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The Mane Land Roundtable: A 2018 Orlando City Season Postmortem

We gather at the big purple table to discuss what went wrong in 2018 and how it can go less wrong in the future.

The 2018 Orlando City SC season has come and gone and again the club has reached depths we didn’t think possible. A seemingly aggressive off-season held the promise of the Lions’ first-ever postseason and things got off to a rocky start due to late international arrivals, injuries, and suspensions, but the club started to settle in, winning a club-record six straight games.

Then the wheels fell off. Again fueled by a rash of injuries and international call-ups — the nadir of which saw the team using midfielders and fullbacks at center back for multiple games — the Lions then lost nine consecutive matches (another club record) en route to winning only two games after a May 6 home win against Real Salt Lake. Orlando City finished on a 2-20-3 slide under multiple head coaches.

I convened a meeting of The Mane Land roundtable to try to make some sense of the 2018 Orlando City campaign. Typically I’d select just a few of our staff writers but for this season-ending roundtable I called pretty much the entire group together and rather than cherry pick the “best” responses, I wanted to give you our full rainbow of opinions to illustrate how differently we all think about the club and the game we love. I even threw in my own responses, which I don’t always do for these things. It’s long, but each chunk is bite-sized. It consists of only five questions, but there are 10 responses to each one.

In your view, what was Orlando City’s biggest problem in 2018 that led to such a poor record?

Logan Oliver: Continuity and stability. With half of the roster being new to the club and most of the rest having only been here for one year at most, it was always going to take time to jell. But too many injuries and suspensions to key personnel — plus losing Yoshi to the World Cup — threw off any hope of jelling quickly. Then when Jason Kreis was fired, everything went back to square one.

Guilherme Torres: Lack of individual production was the biggest problem of Orlando City in 2018. The team seemed to have a good roster in place when the season kicked off, but other than Dom Dwyer, Yoshi Yotún and Chris Mueller, no other player performed near the expected. Justin Meram was obviously the most evident case, but it’s fair to say that the Lions expected more from the likes of Sacha Kljestan, Uri Rosell, Josué Colmán and Lamine Sané. That was caused by a bunch of different factors and it wasn’t somewhat unexpected considering the huge turmoil the team faced in the off-season.

Sean Rollins: The biggest problem this season was a failure to adapt to adversity. On multiple occasions this year, something negative would happen and the team would fall apart. This most notably happened in Vancouver, LA, and Atlanta. It cost them several points this season.

The Bearded Guy: The easiest answers are injuries, national team call-ups, and constant squad rotation, but I honestly believe it was just a lack of having a true team dynamic. It is the additions of all of the above that led to a team with no real identity, no real leadership, and a never-ending search for stability — 26 back line combinations, three coaches, a new player brought in who then asks to leave. I don’t think there was any stability for this club at all this season.

Alek Pierce: The front office’s impatience in allowing Jason Kreis the opportunity to install a new system with an entirely revamped roster.

Marcus Mitchell: There was plenty wrong with the Lions this season but the back line was just abysmal thanks to injuries and a rotating door for a back line. Orlando City was the only team in MLS to not have at least two defenders start in 20 or more games (Mohamed El-Munir led defenders with 23 starts and some of those were in the midfield). The defense desperately needed a leader or anchor and with Jonathan Spector and Scott Sutter another year older it will be interesting to see how this problem is solved in the off-season.

Scott Carnevale: Players were simply not good enough and there was not enough depth on the team. Just take a look at the Meram situation. He left the team and there was no other left winger. There were only two strikers — and just one of which was MLS caliber — so when Dwyer couldn’t play, guys had to play out of position up top. The overall talent level is miles behind teams like Atlanta and New York Red Bulls, and seemingly half the team is defensive midfielders. Sacha Kljestan was the MLS assist king with New York, but he was forced into a different role with Orlando and was the guy finding the back of the net. Had the team had players around him that were capable of scoring — other than Dwyer, of course — Kljestan would have been more effective.

