A few weeks back, I looked into Orlando City’s underlying stats and the (very early) promise the team showed. This was particularly noticeable on the defensive side with James O’Connor vastly improving both the expected goals against (xGA) and the efficiency compared to both his 17 games in charge last year and also Jason Kreis’ tenure before him.
We’re now eight games into the season with a massively overhauled squad and Orlando City already has two clean sheets on the board. That’s the same number it managed in MLS across the entirety of last season. Only once, in 2017, has the team kept more shutouts through as many games and the 1.63 goals conceded per game on average is a lower rate than any of the four previous seasons. The new man between the sticks, Brian Rowe, spoke after the game on the importance of building on such a performance.
The team had six and five wins in the opening eight matches of the 2017 and 2018 seasons, respectively. Nine points from the last five games with back-to-back home wins isn’t form to be sneezed at in Orlando City circles. Furthermore, only once has the team lost by multiple goals, something that happened 11 times last campaign. The team is staying in games and the defense has played its part in that despite some early teething issues for a group only recently put together and still finding its feet.
Six months removed from conceding a league record 74 goals, it has been frustrating to watch the Lions regularly fall behind early in games this year and nobody is saying there isn’t still plenty of room for improvement. However, the floodgates haven’t been invitingly left open for the opposition like before. I haven’t seen published figures for the Vancouver game yet, so I can’t speak on that but Orlando has already held opposition xGA to under 1.00 in four games this year — that’s already the same number of times the Lions managed in all of last season. Recently, the Lions held a Whitecaps team fiercely intent on counterattacking to just two shots on goal, so I expect that’s a fifth under 1.00 xGA game out of the eight played.
Last week I looked at O’Connor’s continuing lineup tinkering as the Irishman made four changes this time around. With a return to a 4–3–3, a seventh different back line personnel grouping appeared. Arguably Orlando’s two best center backs, Robin Jansson and Lamine Sané, lined up with Ruan and João Moutinho on either side. A midfield screen of Uri Rosell, Sebas Méndez and Will Johnson, was the perfect solution to the Whitecaps’ counter as they clocked up three tackles, two interceptions and two clearances between them. They also dominated the ball as Orlando had 61% of the possession with Rosell and Méndez seeing a staggering 27% of that. Perhaps O’Connor has found his formula for defensive solidity.
The next step is taking those lessons learnt on the road to New York City next week as the Lions take on a City side that picked up its first win of the season at the weekend. Only once in its MLS history has Orlando City kept shutouts in consecutive games: Joe Bendik held D.C. United and the Chicago Fire scoreless, both at home, between May 31 and June 4, 2017. Can it happen again?
There’s hope, but there’s also no doubting NYCFC will offer much more of a challenge than a bunkered Whitecaps team. The biggest question for Orlando is one of width. On the postage stamp of a field that is Yankee Stadium, Orlando’s newfound wide identity will be somewhat negated.
It’s debatable whether reverting to a three-man back line will be better served in spanning the width of the smallest pitch in MLS and cover for Ruan and Moutinho’s offensive runs or whether O’Connor should stick with his destroyer-laden midfield to try and control the ball, playing with two central defenders to allow an extra body up the field. He may even rest one or both of his fullbacks who have played at a relentless tempo the last few weeks and turn back to Danilo Acosta and Kyle Smith, who both started in the position when the two teams met on opening weekend.