The brutal month of July is slowing grinding to a halt, but there is still no rest in sight for the Lions. The boys have been able to grind out some absolutely gutsy performances this month, and come away with points that some herald as fantastic, while others seem to wallow in the lack of full points coming home.
With 13 matches left in the regular season, and the possibility of two more matches in the U.S. Open Cup, what do those last 10 minutes of matches mean for the club? Are they moments to cheer, or are we overlooking a big hole in the Lions abilities?
It has only happened once outside of July this season. Down to 10 men, Chicago, playing at home, was pushing for a late equalizer. As is a complaint that has grown a bit over the season, the Lions somewhat hunkered down and parked the bus, but also were giving the Fire room to move the ball up the pitch. The Lions were slow to move up and pressure the ball, and then CJ Sapong happened, with seconds left in stoppage time.
It was just the second match of the season, and it was an away draw, so as much as it hurt, it didn’t have the sting that some might expect, nor garner the accolades that maybe it was due.
Fast-forward back to now — July of 2019. It has now happened again, and again, and again, all in the span of about three weeks. It happened twice on road games in MLS regular season play, and it also happened at home in the USOC quarterfinal match — the Lions conceded late. On July 7, as the Lions were trying to redeem themselves in Philadelphia after the Union beat them at home the week prior, 3-1, Orlando just needed to hold the lead for nine minutes plus stoppage. Just nine minutes. But Kacper Przybylko scored in the 90th to tie it up.
Three days later, the U.S. Open Cup match was played in Orlando. We all remember what transpired after the 90 minutes, and then the 30 minutes of extra time, but do you remember what, and more importantly when, the goal happened that started that series of amazing events? I can remind you, it happened in the 96th minute, the absolute dying seconds of the match. Maxi Moralez sent the game into extra time and an eventual shootout a mere 25 seconds or so from what would have been a win.
Eight days later, once again on the road, and in the most recent of matches for the club, you could argue that more points were left on the floor. The Lions went into halftime with a lead — a somewhat surprising position considering the events of the first 45 minutes, especially the change in personnel after the loss of Alex De John. Portland came out in the second half hell bent for leather, and the crowd was getting louder and louder, trying to will the home team to score. The Lions, once again looking poised to come home with three points, fell prey to fate’s cruel hand and gave up a goal late. Although the 82nd minute is not as cardiac arresting as the others, it is still late, and just as dramatic.
The good news is that the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup was decided by spot kicks, and we all know how that ended. The other three matches all ended in draws, leaving six points on the table. Those six points would have given the Lions 32 points elevated the team to fourth place in the Eastern Conference. That would have them one point behind Atlanta United FC and one point ahead of the New York Red Bulls. With 13 matches yet to be played, the Lions would be looking at a very good chance of making the playoffs.
The question truly is: Are these matches and dropped points the type of matches to cheer on the club for bringing a point home, or does there need to be a serious discussion about the issues that created the opportunity for teams to come back in the last 10 minutes of a match and secure a draw?
For me, I think the club should be applauded right now for any road points garnered, especially during this stretch of the season. The Philly and Portland matches were both played by a heavily rotated started XI. The July schedule, as we keep repeating, is absolutely not friendly to the Lions, nor many clubs in MLS. This is still a team trying to find a bit more of its identity and fluidity, although it is so close. There will be a time to seriously lament leaving points on the table, especially away match points, but I am not convinced that the time is now.
Head Coach James O’Connor has pretty clearly showed us his vision for the club, and so many pieces are falling into place. I am convinced of that because the Lions have successfully fielded two starting XIs that made everyone wonder “what the %!#$ is going on,” only to come home with a positive result. The results are so positive that at 26 points currently, the Lions are only two points behind the 2018 season’s final total, with 13 matches left to be played.
Also note that the club had only four draws all of last season, and already has five this season — three of them mentioned above. Of all the areas to dissect the club this season, the amount of points left on the table is not one that should be anywhere near a top priority. Hopefully soon, that will be one of the harder discussions we have to have as fans.