This seems like a front office issue, with poor scouting leading to poor players brought in. If three different coaches struggle to even get a draw then it seems obvious that it is an issue with the players themselves. It will be interesting to see who the club brings in this off-season but if the quality on the field does not improve then 2019 will not be much better than 2018.

David Rohe: While there were a multitude of issues, I feel the lack of a consistent back line (and in particular center backs), led to Orlando City giving up a record amount of goals. That makes it really difficult to win, because so often the team ended up having to play from behind. I think the pieces are there if JOC does indeed move to a three-man back line, but we’ll have to see.

Ben Miller: I think the biggest problem for Orlando City was personnel issues. For much of the season the team was unable to play a first choice XI, and when most players were finally healthy it became evident that the team was overstocked on defensive midfielders and short on attacking talent.

Michael Citro: Like many of my colleagues, I don’t think you need to look much further than the 26 different starting back line configurations to see the club’s biggest glaring issue. The rash of injuries at center back and fullback was ludicrous and was exacerbated by injuries to the team’s top projected defensive midfielders at the start of the season — Uri Rosell and Cristian Higuita. Combined, it led to the leakiest defense in MLS history, despite having good individual players on the roster. The club overhaul brought in a ton of new pieces but they never had the opportunity to play together long enough to gain any kind of chemistry.

In hindsight, was firing Jason Kreis the right move for OCSC? If so, was it the best timing for the move?

Logan: It may have been the right move when all is said and done but the timing was terrible. The on-field performances at the time were poor but the team was still above the red line when Kreis was given his walking papers and the club was still dealing with a handful of major injuries and its best player was still in Russia. Kreis deserved a bit more time at the helm to try and right the ship. James O’Connor was in no immediate danger of being hired elsewhere and the front office’s overtures about the roster meant no new coach really had a summer transfer window to make adjustments anyway. The personnel tweaks that the club made this year — mainly replacing [Director of Fitness] Dave McKay with Isaac Ramos — probably should have happened before Kreis was let go to see if it had any effect.

Guilherme: I think it was the right move. The team wasn’t performing under him and I have to admit that his insistence on blaming others, especially referees, for the team’s setbacks really annoyed me. Timing might not have been ideal, but I believe a change would happen sooner or later and, if that was really the case, I think you want to make it as soon as you decide it. The change didn’t necessarily generate the results the club expected (and James O’Connor is not to be blamed for it in my opinion), but I don’t disagree with it.

Sean: In hindsight, removing Kreis was the right decision as it was a team he put together that clearly was not performing. However, waiting until the end of the season and not requiring the new coach to inherit Kreis’ roster would’ve given the club more options for his replacement. It’s a similar problem to when they fired Adrian Heath.

Beard: I think that ending the relationship between the club and Kreis was an eventuality, but I am never a fan of doing this at the point that Orlando City did, in the midst of the transfer window. Why would any player want to consider a move, unless it is just a paycheck move, to a club that has no coach? The timing of this move, just like the timing of firing Heath, was poor, even though the separation was inevitable.

Alek: No. But if that’s the route that they wanted to take, I’d have preferred they waited until the end of the season to make the move.

Marcus: I understand the front office wanting to move to another direction after six straight losses, but the firing of Kreis was a terrible decision at that point of the season. The only way it would have paid off was if O’Connor came in and took the team to the playoffs. He didn’t and now there is a lingering “what if” regarding what would have happened if the front office didn’t blow things up and practically end the season in June.

Scott: This is a tough question. On one hand, I was completely against the firing at the time and this seems like a repeat scenario of Heath. There was a long term plan in place and the front office gave up on it. This is a continual trend that is putting the club in the place that it is in today. Kreis should have been given more time, especially with him never having his ideal starting XI at his disposal.

