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View from the End Line: Finding Help Up Top

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Part of City’s issues is the need for a partner in crime for Dom Dwyer.

MLS: U.S. Open Cup Quarterfinal-Philadelphia Union vs Orlando City SC Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Lions should have one focus at present after losing their quarterfinal match in the U.S. Open Cup to the Philadelphia Union, 1-0 on Wednesday night, and that should be fighting to find a way above the red line. Orlando City entered the weekend ninth in the East, but just five points out of sixth place behind the Montreal Impact, Philadelphia Union, and Chicago Fire (with two games in hand on Montreal and Chicago).

Head Coach James O’Connor has a tough road ahead of him. He adopted a club mired in a losing streak and seeming to lack any confidence in itself. There is certainly no lack of talent that can be dressed for the 18, but no one has yet found the best way to unleash that collective talent into one, cohesive unit bent on dominating the pitch from end line to end line.

The club brought in Shane O’Neill, who played his first minutes in the Cup match in Philly, and the consensus on how well he did in his first outing for the Lions certainly seems to be very positive. The defensive side has certainly improved, record notwithstanding. Mistakes are still common, but as has been repeated endlessly, the club has not been able to field a consistent back four all season.

It goes without saying that the depth of players that Orlando City currently has for center backs is the best it has had. Defensive midfield, again, another position that has seen a rotating cast of players all season, but the quality and depth is certainly there. This has been a position that City seems to have always had depth in, but the current roster adds the quality of DMs that can truly help in the attack.

Attacking midfield is quite possibly the one area of the pitch that has seen the biggest shift in personnel. The additions of Sacha Kljestan, Justin Meram, Josué Colmán, and Chris Mueller completely changed the look and personality of the attacking midfield. Two veterans, coupled with two young talents, with Mueller continuing to build his talents and Colmán starting to get the minutes he needs. It should, at least statistically, be a very dangerous midfield. To be honest, Mueller is listed as a forward, but certainly has found his place playing out on the wing. And then we get the forwards, and this is where there certainly appears to be some disconnect.

Dom Dwyer scores when he wants, right? That chant has certainly not been shouted from the rafters nearly enough this season. In 12 starts, and one substitution, Dom has eight goals and no assists. Looking down the roster, the next most prolific goal scorer is Kljestan. In fact, here is the current offensive output for the Lions to date.

Other players with assists not shown in the above chart are Donny Toia, Jonathan Spector, Mohamed El-Munir, RJ Allen, Scott Sutter, and Tony Rocha — all with one assist.

In an attempt to help an anemic offense, City did bring in the aforementioned midfield threats, as well as Stefano Pinho from Miami FC. Pinho, although he seemed to have little trouble scoring on Orlando City — or anyone else — when he became the NASL Golden Boot winner for the 2017 season, has not been able to find the same magic on the pitch for the club. Outside of brief moments, the production of the forwards has not been what anyone expected.

Dom did have a huge impact in the Toronto win, but he was playing against a back line that was missing key center backs and was able to use that to his advantage. If you review previous matches, where Dom is the lone striker in the 4-2-3-1, trying to play off the inside center backs’ shoulders, the defensive lines would collapse on him, and physically he would get pushed out of position, knocked off the ball, or driven just far enough out of position that another defender could easily come across and clear/gain possession of the ball.

There is no doubt that Dom is a fantastic striker, but the current formation and tactics may be hurting him. He needs another target player up top with him to help separate the center backs and open up those lanes to run in. This might require changing the formation based on the current pool of available players, changing players behind Dom in the XI, or a consideration of different tactics.

The breakaways have been slow, the long balls to a streaking striker have been very few and far between, and the counters have not been as dangerous. Are there exceptions to these statements? Of course, but I would certainly not consider Orlando City a team that is to be feared for its counter attack. If I were to try to explain the style of attack that City has been employing, I would say it is something between a possession-based build up the middle, utilizing the attacking mids to draw the defense out and either look for that through ball to Dom, or feed it to the wings for a cross in the box.

Lately, the attacking mids have shown a willingness to work the ball in tight spaces at the top of the box, looking for those one-two passes to get someone behind the back line or a clear shot on goal. When the backs come up into the attack, City has been successful in maintaining possession and getting to the end line and either winning a corner or getting a cross into the box. I want to focus on the attack in the run of play here, and this is where, again, Dwyer needs a partner.

All too often, the ball is fed out to the sideline, and working together with the mids, the left or right back will find themselves streaking up the sideline with defenders chasing or pulling a central defender out to help cover them. They drive as far as they can, and send a cross in the box, and there might be two purple jerseys in the box on the attack, one of which is Dwyer. Although it has happened in the past, I am going to postulate that in a competition to head a ball, a typical center back over six feet tall is going to either get to the ball in the air first or box Dom out, and they know this.

MLS teams pouring over tape and scouting reports are 100% in the know that the current City attack is mainly Dom running into the box, and a quality center back should win almost every aerial duel against him. But what if there are others that can make the break into the box with him? Not only are you forcing the central defenders to quickly decide who to man mark, but you leave open spaces around the spot mark and the top of the box.

It is one thing to run solo through the middle on a counter attack, it is a whole other story to move forward in a possession-based attack. Orlando certainly seems to be leaning more towards possession-based attack, although the Lions certainly are looking for a quick attack. Having Dom up top solo may be an area to consider changing to energize and revamp the offensive side of the team. The club needs to find a formation and/or tactic that gets bodies in the box, and not just Dom.

Driving into the box on the attack, players should always be looking for a clean pass, but also looking to be a bit more selfish on the ball and put a shot on target. Also consider, with the size and ability of the team, charging the box and looking for a drag back pass to streaking City players towards the top of the box makes infinite sense, as long as the players know to be there.

The club seems so close to turning a dramatic corner in its short history. Sometimes, the best defense is a dangerous offense. If your opposition is not in fear of your offensive strategy, they will put more bodies forward and keep you reeling, as many sides have been doing. The personnel is most certainly there, and the formation may be appropriate, but tactically they need to get someone else up top with Dom — a strike buddy, a wonder twin, a partner in crime.

The more dangerous the club can make Dom and the attack, the more pressure will be released from the defense as clubs have to keep more bodies back to absorb and help to defend. It is a win-win, and hopefully something on the radar for the new management.