The Major League Soccer season is just past the halfway point, and Orlando City has 14 games left on the schedule as the Lions prepare to return from the Gold Cup break against Atlanta United this Friday. The Lions are currently sitting above the all-important red line for one of six playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, just one point ahead of the Columbus Crew in fifth place and a point behind Atlanta.
The Orlando City that we saw through the first two months of the season was far different from the one that we saw in the last two months leading up to this point. A rough travel schedule, the suspension of the team’s star striker, and untimely injuries have set this up to be a very interesting end to the summer.
Even with many of the toughest opponents out of the way for the rest of the season, the playoffs are no sure bet for Orlando City, especially as the team looks to finish above the red line for the first time in three tries.
So here are three things the Lions need to do to finish the job and secure a playoff berth:
Get The Gettable Points
According to MLSSoccer.com, Orlando City has the eighth toughest remaining schedule, but even if that’s true, here’s something to worth pointing out: the Lions already have many of their toughest opponents out of the way. That means no more Toronto FC, no more New York City FC, and no more Chicago Fire the rest of the way. They do, of course, have all three match-ups remaining with Atlanta, and a game against FC Dallas at the end of September.
Other than that, the Lions see Columbus twice, Montreal again, D.C. again, New England twice, Portland, and then Philadelphia to close out the year. Those are all fixtures that Orlando realistically stands a good chance to take points out of, and that’s what the team will need to do to keep pace with the top of the Eastern Conference.
Production From the Big Names
Cyle Larin has just two goals in his last 10 games, and Kaká has started just nine games this season, so the Lions need both of those guys to not only stay on the field but have big second halves. Regardless of what the plan is for Kaká after this season, these next three and a half months might be the most important of his Orlando City career. The Brazilian captain has three goals and four assists this season, playing primarily from the left side of the midfield, but he’s struggled to stay healthy. The Lions need Kaká to show up and perform.
Larin was just called up by Canada for the knockout stage of the Gold Cup, meaning he’ll miss at least the game against Atlanta this Friday. It’s been a rough couple of months for the third-year forward, which includes some off-the-field issues that kept him suspended from action for a few games. If the Lions can get him back to himself in the second half, they’ll be much better off. And with just 22 goals this season, Orlando is by far the lowest scoring team of any of the six clubs currently sitting in a playoff spot — Columbus is the second lowest, with 30.
So they can really use the goals.
Re-find the Defensive Shield
The Lions had one of the strongest defenses in the league early on, but struggled badly over the last two months. They’ve let in 29 in 20 games this year, which leads them to a -7 goal differential.
The tired legs brought on by the cramped schedule certainly can be pointed toward as the cause of some of their breakdowns in the back, but the most important thing moving forward will be solidifying a partnership at center back with Jonathan Spector, who could very well be in contention for the MLS Newcomer of the Year award.
Tommy Redding and Jose Aja have both been strong this season at times, but the constant toss-up over which one will start on a nearly weekly basis has created some mix-matched chemistry in the back. Both have earned their minutes, but Jason Kreis needs to find the pairing that works best and stick with it.
My opinion: it’s Spector and Aja.