It has been said that the Lions’ road to the playoffs after the break is a difficult one. The team will play more road games than home, is fighting for a playoff berth, and must play in back-to-back match-ups against Atlanta United — the team that sits ahead of the Lions in the standings. When thinking about making the playoffs for the first time in your team’s history, that road is certain to be a difficult one.
According to MLS’ Benjamin Baer, the strength of schedule in the remaining games of the season puts Orlando City with the eighth-toughest schedule down the stretch. Just knowing that the Lions have the eighth-toughest schedule in remaining games makes the task just that much more difficult.
However, when observing the graph that Benjamin Baer put together, there are some good signs for Orlando City and its hopes of playoff-bound glory.
For starters, five of the seven clubs with a tougher strength of schedule than Orlando just so happen to be Eastern Conference opponents. Of those five, the Chicago Fire are the only team (currently in first) ahead of City in the Eastern Conference standings. This should bode well for the Lions as it means that the teams trying to catch Orlando will all have a very difficult time doing so.
The Philadelphia Union and New York Red Bulls most notably stand out. The Union have been determined to have the most difficult schedule heading into the second half of the season per Baer’s article. They still have some catching up to do if they hope to make the playoffs but lately the Union have been pretty solid, going 6-3-1 in their last 10. If the Union hope to make the playoffs, they will have to find a way to earn multiple wins against opponents like Toronto, Atlanta, and Chicago.
The Red Bulls are one of those teams that you always expect to make the playoffs but with early season struggles and the fifth-toughest remaining schedule in the league, the playoffs may not be a reality. The good thing for New York, and the scary thing for Orlando City, is that the Red Bulls have played two fewer games than the two teams sitting above them in the standings — Columbus Crew and Orlando City. With two games in hand and only three points from matching the Lions, the Red Bulls could make a serious push for playoff contention.
It feels like the team that Orlando City is chasing is Atlanta United. Atlanta sits in fourth in the Eastern Conference as of now and, with two teams chasing positions five and six, the fourth spot seems to be the safe zone for any team looking to make the playoffs.
Orlando City and Atlanta will face off in back-to-back match-ups once returning from break. Both of these match-ups will be crucial to each team’s season and specifically that safe(r) zone of position number four. Atlanta has the sixth-easiest schedule remaining once returning from break and that is scary for a team with such an explosive attack. That thought alone makes the back-to-back match-ups for Orlando City all that much more crucial.
Orlando and Atlanta will play three times after the Gold Cup break. Gaining six points from those three games would go a long way toward helping the Lions move past the expansion upstarts in the standings.
We expect this break to pay great dividends for Orlando City as the team should be well-rested both physically and mentally. While every game is crucial, I don't think that any pair of games can mean more to Orlando City than the two coming off the break against Atlanta United. With two teams chasing positions five and six in the playoffs, the chase for position four seems to be the real goal. Atlanta has a much easier schedule than the teams on its heels, so it is up to Orlando to push Atlanta to the brink and I expect it will.
How do you think Orlando City will fair throughout the second half of the season? How much does predicted strength of schedule really matter? Let us know in the comments below.