We’re at T-minus four days and counting until Orlando City embarks on what should be an amazing season. Anyone who has even halfheartedly followed the roller coaster of the off-season knows that at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday night, a new-look XI for the Lions will be taking the pitch.
The expectations have always been high for the club, but never before have they been quite this high, nor have the stakes. It is playoffs or bust, and Lions Head Coach Jason Kreis, General Manager Niki Budalić, and the entire front office have done what no other club has done in this off-season: Build a team for success by basically rebuilding from the ground up.
The buzz around Orlando, once a drone of despair and heartbreak, has quickly turned to anticipation even more fevered than the lead up to the first match in MLS just four short years ago. It seems only fitting that we take a brief moment before that first whistle to take a critical look at where Orlando might be at the end of the regular season.
I asked the other contributors here at The Mane Land to assist on this piece. Below you’ll find some of the other gents’ thoughts on the upcoming MLS season. But let me warn you: We are a fairly practical bunch. These predictions include the fact that Orlando will lose some games. The Lions will have stretches this summer where they lose players — like Yoshimar Yotun — to the World Cup in Russia (which is only 107 days away), and the club is fielding a team that has shifted so many players around that it will take some time to build chemistry.
Dom Dwyer is recovering from an injury that will take some time, Sacha Kljestan is suspended for the first two matches this season, and many other players are just coming back from minor injuries or came late to preseason and may not be 100% match fit. I personally think the learning curve will be infinitely shorter for this roster considering the veteran status of the players, but it will take some time nonetheless.
Here are The Mane Land staff predictions for 2018:
- Record: 15-9-10 (54 pts); 5th in the East.
- Eastern Conference Result: Lose in the Eastern Conference Finals to Toronto FC.
- Season MVP: Justin Meram. His versatility will see him play in a variety of roles, depending on shape and tactics. I think you’ll see him both up top as a false nine and on the wing at times. This will lead to a well-balanced stat sheet and will prove him to be the club’s Most Valuable Player through the year.
- Breakout Player: Josué Colmán is the obvious one here. With the veteran presences of Meram, Kljestan, and Dwyer, I think the pressure will be off Colmán as he won’t have to be the focal point of the attack and will be allowed to grow over time. His creative style of play will be a welcome sight and I see a year of him being near the top in dribbles completed in MLS, and third on the team in assists after Klejstan and Meram.
- Bold prediction: Dwyer wins the Golden Boot. As the lone striker with playmakers like Meram, Colmán, and Kljestan around him, Dwyer will see ample opportunities. He’ll finally put it all together in a year that has all the off-pitch concerns settled (i.e. his contract situation, and his family all here in Orlando).
- Season Outlook: I think the Lions will struggle in the beginning of the season. The combination of injuries, suspensions, and so many new players will take some time. Think of the season as the inverse of last year — once the club figures it all out, the talent of the squad will show through. All the holes have been addressed and the Lions finally have depth that you need for a long run. I’m very optimistic for this third season. Orlando will be playing its best ball in time for a playoff run that’ll see City nearly knock off Toronto FC in the ECF.
- Record: Orlando City will hit the 56-point mark and obtain a record of 16-10-8.
- Eastern Conference Result: Orlando City will finish the year hosting a playoff game, so I would say either No. 3 or 4 in the East.
- Season MVP: Yotún. With a full season to look forward to, Yotún will lead the league in chances created and push the team forward to the next level. Even though he has the World Cup in the summer, he’ll still be able to lead this team into the playoffs. His play will speak for itself as well as his relationship with Josué Colmán, which should up his game.
- Breakout Player: Chris Mueller. Mueller will go on a tear, making a serious case for MLS Rookie of the Year. His playing style and passion match those of Jason Kreis when he was a striker, which will result in Kreis taking Mueller under his wing. Big things could come from Mueller.
- Bold prediction: Dwyer will not be the leading scorer on the team. Players such as Meram, Mueller, and Stéfano Pinho will lead the way in scoring for the team, putting Dwyer in the middle of the pack.
- Season Outlook: This is a make-or-break season for Orlando City and this is the season the Lions are finally able to piece everything together. It has been a rough couple of years for the club, but not only will it make its first playoff appearance, but it will also make a deep Open Cup run. Kreis finally has the pieces he needs and will get the team to avoid the summer slump that has plagued it for years. Will Orlando City simply make the playoffs and then bow out, or will the Lions make a deep run? Only time will tell, but this season is certainly exciting!
- Record: The Lions will have a solid season, finishing with a 15-10-8 record, tallying 53 points.
- Eastern Conference Result: Orlando City will make the postseason, finishing fifth or sixth in the Eastern Conference and playing a road playoff game.
- Season MVP: Kljestan. This may be the safe pick, but I believe Kljestan will dominate with Colmán, Meram, Dwyer, and Mueller by dishing out assists like clockwork. Kljestan led MLS in assists in each of the past two seasons with 37 total over that span, and I believe he will surpass his 2017 tally of 17 this season with Orlando City and contend for the MLS MVP award.
