Orlando is without a shutout in the last five games. Colorado, MLS’s worst team, with just seven points, was the last club the Lions held goalless. Since then, Orlando was bounced on the road twice, drawn twice, and suffered its first home loss of the season to Eastern rivals NYCFC. The Lions’ strong defensive start is becoming a distant memory. And while the old sports cliché that “winning cures all ills” may be true, OCSC sorely needs to earn a clean sheet on the road in Minnesota.
With all of the praises Orlando’s new-look defense attracted after the first handful of results, the team has still managed only three clean sheets this season — although that’s on pace to beat the five of last season. It helped that Orlando blanked a good attacking team in NYCFC on the first day of the season, and then shut out the New York Red Bulls, who can also be creative and dangerous in attack in the fourth game of the season. Joe Bendik played a vital role in both of those matches by making more than a few exceptional saves to stifle both NY teams. Without his heroics, the team has even fewer shutouts at this point.
Fast-forward to the present and Orlando is simply not the same team in defense as it started the season. Orlando has given up 12 goals in the last five games. Even if you throw out the Houston game as an outlier because of travel and a short turnaround in games, the team has still conceded eight goals in four games. In that same time span, the team only managed to score four goals. Goals have been hard to come by this year for Orlando, so getting back to its defensive focus keeps the Lions in more games moving forward (duh!).
Clean sheets have a way of galvanizing a team on to better performances. When a team digs in and finds the energy to cut out dangerous through-balls and sacrifices bodies to block shots, a clean sheet can give a team a feeling of accomplishment, even if it does not lead to all three points. On the other hand, giving up goals most likely means someone made a mistake. Sure, sometimes you tip your cap to a player who scores a great goal, but, usually, conceding goals means there was a breakdown in responsibility. That is the difference a clean sheet can make. It is a boost of confidence; it is a foundation a team can build on.
If Orlando is going to get a fourth clean sheet tonight, it won’t come cheap. Minnesota is a much different team today than the side that started the season by giving up 18 goals in the first four matches. Minnesota United’s three wins since aren’t exactly setting the league ablaze, but the Loons have scored a goal in all but two of their matches this season — only once failing to find the net at home.
A great way for the Lions to pull themselves out of their recent slump is with a win, of course. But if the team is looking to reestablish its identity of a tough team to beat, then a clean sheet will go a long way in putting Jason Kreis’ men back in control.
Defense was the key to the team’s strong early start, and it looked like the Lions had figured out how to grind out an ugly win. It does not mean that the team is in the midst of an irreversible slide, but it does signal that a response is needed to get the team trending in the right direction again. The rest of the team’s ills will look less dire if the Lions can manage a few more clean sheets before the halfway point of the 2017 season.