With all that being said, I fully believe that the team is heading in the right direction with O’Connor at the helm. He has a history of success with Louisville and his attacking style of soccer is what this club has been famous for in its USL days. The club will need to be patient as it most likely will take more than just one season to have all the pieces in place, but the team is better with O’Connor than it was with Kreis.

David: It almost doesn’t matter since he never really got to field his complete team thanks to injuries, but the point is moot. What I’ll say instead is that Kreis may not have been the right coach going forward in MLS on the whole. As such, bringing in O’Connor has great potential if he is given the time to get his system and players in place. As for the timing of the Kreis firing? It stunk. It was a horrible time to do so. Yes he’d just gone on a losing streak, but that streak was preceded by a long winning streak. Some players were just returning from injury when the decision was made. We’ll never know if that could have made the difference. The middle of the season is never a good time to fire a coach, but Orlando City seems to have a bad habit of doing so. Let’s hope O’Connor gets at least a full season, though it will probably take longer.

Ben: I think the Kreis firing was not the correct move at the time. The team was still in a playoff spot, and while mired in a poor run of form, I think the timing was very questionable. Had the Lions continued to lose during the summer and fallen out of the playoffs then sure, make the decision, but I don’t think it was the correct choice at the time.

Michael: You’ll never convince me that firing a coach when the team holds a playoff spot is a good idea. You’ll further never convince me that Kreis couldn’t have won more than two of the final 25 games. That doesn’t mean he was the best man for the job, but with all he had to deal with, a losing streak was understandable. The timing was awful, as he was just starting to get his first team back from the injured list and international duty. The key part of the question to me is “in hindsight.” Obviously that’s always 20/20, but Alex Leitao’s insistence that the club believed in the players Niki Budalic brought in, and distancing Kreis’ role in assembling the team, sheds a much less favorable light on the front office than it does on Kreis. Again, Kreis may not have been the best man for MLS 3.0, but that in and of itself doesn’t warrant the firing or the timing for it. As I said all season (check the PawedCast!), I’d have given him until the All-Star break.

How much did Justin Meram not working out affect Orlando’s season?

Logan: There were other, bigger issues than Meram. Not every signing is going to work out in the long run, let alone immediately, and there was no contingency plan should he not pan out. Justin can’t be blamed for the club surrendering 72 goals this year or the team’s striker woes. He didn’t help matters but the offense was obviously better with him in the side.

Guilherme: Hugely. Meram was a difference-maker for the Crew in 2018 and that was the player Orlando expected when he was signed. Also, he was supposed to be by far the team’s most productive winger and with him and Josué Colmán both underperforming, the team lacked offensive options out wide. Despite Chris Mueller’s somewhat surprising rookie season, the Lions were shorthanded at the wing position and they never figured it out.

Sean: I think Meram’s issues had an effect in that he was brought in to be a big part of the offense, but he wasn’t one of the biggest problems. I also think the way he was treated by fans may have had a negative impact because other players probably knew about it and that may have had an impact on the lack of effort late in the season. After all, who would want to work hard for fans if they’ll threaten you?

Beard: Greatly. The relationship certainly seemed to get very toxic, and having toxicity in the locker room and on the pitch is going to greatly affect others. I have no idea why Meram didn’t work out, and I am not sure that we will ever get to the bottom of the entire situation, but having that whole strange situation looming over the club for as long as it did certainly affected the product put forth.

Alek: Tremendously. He cost the club a lot, and he never quite settled in. He wasn’t a good fit alongside Sacha Kljestan, and that was a huge problem early on in the season.

Marcus: In the grand scheme of things, Meram had little impact on the season in my opinion. Meram was just one of many offensive weapons the Lions had and one of many that didn’t pan out, although he was the biggest disappointment. I can’t speak on behalf of the locker room impact he made, but he wanted out of Orlando and the team cut its losses and moved on. Sure, Orlando could have done better with over a million in allocation money, but there was plenty of blame to go around after this season.

