With last night’s 6-2 preseason victory over the New England Revolution, Orlando City SC finally won its first trophy since joining MLS. Sure, it was just a preseason tournament trophy and doesn’t mean much in the overall scheme of things. But you can never build a culture of winning without actually...you know...winning, so it was a positive step in what has been (so far) a stunted development of OCSC as an MLS side.
“It’s fantastic. It’s really important for us,” Head Coach James O’Connor said of the tournament win. “We want to make sure that any competition that we have in our stadium that we win. So I’m really pleased that we were able to do that and do it in the manner that we did.”
The actual victory is, of course, less important than the squad’s preparation for the grueling 2019 MLS season that lies ahead. Things that seemed bleak after the limited information that escaped from Orlando’s 4-1 preseason loss to the Philadelphia Union suddenly appear much brighter after two open-to-the-public friendly victories over New York City FC and the Revs. The Lions played positive, attacking soccer, conceding very few chances over the course of the last 180 minutes with two entirely different lineups.
More importantly, both lineups displayed the identical tactics that O’Connor wants out of his club. The watch words O’Connor used were “movement” and “understanding of space.” Both Orlando City Invitational matches displayed a team that is not only grasping those concepts, but implementing them as well. Can the players do that when the intensity ratchets up in the regular season, the speed of the game increases, and opponents are actively game planning against them? That remains to be seen, and it will be the deciding factor on whether or not the Lions can finally get over the playoff line by season’s end.
What also remains to be seen is how well Dom Dwyer and Nani will integrate into O’Connor’s system this season, but if they do it at the level their teammates have shown over the last two matches, this could be a brighter 2019 than many of us envisioned just a couple of short weeks ago.
Because O’Connor and his players say some interesting things that don’t necessarily make the game recap, let’s dive further into what was said after last night’s game.
Youth is Served
Wednesday’s starting lineup included 17-year-old SIMA Gold player Hamady Diop at left back and the teenager did an excellent job of holding his own against a solid New England attacking front which included Cristian Penilla, Teal Bunbury, and Diego Fagundez. OCB defender Matheus Silva had a more inconsistent game — primarily with some errant outlet passes, though he did lose Bunbury on the first of the Revs’ two late goals.
Meanwhile, up top, rookie Santiago Patino (age 21), 20-year-old Young Designated Player Josué Colmán, and Homegrown striker Benji Michel (age 21) combined well with midfielder Cam Lindley (age 21) on Wednesday. Those four players, along with 25-year-old midfielder Cristian Higuita and veteran Uri Rosell ran riot on the Revs all night, playing with high energy, great spirit, and helped the team put a half dozen goals on the board, which might have been even more had Patino and Michel been a tad more clinical.
“I think they were excellent,” O’Connor said of the younger players in his lineup. “I thought they performed really, really well. When you look at the academy players, and not just the academy players — I think some of the senior players alongside them to help them and to manage them through the game — that’s really, really encouraging for us as a football club to see that kind of performance.”
In addition to the young players already listed above, 17-year-old OCB midfielder Jordan Bender made his second straight appearance and again looked calm on the ball, with 18-year-old OCB midfielder Ates Diouf and Senegalese Montverde Academy junior Moussa Sabaly also getting into the game late.
“I think for them it was a great experience to play in this stadium with those fans,” Rosell said after the match. “And sometimes if you don’t handle well yourself, you can lose it. So I was trying to tell them what they have to do — when they’re doing good things, just encourage them — and I think that was my role today.”
“I’m just coming out of college soccer now and playing pro,” Patino said. “Myself and all the rookies, we feel the difference, but we’ve just got to keep working every day and have the right attitude.”
O’Connor reiterated the club’s philosophy of being a place where the academy players — despite training and living a good distance from the team’s facilities while at Montverde Academy — feel they are part of Orlando City SC.
“We’re trying to be very intentional about making sure we are one club,” the gaffer said. “So, whatever level somebody is representing Orlando City at, they’re part of the family, and that’s something that we’re going to keep driving home. We want players in the academy. We want to know their names. We want to know all about them. We want them to feel a part of the football club.”
The Right Path
A common theme from both Saturday and Wednesday was players and O’Connor talking about the team being on the correct trajectory as the start of the season approaches. No one is satisfied with where the team currently is, but O’Connor said it is close to where it needs to be. The team is growing in chemistry, seems hungry, and the players from both starting lineups displayed the same tactics and understanding of the movement and space the coaching staff wants.
“I think we worked really hard all off-season,” Rosell said. “When you are in preseason and you feel that you are really tired, you feel pain everywhere and you just keep going. And you see that your teammates are doing the same and that means a lot, because you know that when hard times arrive — and they will — you know that they have our backs.”
“I think we’re looking sharp,” Patino said. “Every game that we’re getting positive results, it means that we’re getting there. We’ve been training hard and all of this is paying off. Every chance we got (Wednesday), we put it away, and that’s how we’re going to kill teams.”
Importance of Building Depth
The concept of team depth is something we seemingly discuss every year. Its absence was apparent in 2015 and 2016. Last year, the depth was stretched impossibly thin due to an extreme rash of injuries that hit particular position groups all at the same time — notably on the back line. Rosell pointed out that getting two good results with completely different squads in back-to-back games shows the team’s depth. And that’s without Dwyer, Nani, Carlos Ascues, or Kyle Smith being available.
“We played two games with almost two different teams and both won, so that means we have a lot of depth, which is good for a long run,” Rosell said. “I feel like now we can start building from here.”
Chemistry is Key
The fact that both lineups played nearly identically in terms of tactics shows a willingness across the board to buy in to O’Connor’s systems and the two wins reinforced that doing so can bring success. In the last two games, the various lines seemed to have an understanding not only of who was around them, but where they were likely to go next — something that the team notably lacked last season. Spending time together in close quarters at IMG Academy for two weeks helped the team build that chemistry.
“I think we have a lot of players that want to play and want to start the game. Everybody’s putting in their maximum effort and the coach is giving opportunity to everyone,” Patino said. “So everybody’s got to take advantage of it. I think everybody’s getting along really well and we’re understanding what James wants to play, so the chemistry is looking good.”
While Saturday’s goals came from expected sources in Tesho Akindele and Chris Mueller, some of Wednesday’s offense came from less likely sources. Rosell scored a goal from the penalty spot, created an own goal with a great run and dangerous cross, and assisted on Patino’s strike. Dillon Powers, who played right back on Wednesday, also connected on a penalty.
Rosell was quick to downplay his offensive efforts as something he wants to show off more to fans in the future.
“I wish I could do that (show more offense) but to be fair with you my job is another one and I try to do it as best as I can and play for the team,” he said.
Higuita was also a key cog in building the attack, and he converted a sliding finish on a fantastic cross from Colmán for the Lions’ fifth goal on Wednesday.
Again, it’s just the preseason, and O’Connor himself was quick to downplay the team’s success in the last two games in his post-game comments to the media. Raising expectations is probably not in Orlando City fans’ best interests at this point. But there is a sense that these last two games have shown that the Lions could be in the early stages of an upward trajectory that could pay off down the road.