- Breakout Player: Mueller. With Dwyer’s injury to start the season, I believe Mueller has a great opportunity — if Kreis gives it to him — to showcase his talents and really contend for not only MLS Rookie of the Year, but also to be the leading scorer for the Lions this season.
- Bold Prediction: Mueller will play more minutes than expected this season and will strike double-digits in the goal category in his first season. This will lead to Sacha cracking 20 assists and leading the MLS in that category once again, sparking a ruthless Orlando City attack.
- Season Outlook: The Lions, who have never competed in the MLS Playoffs, will finally strike gold and make it to the postseason. The Lions will play a road playoff game as a 5-6 seed, traveling to Columbus Crew, NYCFC, Chicago Fire or Atlanta United. They will win their first MLS Playoff game in team history, but go on to fall short against the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Orlando will do all this due to having a 10 top ranking in both goals scores and goals conceded, with Sacha Kljestan leading the way and contending for MLS MVP.
- Record: Orlando City posts its best season by a long shot at 14-12-8.
- Eastern Conference Result: A slow start while the guys get used to each other will mean a lower points total than the talent on the field should expect to net, but I think City finishes fifth after overcoming a rocky start.
- Season MVP: While I would like to say Yotún here, he’ll miss at least a month of the season while he’s in Russia for the World Cup. Lamine Sané, on the other hand, should be here all year and provide a steady presence at the back that Orlando City has never experienced. With Sané commanding the defense, this team should be able to grind out wins even when the offense isn’t clicking.
- Breakout Player: Mohamed El-Munir was a diamond in the Serbian rough and he should be a revelation at left back this year. With the speed and skill of a winger and some steel on the defensive end, El-Munir should provide a new dimension to Orlando’s attack and defense. I’m expecting some beautiful combinations with Meram.
- Bold prediction: OCSC goes unbeaten at home in 2018. A fair amount of draws will be sprinkled in throughout the year, but Orlando City Stadium regains its fortress moniker and the purple palace will be a nightmare for other teams.
- Season Outlook: Even if the Lions fail to live up to expectations, this should be a fun team to watch. There’s an extra level of visible fight and passion on the field after three years of a stoic Kaká leading the way. This Orlando side’s abundance of technical skill and creativity combined with some flashes of speed mean that, if nothing else, it won’t be a chore to turn on the matches this season.
- Record: Orlando City has been on a downward trend since joining MLS — 44 points in 2015, 41 in 2016, and 39 last year. The new additions will help the Lions to break this trend and finally make the playoffs. They will end the season with a record of 15-9-10 and 55 points.
- Eastern Conference Result: Injures, international call-ups, and a lack of center back depth will cause Orlando to struggle away from home. The Lions will do well enough to make the playoffs, but not challenge for the Supporters’ Shield. Expect a fifth-place finish in the Eastern Conference, with Toronto, Red Bulls, Columbus, and NYCFC finishing ahead of the Lions.
- Season MVP: I gave my prediction for MVP earlier in the year. Yotún will be the clear winner at the year’s end.
Yoshi will not only be Orlando City’s MVP, but — if his numbers back up his performances — he should be a league MVP finalist as well. There are only a handful of players who have as good of a touch as him, and Yotún will not only be one of the best attackers on Orlando City but will also recover defensively and help out on the opposite end of the pitch.
- Breakout Player: I believe that Pierre Da Silva will have a breakout year and could be the Lions’ super sub this season. He will need to work hard and make every minute count, but he has the potential to be a deadly weapon for Orlando. Mueller is another option, and the rookie has already been a cut above the rest this preseason.
- Bold prediction: Yoshi will be the MLS MVP. Watching him last season, it was clear that he was the best player on the field. His ability to find the open man, hit killer long balls, and get back to defend will be the difference maker for Orlando. He will need to find the back of the net to take home the trophy, but the Peruvian is one of the most skilled players in MLS.
- Season Outlook: Orlando will finally make the postseason. It has been a long time coming, but this year looks like it will be a return to the entertaining soccer that Central Florida witnessed back in the USL days. The new-look Lions will go back to making Orlando City Stadium a fortress and opponents will not want to come to Orlando. The back line will need to stay healthy as there is little depth, but the attack should be one of the most fun to watch this season.
- Record: 15-11-8. The team will finish on 53 points. New signings will help the team to finally break the curse of the summer slump, resulting in a winning record.
- Eastern Conference Result: While the team will make the playoffs, a thin CB corps means that this team doesn’t quite perform as well as it could on paper. In particular, road games are once again the team’s Achilles heel, especially down the stretch once the games start to add up. Expect a fifth- or sixth-place finish in the East.
- Season MVP: New boy Meram adjusts quickly to life in Orlando and bangs in goals and assists at a steady clip. He gets snubbed for league MVP but becomes a vital part of the team’s attacking play, helping a team that struggled to score last year.
- Breakout Player: Josué Colmán. The team’s new DP justifies his status and price tag. He takes a bit of time to get settled, but once he does he provides some calm and class in the midfield that proves to be integral to securing the team’s first ever playoff berth.