Scott: Extremely little. Had Meram worked out and been a vital part of the team, Orlando City would still not have been good. One player does not make or break a soccer team and the issues with the Lions spread much farther than just the Meram fiasco. This also goes back to the front office and Kreis and the fact that they had just one left winger on the team — Meram. The fact is, Orlando is just not a good team. When you win just eight games under three coaches all year and break the record for most goals allowed in a season, it is not because one player did not fit with the club.

David: I’m not sure it would have worked out regardless. The pairing of Meram with Kljestan might have seemed like a good idea, but in reality, their style of play didn’t complement each other. I think Meram’s lack of production, coupled with at the time unknown off-the-field stuff contributed to a team that was at best disjointed in the attack. At the very least it was money and time that could have been spent on a different player.

Ben: As I alluded to above, for me a big problem on the season was personnel issues. Had Meram settled in Orlando, he would have provided a good deal of the attacking creativity that OCSC desperately needed. By no means was his time in Orlando the only reason that the Lions didn’t do well this year, but I certainly think that it played a part in how the season shook out. On a percentage scale, maybe 15%.

Michael: I’m enjoying the split opinion on this issue from the staff. For me, it was a huge issue because the team obviously was counting on Meram working out to provide a player who could attack in 1-v-1 situations and score goals from outside the box, but he provided none of that in his short stay in Orlando for various reasons that have been rehashed ad nauseam. Ironically, he was the exact kind of player the team needed under O’Connor down the stretch when JOC had to play a multitude of defensive midfielders due to the dearth of attacking options because Colmán clearly isn’t ready to start and Mueller was faltering. One of my biggest regrets of this season is that we never truly got to see what Meram could bring to O’Connor’s system. We caught only a glimpse with that huge assist at LAFC on a Dwyer goal that was erroneously overturned (in my opinion — you’ll never convince me that video showed a “clear and obvious” offside on that play).

What issues must the team address (on or off the field) this off-season to become a playoff contender in 2019?

Logan: I agree with Sacha Kljestan in that both on and off the field, the club needs an identity. Committing to O’Connor and allowing him to build his vision for his style of play will go a long way toward creating identity on the field, though that isn’t a quick fix by any means. Off the field, the culture of the club is something that needs to be built up over time. Bringing in players and staff personnel with the right attitude will go a long way toward developing something Orlando City.

Guilherme: I think the team needs more organization and direction off the field. The front office tried to put together a strong roster in 2018 but it clearly didn’t work and there was no plan B. I think the hiring of Ricardo Moreira, who helped the Crew to build some competitive yet inexpensive rosters in the past few seasons, could help with that, especially with finding young and talented South American players. I expect to see a handful of changes heading into 2019 and I’m curious to see which direction the team will go.

Sean: On the field, Orlando City is not bad in the midfield but the back four have struggled and Dom Dwyer is the only attacking threat up front. The two biggest needs are up front and in the back. Off the field, there seems to be no vision of where the club should head in the future. Until there is a collective vision for the club, I’m afraid it will be much of the same.

Beard: How many items can I list here? The biggest thing will be looking at the clubs who are making the playoffs and those teams’ DPs. City has not had much luck with the productivity of its players with the DP tag, and this needs to be fixed quickly. City also need to address fitness/health regimen and see if something can be done to limit the injuries that seem to plague the team. Also, the Lions need to be better on defense, offense, possession, and all things in between.

Alek: The front office needs to show patience with O’Connor. Success in major sports leagues doesn’t come overnight, nor does it come in just a few weeks. Patience will be key for O’Connor and the success of the Lions in 2019.

Marcus: Most attention will be on O’Connor’s search for a striker or two to better fill out the position, and deservedly so. The defense is ailing but an off-season to heal and a few changes should shore things up on that end of the field. But Orlando needs a bona fide scorer to help take the load off of Dwyer and make better use of the many play-makers on the team. It will be a fresh start of sorts and the chips will hopefully fall into place for O’Connor and the Lions.

