While Rowe and Fagundez both move up to join the attack, Cristian Higuita has struggled to do much going forward. While Cristian is a very talented player in his own right, he hasn’t fully adapted to the box-to-box role. He’s still solid on the defensive end, but struggles to maintain possession and contribute in the final third. The Colombian has created only six total chances this season, and while he’s on pace for a career year for assists, playing further up the pitch is going to require more than his old holding role under Adrian Heath. Luis Gil, by comparison, has already created four chances in half of the number of minutes played.
The comparison with Gil is an interesting one for Higuita. It would be difficult for Jason Kreis to drop Will Johnson, who has been steadily performing no matter what position he’s been asked to play. Meanwhile, Higuita has been struggling with the ball at his feet, leading Orlando’s midfielders in times dispossessed (23) and second in unsuccessful touches (11). While he has been making his patented crunching tackles, he hasn’t been able to take his game to the next level and add that offense.
Per 90 minutes played, according to WhoScored.com, Gil averages two more tackles and two more interceptions while committing half the number of fouls and creating more chances. Higuita edges him in exactly one category, pass completion percentage, though the difference is a substantial 18%. While statistics in soccer don’t tell the whole story, there’s something to be said about Gil’s work rate on the defensive end. He’s still getting used to his teammates and readjusting to MLS, but if Kreis wants to potentially sacrifice some defensive tenacity for offensive skill, Luis Gil would not be the worst choice.
For Orlando’s offense to get to the next level, it’s going to need contributions from more players. Cyle Larin and Kaká can only do so much.