Historically, Orlando City’s defense has been poor since joining MLS and going into this season it was assumed by many that it would remain so. What we have seen through the first nine games of the 2018 MLS season, however, has not confirmed that assumption.
Statistically, the Lions are not great on the defensive end. Montreal is the only Eastern Conference team that has been worse than Orlando’s 14 goals allowed and Joe Bendik is in the top 10 in both shots faced and saves.
Of the 14 goals allowed, five have been from set pieces, which is the second most in the league behind Montreal’s nine, but others have come from additional dead ball situations, such as off throw-ins (against Minnesota). This number cannot keep growing. Dead-ball situations rely a great deal on concentration and physical effort and can be the difference between a playoff team and a team below the red line.
“For me, defending dead ball situations is a matter of commitment, organization and focus,” Orlando City Head Coach Jason Kreis said after his team’s 3-2 win against San Jose. “I would say that, to give up the number of dead ball goals that we have this year, we’re extremely disappointed with that.”
Obviously it’s a team objective to improve in set-piece defending, and it should get better moving forward. Set pieces aside, Orlando City’s defense has been impressive this year. Kreis has started seven different back-four combinations (using five different center back pairings in nine games), and captain and first-choice center back Jonathan Spector has only played three and a half games this season because of injuries. Against Real Salt Lake, the fourth-choice center back was forced into action and was as solid as could be asked for.
“Really strong,” said Kreis about Chris Schuler’s debut. “Really strong. Of course it wasn’t perfect. There was a few moments where he’s maybe put a foot or two wrong, but he’s popped up in a lot of really important moments late in the game, cutting out crosses, making really good 1-v-1 defensive plays, and so I think that says a lot, because it is his first game in a lot of time. He’s had his injuries, even through our preseason and the beginning part of the season. I would say he’s not match fit. That says a lot that he can perform like that and not be 100 percent match fit.”
The one flaw in the back line is it playing high up at times and getting caught out. Too many opportunities have been allowed because of this, such as Corey Baird’s chance below. Had Lamine Sané kept running with Baird, he most likely could have made the one-on-one stop.
But the amount of chances that Orlando has given up is decreasing each week, and on Sunday RSL was mostly taking shots from distance and wide areas — 44% of RSL’s shots were outside the box and only 28% of its attacks were down the middle.
It takes entire team defense to force an opposition into this, and that is what it will take in the next few weeks to keep this win streak going. The defense needs to continue to improve each week, hopefully with the starters returning from injury as well, and step up on defending set pieces.
Against teams like Atlanta, Toronto, Chicago, and New York City FC — the next four opponents — this will be vital. The attack has been great but it will be the defense that delivers Orlando wins. Players like Sebastian Giovinco and Josef Martinez will capitalize on any mistake. If the defense continues to improve and force the opposition into wide areas, this win streak could continue.