Over the past few weeks, Orlando City matches have been a microcosm of the season as a whole. The Lions start out well with good energy, a strong shape, and an inspired attack, trying to impose their will on the opposition.
As we’ve seen against Atlanta United, the Montreal Impact, and New York Red Bulls, Orlando jumps out to an early lead through a combination of stout defense and good finishing at the other end of the park. But then that lead slips away. Whether it’s at the end of the first half, beginning of the second half, or in the dying moments of the match, the Lions have not been able to hold a lead. Compared to the flying 6-1-0 start to begin the year, when the defense held firm against onslaughts for nail-biting victories, the wind seems to come out of the Lions’ sails late in matches.
It’s nothing new for City through its time in MLS, but it is concerning nonetheless. Is there any sign of improvement?
Below is a graph of when the opposition has scored against Orlando in all competitions this year. There is just the hint of a pattern:
Ten of the 39 goals (25.6%) the Lions have allowed in the league and U.S. Open Cup have come in the first 15 minutes of the second half. Nearly twice the amount of any other block of time. Seven of those have come since May 27 when the Lions lost to Adrian Heath and Minnesota United. After holding a clean sheet through five of the first 15 games, Orlando has just one since. Between breakdowns in defense and midfield, a once-stellar defense has started to leak goals again. Poor second halves have broken the team’s back; City has only surrendered 15 goals in the first half all season compared to 24 in the second.
But the question is why are the Lions so susceptible right after the halftime break? They aren’t allowing nearly the number of stoppage-time goals they were in seasons past — Tito Villalba’s equalizer in Atlanta is the first they’ve surrendered all season compared to eight in 2015 and four last year — suggesting they aren’t as prone to late mental mistakes as they used to be.
But there still seems to be some lethargy coming out of the locker room, a few missed passes here, being out of position there, that have taken away any momentum that Orlando built up in the first stanza. And perhaps it’s not what the Lions aren’t doing but what is being done to them; the Red Bulls came out of the break inspired to take charge of the game and they did. If Orlando tried to do the same, they failed. It’s been that way all summer.
The blame cannot be placed solely on the Lions’ defenders. Across the board, Orlando has struggled to hold possession or win the ball back in midfield, and has struggled to put its chances away on the offensive end to change the flow of the game, just as it has struggled to contain attackers in its own end. The problem may or may not be systemic, but at least it doesn’t seem to be innate. After all, City — playing the same style of game all year — was once top of the league table. And the bright spots are there. Often, in the first half especially, Orlando looks like it has finally righted the ship to drag itself out of this abysmal summer. And then it slips away.
The most worrying trend may be the consistency with which the team has been dropping points from a winning position, when it definitively held the lead and then lost it. Over Orlando’s last three games, the team has dropped eight points after leading for portions of the match; until that point this year, they had only dropped four. If you’re a glass-half-full kind of person, you could say that at least the Lions are now putting themselves in strong positions early even if they can’t hold on. At the very least, it’s still a vast improvement from 2016, when the Lions let an astounding 23 points slip through their fingers (12 while under Adrian Heath, two while Bobby Murphy was interim manager, and nine with Kreis at the helm).
This does not include points conceivably lost by allowing late goals in a tie game — which the Lions have had their fair share of — but points surrendered from a position of strength, when odds were at one point considerably in their favor to take home more points than they did.
But in both 2015 and 2016, there was at least the counterbalance of earning points from losing positions. The Lions clawed back 15 points each prior season compared to just two so far this year (the last-gasp draws with Montreal and in Seattle). There just isn’t the same fight late in games that we’re used to seeing from this team even earlier this year. Perhaps that’s due to a lack of a super sub like Julio Baptista, who seemed to come on and change the game every time out. That threat just isn’t there anymore.
Considering Orlando’s depth production late in games (which means discounting the goal and assist provided by Servando Carrasco and Giles Barnes, respectively, who came on and played over 70 minutes each due to injury), the only consistent producer of offense off the bench has been Carlos Rivas, who has only recently been reduced to a reserve role. His three goals in six games off the bench this year have out-produced his scoring as a starter (two goals in 17 starts including last weekend against New York) and he has by and large been the only consistent threat when coming on late. Perhaps the addition of Dillon Powers adds another component, but that’s still to be determined.
But even with the lack of a punch off the bench, the Lions’ defense late in games is a shadow of what it was to start the year. When Orlando jumped out to the top of the table, the team was surviving onslaughts. Now it is breaking instead of bending. What’s interesting is that the Lions aren’t allowing late goals at nearly the same clip as they used to and especially not as late. Here’s the above graph of goals allowed by time compared to the past two seasons:
The Lions have always been notoriously bad with allowing goals early and often in the second half. But it’s notable that with fewer matches played, that one point in the game (minutes 46 to 60) has been such a point of contention for Kreis and Orlando City. Why then? And why so often?
This silver lining is that at least the bleeding late on in games has been slowed. The last few matches are not indicative of what Orlando City has been in 2017, where the Lions have been far more disciplined on the defensive end and sharper toward the end of matches. But, if the trend continues, it will sink the Lions’ season. The second-half collapses have driven a nail further into City’s coffin but there’s clear evidence that things are swinging in a positive direction.
This team is no longer the type that falls apart in the dying minutes, even if that trend is beginning to resurface. Even with poor second halves, the club has improved upon its late performances — even if that improvement is slow and not always noticeable. Orlando has long been a side with these issues and it will take time to fix them. The pieces aren’t all there yet, but the potential is. Recognizing the problem with seeing games out and then fixing those issues is step one.