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View from the End Line: Lions Have Fought Halfway Through Tough July Stretch

Orlando City is midway through a rugged July slate and still looking strong.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Orlando City SC Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Prediction pieces are one thing I have the pleasure of writing every month, but no worries, this will not be one. This will also not be a look back piece to check in and see how Orlando City SC has fared against those predictions to date. What this will be is a reminder of the insanity that has been July so far through the years, as well as what lies ahead for the remainder of the month and the weeks after.

Sit down, please buckle your safety harnesses, and enjoy your trip in the way-way-back machine as I remind you just how special July has been to date.

To help jog your memory, here is a quick look back at the matches played to date in July:

In case you are still recovering from the last two matches, that would add up to OCSC getting four out of nine points available to date in July, as well as securing a place in the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup. Anyone who has been following this club is fully aware of the summer slump that has seemed to haunt it since joining MLS. In fact, the previous few years’ point totals have looked like this:

  • 2018: three points in five July matches.
  • 2017: one point in three July matches.
  • 2016: six points in six July matches.
  • 2015: one point in four July matches.

The best the Lions have ever done to finish July was with a one-point-per-match average in 2016. Here is the next most gut-wrenching stat to chew on. Below are the points garnered by the Lions to finish the season after each July:

  • 2018: six points over 12 matches (six home and six away).
  • 2017: nine points over 12 matches (five home and seven away).
  • 2016: 15 points over 13 matches (six home and seven away).
  • 2015: 20 points over 13 matches (six home and seven away).

There are so many factors that can be pointed to in the past to start to explain what went wrong, how it went wrong, and why it just continued to get worse. I will leave that for the comment section because I do not have enough room to express myself in this article. I would like to focus on a few things that I think are helping to turn the tide for the Lions this year.

The Lions’ +1 goal differential isn’t looking horrible at the moment, but what is more important is that the team has only given up 27 goals to date — the fourth-best goals against total in the Eastern Conference and ninth best in the league as a whole. The current average goals conceded is 30 across the 24 teams in the league. Throwing out the high (45 goals allowed by FC Cincinnati) and the low (17 for Los Angeles FC), the average is still 29.91.

Orlando’s ability to finish has long been debated, but given what we just reviewed, the Lions are currently sitting with their best goal differential this late in the season. James O’Connor has found the right combination of center backs in Lamine Sané and Robin Jansson to work in front of, and with, goalkeeper Brian Rowe. The defensive side of the Lions has made leaps and bounds of progress since last season (the resurgence of Will Johnson, the hustle of Sebas Mendez, Ruan, Joao Moutinho, and Kamal Miller). There is still plenty of room for improvement, and we are witnessing it every week. The Lions actually have a chance to end July with a positive goal differential for the first time in their MLS history, thanks in large part to growth on the defensive side of the pitch.

The rotation of the squad from match to match, although puzzling at times, has proven to not be a complete Achilles heel for the club this season. Starters have done well as substitutes, starting XIs can see nine new faces between matches, and the Lions keep plugging away the point totals and their place in the Eastern Conference. You can see players getting rested, but it has been a little difficult to really pinpoint if O’Connor is strictly focusing on USOC, driving for a playoff spot, or both.

One thing is sure: he is using as many bodies on the pitch as possible, and I honestly think that the results are speaking for themselves, and they are speaking positively and bringing home results. They may be small, incremental benefits, but anyone who expected this club to go from where they finished in 2018 to top of the table is fooling themselves. The steps forward are absolutely there, you just have to look a little deeper to find them, and the success of the club with the amount of rotation used in starters speaks volumes to me.

One more thing: the boys are figuring out how to score. Currently, the Lions are mid-table in the East in goals for, at 28 — tied with last year’s MLS Cup winners, Atlanta United FC, and sitting in 15th in the league overall. The higher press that the team has been using, based on the success of the defensive back four, is giving the midfielders and forwards more opportunities to take shots. I think most fans would agree that this is still an area that needs more improvement, but I am not sure it is as bad as it seems. I think the club just needed to gain that trust in the defensive third before the players really felt comfortable to take a few chances in the offensive third. It also helps when you can make attacking substitutions in close matches and they benefit you from box to box as well as help secure three points.

The month isn’t over yet. Here is a quick reminder of what’s in store for the next several weeks. I am adding a look into early August because the aforementioned win against NYCFC made it important to consider:

Folks, that is another eight matches in 30 days — three against Eastern Conference rivals, four road trips, and one U.S. Open Cup semifinal against those folks from up north. Also, there will be an All-Star weekend sprinkled in there as well. It is going to only get hotter here in Central Florida, but for the first time that I can remember, the Lions look poised to shake off the summer doldrums and not just survive them, but come out in a better position than years past.