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View From the End Line: Orlando City’s Defense is Better Than You Think

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The Lions got off to a rough start, but the defensive tactics are starting to line up and one more piece could elevate City to the top of the East.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Orlando City has now completed 20% of its matches for the 2018 regular season. The roster is almost completely healthy (waiting for Jonathan Spector to leave the MLS concussion protocol, as well as get word on Scott Sutter’s recovery from a recent knock), the team is hitting a good stride, and the doom and gloom from the first month of regular season action has made way to a surreal sense of optimism and delight.

I am not sure the story — save for a few characters — has played out as any of us expected, but the does that really matter? The end result is the most important result, and as long as the team continues to bring home three points at a time, everything is going to be just fine.

The team seems to have zero problems scoring goals at the moment, as Dom Dwyer and Chris Mueller have shown, but that is only one aspect of the winning formula. Scoring goals is needed, but scoring more than your opponent is necessary. One week ago, I explored the importance of Orlando City’s defensive third and how it is absolutely key to staying above the red line this season. Well, as I chatted with some of the other contributors here at The Mane Land, something very interesting popped up in regards to the current state of the Lions’ defense and just how well it is starting to play, and also one hole that needs to be addressed as soon as possible.

For those who have a difficulty with math, which happens, let’s break it down like this:

Breaking it down even one more level, because if you look at the data long enough and over enough input points, a trend should arise barring complete chaos and entropy:

  • The total shots in the San Jose match were 11-11, with City having seven on target and the Earthquakes having three.
  • The total shots in the Philadelphia match were 19-8 for the home side, but the Union had only five on target with City having three.
  • The total shots in the Portland match were an astounding 24-13 favoring the Lions, with each team putting seven on target.

I do not know about you, but those numbers don’t help to make a good case for much, except if you look at them a little more globally. The Portland and San Jose matches were both home matches, and if MLS does anything better than most of the football world, it makes road wins tough. It doesn’t surprise me at all to see so many shots from the boys.

The road match shows the same trend, with the home team holding the advantage for shots, but notice how few were on target. The defense stepped up and forced them into bad shots, long shots, and kept Joe Bendik in position to make saves when needed. In both home matches, the defense did very well to minimize the opponents’ shots on goal, although the woodwork helped at least twice in the Portland match. Looking over the last three matches, the defense has allowed a decreasing number of shots on target per match, which is the statistic I certainly watch closely match to match.

Now what this leads to is the question of how to improve. Sure, a four-game winning streak is nothing to scoff at — in fact, in MLS, it is something fairly uncommon. The longest streak by any club last season was six straight wins, done twice by the eventual MLS champions, Toronto FC. Can the current roster look at creating these types of streaks? I say absolutely, as long as the elephant in the room is addressed: Covering corners and not giving up free kicks. This has been the one missing link over the time frame discussed here.

“For me, defending dead ball situations are a matter of commitment, organization and focus,” Head Coach Jason Kreis said after the San Jose match. “I would say that, to give up the number of dead ball goals that we have this year, we’re extremely disappointed with that.

“We’re not giving away too much in the run of play and the goals are only coming against us in dead balls. So, we sort that out and I think we’ll be in a much stronger position.”

Acting captain Sacha Kljestan said that the set piece goals allowed dampened the team’s enthusiasm over winning Saturday night against the Earthquakes.

“It just sucks right now that we are giving up goals on set pieces, so we’ve got to find a way to do a little bit better as a team,” he said. “It’s a good sign that the guys come in and they’re not happy after the way that game ended. We’ve got a lot of hungry players on our team and we all want to be successful. The mentality is good, we’ve just got to do little bit better job on the set pieces.”

I am sure the focus of training this week prior to heading out visit the Colorado Rapids will include some quality time and deep discussion on these topics, because you know the Rapids are watching the tape as well. About the only obvious weakness this team shows at the moment is in defending corners and free kicks near the box. When this gets addressed — because as we have seen to date this season, things get addressed — the Lions will have the playoffs within their cross-hairs. It’s something the team is definitely aware of and will continue to work on.

“Obviously we aren’t happy about that,” Chris Mueller said after Saturday’s win. “We work a lot on our set pieces, and try to get our match-ups right. Disappointed with that, we are going to get back to work next week, for sure.”