Scott: Orlando City will not be a playoff team in 2019. But, to get closer to the goal, another roster overhaul is needed. The team finally signed a director of scouting so that is a good first step and should help in identifying better quality players. The core of the team is solid — Dwyer, Kljestan, Yoshi, Ascues, Sané, Sutter, and Spector. There are another couple of guys that are good options off the bench — Rocha, O’Neill, Mueller, El-Munir. But other than that, the team needs all new players. At the very least a new starting left back and left winger, more depth at about every position, and another starting MLS caliber striker. I think the best aim for the team is to try to make the postseason in 2020 and use 2019 to bolster up the roster and create a new team culture. There were locker room issues this season and O’Connor needs to build a new culture for this club.

David: The front office needs to get their ducks in a row. If they’re really behind JOC, then they need to give him the time and resources to get it done. Additionally, there is going to be a house cleaning of the players. Next year’s team is going to look plenty different than the 2018 squad. Finally, whether Kljestan is there or not, he is correct that a winning culture needs to be instilled with the organization. From Flavio to the people at the concession stands, the organization all needs to be pulling in the same direction.

Ben: The club has to do a better job of identifying players. Every year it seems like people are brought in who either barely see the field or seem to have attitude or motivational problems. In the latter half of the season the character problems were said to be a huge issue, so I think a big focus has to be on getting the right people through the door and getting the wrong ones out of it.

Michael: The first issue the club must address is continuity/stability. Build something with O’Connor and give it time to develop (i.e. more than a season and a half, if necessary). The club has already addressed one of the other main issues and that is talent evaluation. It boggles my mind that Orlando City has skimped on spending money on scouting because the supposed benefits of partnering with top flight clubs in England, Portugal, and Brazil have not been seen at all in the last four years. The team continually misses on international players, although in 2018 the players were higher quality, they were just injured all the time.

Looking back, it’s glaring: Bryan Rochez, Carlos Rivas, Devron Garcia, David Mateos, Sean St. Ledger, and Martin Paterson were busts. PC and Stefano Pinho haven’t worked out and neither did some who were already based in MLS — Matias Perez Garcia and Giles Barnes, for example. Better talent evaluation is needed and the Lions must add speed and quickness to both adequately press high and to recover after turnovers because you’re not keeping up with the Atlantas and NYCs with 30-somethings in the midfield. This is MLS 3.0 and a 2.0 roster just won’t do. Orlando doesn’t have the ability (or willingness, perhaps) to spend like Atlanta or City Football Group and it doesn’t have RBNY’s academy, so I’m not sure how it will keep up unless it either finds more financial backing or builds a more productive academy.

Who are three players the team must not let go and who are three players that should absolutely not be Lions in 2019?

Logan: Must not let go: Yotún, Dwyer, and Colmán. Should absolutely go: Bendik, Pinho, and Donny Toia.

Guilherme: The Lions should definitely keep Dwyer and Yotún for their current production and Mueller based on his potential. I think Sacha should go as he had a huge decline, isn’t getting any younger, and his style sort of limits the team’s alternatives. I think PC has also been a disappointing signing so far. I don’t necessarily dislike Bendik, but I think Orlando can secure a significant upgrade at goalkeeping without investing much on it.

Sean: Dwyer is the team’s only attacking threat, Yotún is the team’s best player, and, despite his struggles this year, Kljestan is the only player on the roster that has experience on a winning MLS team. Those are the three most important players to return. Bendik had his worst season with the club, El-Munir is a liability at left back, and Jonathan Spector was brought in to lead the defense but there’s no reason to believe he can remain healthy. These are the three players that must go.

Beard: El-Munir, Yotún, and Carlos Ascues should stay. I am sure this will come across as strange, but these guys are key in my book. I will cheat a little and give an honorable mention to Amro Tarek. PC, Dillon Powers, and Pinho should go. Sorry guys, but I just do not see the any reason, regardless of salary, to maintain City contracts.

