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Preseason Hints at Continued Offensive Struggles for Orlando City

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The Lions have only scored three goals in three matches, continuing the club’s trend of offensive deficiencies.

MLS: Columbus Crew at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

One of the things that always gets lost when you talk about Orlando City’s dismal 2018 season is the team’s offense. Everyone always likes to point to the historically bad record of goals conceded. League records are hard to ignore, after all.

But the offense was nearly equally atrocious. The Lions scored just 43 goals last year — tied for last in the Eastern Conference. In all of Major League Soccer, only the Colorado Rapids scored fewer goals in 2018, with just 36. Orlando City was shut out in five consecutive matches at one point late last season, going from Sept. 8 to Oct. 13 without finding the net once. In all, the Lions were shut out 12 times in regular-season play and once in the U.S. Open Cup.

As bad as the 43 goals were last year, it was four better than in 2017, when the Lions scored 39.

Teams that score very few goals put their defense under tremendous pressure. Defenders and goalkeepers know they have to be inch perfect all of the time because there is little margin for error, and even falling behind by one goal can eliminate the opportunity for a win. Offenses desperate for late goals leave their back lines without protection as they commit numbers forward and gamble in the midfield and final third to make plays.

Such has been the case with Orlando City for the four years of its existence, but the offense has been especially quiet the last two years and we’ve recently discussed the lack of experienced quality behind starting striker Dom Dwyer. That’s why the off-season in general and the three preseason matches so far are troubling.

Yes, they’re “only” preseason matches, and yes, Dwyer is shelved with a quad injury, but Orlando City has only found the net three times in three outings so far — including 30 additional minutes after the Philadelphia match yesterday. Coming up next is a team the Lions haven’t scored a goal against since 2017 — New York City FC.

The Lions’ inability to bring in quality at the attacking midfield position or on the wings is a glaring weakness and it hasn’t been properly addressed yet. It’s not that the front office doesn’t see it. Our sources have indicated that the club is looking for help in those areas, and a strong bid was made to try to lure Diego Ribas away from Flamengo to help in that department, but to date nothing has happened.

If the offense doesn’t start to find the net with more frequency toward the end of the preseason and entering the regular season, it might be best to temper any expectations of a turnaround in James O’Connor’s first full season in charge. Summer window transfers can’t help you much if you’re too far down the table — unless maybe you can pick up a former Manchester United legend and have a boat load of home games remaining in your season.

Orlando City fans will have to start tempering any expectations early in the season if no more offensive help is added, unless we see rapid and explosive development from the likes of Josué Colmán, Chris Mueller, and the team’s young backup strikers. The team simply cannot continue to rely on defensive midfielders to provide offense.

Yoshimar Yotún was asked to be an offensive linchpin for City last year and, despite his creativity, ball skills, and set piece acumen, that’s simply not his best spot. Rather than providing creative attacking support in the buildup for a “proper” attacking midfield, Yotún was expected to be that attacking midfield for much of last season, with a bit of help on the wing from Mueller and whichever defensive midfielder of the day was trotted out to replace the departed Justin Meram.

It’s far from certain that Sacha Kljestan can find the form he exhibited during his stay with the New York Red Bulls, but if he can come close, that could help. But it certainly seems as if Kljestan’s days in purple have an expiration date that coincides with whatever date someone makes an offer for him that the Lions will accept.

In the meantime, it appears O’Connor’s 3-5-2 still lacks the requisite bite required for success. But I’ll admit it’s early and there’s no Dwyer up top to make incisive runs and finish off the attack.

As former gaffer Adrian Heath is fond of saying, “goals change games.” The Lions haven’t been scoring enough goals and they aren’t changing enough of their games from losses to draws or wins as a result. It’s a trend that must end if Orlando City is going to climb out of the Eastern Conference basement.