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View from the End Line: It’s not Perfect, But It’s So Much Better

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The goal tallies aren’t quite what they could be through nine weeks, but 2018 Orlando City is much improved in the final third.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Orlando City SC Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Those of us in the stadium — and those watching at home — bore witness to Orlando City making club history on Sunday with its sixth MLS win in a row. Lamine Sané added his name to the rolls of players who have scored while wearing purple, along with Dom Dwyer and Yoshimar Yotún. It was another come-from-behind victory after the Lions fell behind due to a 12th-minute Corey Baird goal. Orlando also extended its unbeaten streak against Real Salt Lake to four matches, has six straight matches scoring multiple goals, and has now come from behind in four of the last six. So what makes this group of Lions different?

Let me take you back to Week 9 of 2017. Orlando City was sitting on 18 points after a pretty hot start of six wins and three losses. Unfortunately, what came next was something we as fans are all too familiar with: The summer slump. The 2017 Lions only won four more matches for the rest of the season. For the fans, it was a very tough to pill to swallow, and one that will not soon be forgotten. It’s still at the forefront for some, but there are some aspects of the 2018 team that should instill hope that this year will not be like last year.

If nothing else, one thing that should be obvious is that the 2018 team is much different — much improved — when it comes to operating in the final third. Nine matches into the season, Orlando has already netted 19 goals, half as many goals as it scored in the entire 2017 season. The main difference is the collective of players willing and able to push the attack. The combination as seen on the field this past Sunday is a great example of that.

In the recent run of play, the 4-2-3-1 has been the preferred tactical formation. This setup, with Dwyer up top and Justin Meram, Sacha Kljestan, and Chris Mueller behind him, has proven to be an extremely dangerous attacking force. The fullbacks, Mohamed El-Munir and Will Johnson, only add more fuel to the fire, not to mention how much of going forward begins with the two central defensive midfielders, Yotún and Cristian Higuita.

One thing we all watched this past match was a number of attacking opportunities that did not lead to the ball in the back of the net. The Lions found themselves with multiple opportunities throughout the match, and certainly appeared to be the more dangerous side through the buildup play that City utilized. From very early in the match it was obvious that it was just going to be a matter of time. All players moving forward into the final third put themselves into good positions. Players made runs to the near post while others crossed over and ran to the far post. This squad definitely has a better feel for the final third as opposed to previous squads.

Although we all wished we had seen more goals, it is not always going to work the way we hope. Players are going to miss-hit shots, balls are going to skip off wet grass or turf in weird ways, and shots will be inches wide or get skied a few times. This is the nature of the sport we love to watch. Meram currently leads MLS in shots taken without yet scoring, so I think everyone in the stadium collectively holds their breath when he has a chance.

However, that same collective impatience is starting to quickly give way to frustration, as noted by some to the reactions heard in parts of the stadium during the first half on Sunday. It is only a matter of time for Meram, and his time is coming, but we may want to exercise a bit more patience, as this team is still building that collective on-field chemistry that only comes with time — and I am not sure that nine weeks is enough time. Actually, it’s only about five weeks, considering the early-season roster issues due to fitness and injury problems.

The big takeaway here is to try to relate back to previous seasons and matches. How often did we as fans look at situations where the ball was taken to the final third and the player pushing forward had little to no help around the goal, except for maybe one player? This is certainly not the same issue we see on the field today. The final third, even on breakaway chances, allows for multiple options as several players push forward to assist in the attack. Dwyer’s hold-up play on long balls, as well as Mueller’s, has been phenomenal. The team is getting chances, and although everything is not falling the team’s way, there is absolutely no lack of players in great positions in attack.

When the cards are not falling the way you would like for the team or a player has an off night (which is going to happen), frustration is bound to happen and well up within the fan base. It should be tempered, as things are not as bad as it may seem. Every week the Lions look more cohesive earlier in the match, the attack is getting more and more dangerous, and the play on the field is starting to live up to the hype we all felt when preseason began.

Sure, the multiple lineups on the back line are a bit worrisome, but watching the attack has been one of the true highlights, as well as one of the most infuriating. The frustration comes not from effort, position, or attempts, but from anger and fate, or whatever other forces — be they physics or travelling gypsy supporters giving our players the evil eye — some things just don’t fall Orlando City’s way.

This is the nature of the beast, one of the many aspects of fandom, and probably the hardest to swallow.