Alek: In my opinion, I’d like to see Dwyer, El-Munir (moved further up the pitch), Mueller, and (obviously) Yotún stay put. Pinho never settled in as expected, so I could see him departing. I don’t think I have two others that I think absolutely need to go, but if the club could get good value for Kljestan, I think that they should consider taking it. I’d still like to see him in purple come 2019 though.

Marcus: Yotún and Dwyer are locks to be with Orlando next year barring a big trade. That third spot is probably held by Kljestan but I think a case can be made for Will Johnson. Given his versatility and work rate, I’ll be surprised if O’Connor parts ways with him. As for who needs to go I believe a goalkeeper and two midfielders are for sure walking out the door. I don’t think the Lions will be heading into next season with its trio of goalkeepers. Earl Edwards Jr. may be the most likely to go, but Bendik could be an interesting trading piece. The midfield needs to be trimmed and both Jose Villarreal and Powers are on the chopping block with only three appearances each in a season all about proving your worth.

Scott: Dwyer, Yotún, and Ascues are the three best players on the team and are the future. Any hope for being a competitive team lies in the success of these three players and Orlando City should look to build around them this off-season.

There are honestly more players that should not be back next year than should stay, but the first player that needs to go is PC. The Brazilian did not have a good game this season and was responsible for more opposition goals than Orlando City goals. Pinho should also not be back next year. It was worth bringing him in and giving him a shot at MLS after his success in the lower league but he does not have the ability to play in the top level. The third player that should not return in 2019 is Bendik. It was an off year for the 29-year-old and he will surely have a better 2019. But there is plenty of talent in the other three keepers on the roster and there is not a big drop-off talent-wise from Bendik to the rest of the pack. The Lions should look to trade Bendik and get something for him and look to one of the younger keepers on the roster. In a perfect world, Mason Stajduhar will be the starting keeper come opening day, even with Bendik still on the roster.

David: Three to keep: Yotún, Dwyer, and Lamine Sané. The easiest and most obvious player is Yotún. The Lions are a different team with him on the pitch, and he could end up being one of the greatest players in Orlando City history if the front office is smart. Dom is Dom, and Sané seems to be the new anchor of the back line. Three to let go: Villarreal, Powers, and Pinho. The fact that we haven’t really seen these guys much lately tells me they’re most likely out of here.

Ben: I think PC, Powers, and Bendik have to go. PC may not be possible to move due to his contract status, but I think he’s shown Orlando everything he can and his time is up. Powers is being paid $180,000 a year but only played in three games for a total of 69 minutes; the math simply does not work there. I love Joe and he’s been a great servant to the club but I think it’s time to take the goalkeeper spot in another direction. The Lions absolutely have to keep Yotún, Dwyer, and Ascues. All three are fantastic players and there isn’t much more to it than that.

Michael: I’ll make it unanimous that Yotún must stay. That said, the club has to realize he’s not a goal producer, but more of a facilitator of the offense. He’ll get some assists, but he won’t score many goals in the run of play. My other two who must stay are Dwyer (unless you can find a definitive upgrade a la a Zlatan or a Rooney) and Ascues. The club should exercise its 2019 option on Ascues because he’s a great MLS defensive midfielder and a very good three-man back line defender. My three who must go are Bendik (for an upgrade at starter, because Adam Grinwis has been better than Joe in 2018), Powers due to his salary, and one of the defensive midfielders in the $400,000 range. The club has a glut of holding midfielders and Rosell, Johnson, and Cristian Higuita all make a lot of money. Orlando should be able to get some kind of return asset(s) for Higuita, who is still young and added some offense to his game in 2018. Ideally you’d also buy down Dwyer or Kljestan and add a stellar DP in the off-season but I’m not sure the financial flexibility exists for that.

There you have it. I think there were some good and varied responses from the group. Obviously there were things we all agreed on and some split issues as well. Give us your thoughts on the questions above in the comments section below.