Orlando City’s match against the Houston Dynamo over the weekend wasn’t the most exciting on paper. The 0-0 draw provided little in the way of excitement for neutrals. Plenty of pundits and MLS media personalities decried Head Coach James O’Connor’s team selection when the youngest player to touch the field for the Lions was 26-year-old Oriol Rosell.
And while the Lions stemmed the bleeding with just their third result in the last 10 matches, the point OCSC walked away with felt like a consolation after looking like the better team on the night.
But the reality of the situation for Orlando City, which is all but mathematically eliminated, is that points are consolations. Other than a lower SuperDraft pick and a lower spot for next year’s Allocation Order, not much will change for Orlando City this off-season whether the Lions win the remainder of their matches or fail to collect another point.
The metric that means the most for O’Connor and his staff is improvement on the pitch. For fans in the stands, it’s hope that next season will finally be different after four years of failing to defy expectations.
In at least one facet on Saturday night, that improvement was obvious and offered up at least some hope that next year will change. The Lions earned just their second clean sheet of 2018, which is a big deal for a defense that could still prove to be historically bad by the end of the season. And Orlando didn’t just get lucky with some poor finishing from the Dynamo, it was one of the more solid defensive performances City has put on in the last four seasons.
Though the Texas club hasn’t been able to get results this season, Houston’s front three of Alberth Elis, Romell Quioto, and Mauro Manotas has terrorized MLS defenses all year. Manotas is averaging a goal every other game as the Dynamo’s main striker and Elis isn’t far behind with 11 goals of his own. Quioto has mainly played set-up man for the other two but his pace is always a threat to stretch defenses. Saturday night was just the fifth time this year none of them contributed to a goal. Houston didn’t have any trouble gashing the solid Philadelphia Union defense on Wednesday en route to Houston’s U.S. Open Cup Final victory.
Quioto was limited to just one created chance (off of a corner) and Houston as a total created just four. Orlando’s defenders consistently cleaned up inside their defensive third when it mattered most. The away side was only able to get off one shot in a dangerous situation and Adam Grinwis came up big in his first MLS start.
Grinwis was just one piece of the earned optimism from City’s defense. The former Saint Louis FC and Rochester Rhinos keeper was calm and collected in his major league debut, which is a welcome change from the usual goalkeeping merry-go-round between the pipes for the Lions.
It was also just the third match that featured the combination of Jonathan Spector, Lamine Sane, Scott Sutter and Mohamed El-Munir in the lineup, the back line that Orlando City envisioned when the club put together the roster over the winter. Defenses — and in particular center back pairings — take time to jell. Keeping that foursome together as the season draws to a close can only improve the cohesiveness going into the off-season and beyond. Orlando, above all else, needs stability on the defensive end after a year of nothing but upheaval.
Having a pair of defensive midfielders like Rosell and Carlos Ascues creating havoc in front of them also helped immensely. Though Ascues has been labeled a defender by the club, his ability on the ball, combined with Rosell’s passing range, provided enough offense while maintaining defensive solidity.
“I thought [Ascues] and Uri [Rosell] did well,” O’Connor said after Saturday’s match. “I think when you look at how [Houston] play, they’ve got a lot of speed in the wide areas so I thought they were very disciplined in stopping their counterattack. I think their [Houston’s] biggest threat is the two wide players coming at pace. So, I thought they [Carlos and Uri] did a fantastic job of helping the team nullify their threats. I think that was a big reason in us stifling their attacking side.”
That partnership can only improve with time.
Perhaps the biggest win for Orlando is that the defense was not only solid, it was solid against one of the quickest attacks in the league. Pacey forwards, including ones from the Dynamo, have ripped the Lions apart for the past four seasons and speed has been Orlando’s Kryptonite in MLS. Keeping their wingers in check with disciplined passing in the midfield and rarely being beaten for speed is a welcome change that shows that the Lions’ new boss is slowly but surely plugging the leaks.
Patience will be important over the last five matches of the year. O’Connor’s side is still a work in progress and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. The attack still needs tweaking and there will be some important personnel decisions for the front office over the winter.
The defense, at least, may already be set.