- Bold Prediction: Pinho turns out to be a bargain buy. Like Colmán, the Brazilian forward takes some time to find his feet, but then becomes a fan favorite by scoring double-digit goals and notching at least six assists. He works hard for the team and provides the best kind of selection dilemma for Kreis.
- Season Outlook: Long story short, the purple and gold make the postseason. It isn’t always a smooth ride, with injuries and road woes threatening to derail the quest for a first playoff berth. But ultimately, the Lions pull it together and the quick, attack-minded, technically gifted team is a particularly tough test when playing at Orlando City Stadium. A first-ever playoff appearance provides a glimpse of just what this team is truly capable of.
- Record: I’m going to go with a 52-point season for the Lions with a 14-10-10 record, their best since joining MLS.
- Eastern Conference Result: A tight race for the last two playoff spots finishes with Orlando City in the fifth spot in the standings. The club wins over Atlanta United in the knockout round but loses to NYCFC in the conference semifinals.
- Season MVP: Let’s not get cute here. Joe Bendik will be Orlando’s MVP when the season is said and done. The offense will become more of a cohesive unit than something carried by one or two players, but the defense will unquestionably be led by Bendik. Probably Orlando’s most consistent performer, Bendik will have a quiet, but dominant 2018 season.
- Breakout Player: All eyes seem to be on Mueller, but I think Pinho will steal the show. He should start in lieu of Dwyer while he’s out and will benefit greatly from a stacked midfield. He’ll be the first Lion to score in 2018.
- Bold Prediction: Orlando City leads MLS in goals scored. This team is disgustingly good with proven offensive threats like Kljestan, Dwyer, and Meram. Add in some weapons like Colmán and a load of midfield depth, and you have a scary team to face. That’s not even mentioning how lethal the team is on set pieces with guys like Yotun and Sané. I’m guessing 72 goals by the end of the regular season.
- Season Outlook: Going to make my season review a series of little predictions. Meram leads the team in scoring. Kljestan leads MLS in assists. Oriol Rosell is the team’s unsung hero. Richie Laryea and PC are transferred out in the summer. Ted Unkel gives Kljestan a red card. Orlando wins a game thanks to the VAR. Orlando sweeps Atlanta.
Tom Saunders (TheBeardedGuy)
- Record: Orlando will have a big turnaround this season — 16-10-8 for 56 points. That would be a dramatic shift from previous seasons, but with the acquisitions made this should be a realistic goal.
- Eastern Conference Result: Of all the predictions, this one is the tough one for me, as my heart and my brain have completely different answers. My heart is confident that Orlando will finish third in the East, not only making the playoffs, but hosting a playoff match in Orlando City Stadium. My heart also says the Lions make the conference finals but lose on the road in a hard-fought match. My brain is screaming a fifth-place finish, Orlando knocks out two teams above it but loses in the conference finals. At least there is some agreement, right?
- Season MVP: This is going to be a showdown between Yoshi and Colmán. Once these two start to click on the pitch, the sky is the limit and the assists and goals will show up like we have never seen.
- Breakout Player: Although all eyes are on the young midfielders, promising strikers, and veteran playmakers in the middle (you all know who I am referring to), I think the breakout player(s) for this season will be the fullbacks. Scott Sutter just had an actual off-season. Mohamed El-Munir is his counterpart on the left. Both have speed and skill on the ball, and both are now sitting behind some unbelievably dynamic midfielders, and let’s not forget about the shutdown defensive mids. If the CB pairing can gel quickly and get in lockstep with the starting defensive midfielders — and I am assuming this will be Uri Rosell — then Sutter and El-Munir are going to be the difference every match.
- Bold prediction: The Lions make New York purple this season (purple is what happens when you smash red and blue together) and take points in every match against Atlanta, winning at least two of those three. Yoshi takes the assist leader title away from Sacha, who finishes second this season, and Bendik does not have another 100-save season, only because he does not see enough shots to get to that point due to the revamped back line that helps him land in the top five for shutouts, and two Lions end up in the top eight for scoring this season.
- Season outlook: It will be a somewhat slow start, with a few errant passes and some missed opportunities, but no devastating errors. The team will go from grinding out wins and draws to taking points when they should and strategically getting draws (I am specifically speaking of away matches here as we all should understand by now that MLS is one of the most difficult leagues in the world to win away, and those will be 0-0 type matches). The depth of the squad will be tested during June and July, but the one thing it seems the Lions actually have now is true depth at most positions. If the back line can come together quickly, this is going to be a fun team to watch, dangerous in both possession and counter attack. Buckle up, folks, this is going to be a fun ride, all the way to the playoffs!
There you have it, our staff predictions for the 2018 MLS season. To make this a bit more fun, I’m going to throw a poll at you to see where you think Orlando City will be by the end of the season. Also, don’t be afraid to comment on your predictions below, we are all very interested to see what everyone is thinking.
In what position will Orlando City finish in the Eastern Conference?
This poll is closed
Not in the playoffs, again...