Orlando City is experiencing technical difficulties this season on the offensive end. It’s a problem that goes deeper than a lower-than-usual output from striker Dom Dwyer, who has been in and out of the lineup due to injuries and suspensions and has been wildly out of form much of the time he’s been on the field.
After all, Tesho Akindele has largely offset Dwyer’s lack of production by having a surprising career year in Orlando. Nani has added quality as well, although with only one goal (from the spot on Saturday) in two months, that production has largely fallen off. Chris Mueller has also fallen off, not having scored a goal in MLS play since July 3 or a goal in any competitive match since July 10.
The Lions simply aren’t scoring enough goals and so the margin of error for the defense has been tested time and again, particularly in recent weeks.
City has either conceded a late equalizer or had to hold on desperately over the final minutes of matches to win over the course of the current four-game unbeaten streak (2-0-2). That is, of course, just a league unbeaten streak, because that stretch of matches also includes a 2-0 shutout loss at home to this Friday’s opponent, Atlanta United, in the U.S. Open Cup. During this section of the schedule, the Lions have scored more than one goal in only one game, nabbing a late second in stoppage time in a 2-0 win over FC Dallas.
Orlando has scored 35 goals in 2019, which is behind every Eastern Conference team except D.C. United (34), the Columbus Crew (29), and FC Cincinnati (26). In the Western Conference, only Vancouver (27) has scored fewer goals.
Where have the goals gone?
Our Andrew Sharp touched on this as part of his column Monday, noting that part of the problem stems from creating scoring opportunities.
Perhaps an even bigger concern that exacerbates inefficiency when the chances do eventually come along is the fact that they are simply few and far between. The Lions have registered the third fewest shots and fourth fewest shots on goal per game in MLS this season.
A team that can only eke out 11 shot attempts per match on average and get only 3.6 of them on frame had better put the ball in the net with extreme efficiency. That’s not sustainable offense for a team with playoff aspirations.
Orlando City is averaging 1.3 goals per game in 2019, but five of the team’s 35 goals came in one match against Cincinnati and four more came against Colorado. Both of those matches were played before June 1, and three more goals came on June 1 in a 3-0 win at Montreal. That’s more than a third of the team’s goal output for the season in just three matches and those outbursts came nearly three months ago.
In fact, the Lions have scored more than one goal in a match just seven times in 2019 in league play. Additionally, City scored crooked numbers in two U.S. Open Cup games but one of those was against USL side Memphis and the other came in extra time after a 0-0 draw in regulation. Orlando’s offense has produced one multi-goal game in its last eight league matches and last 10 competitive matches overall. Woof.
Simply put, scoring is a problem.
Certainly part of the problem can be tied to a $1.5 million striker who has underperformed in 2019. We don’t really need to rehash that here because it’s not like the player himself, the manager, the team, or the fans are unaware of Dwyer’s lack of goal scoring in 2019 and all we can do is hope it returns soon.
The other part of it is a matter of tactics and/or personnel. Orlando City has played three defensive-minded midfielders in a 4-3-3 through much of 2019. While it has been much lower risk than when the team was playing three at the back and probably gives the team its best chance of avoiding losses and staying in contention — because starting fullbacks Ruan and Joao Moutinho tended to get caught upfield when using a 3-5-2 — a defense-first lineup does little to create scoring chances or cash in on them when they arise. Defensive midfielders, after all, are not widely known for their scoring touch and only the best of them are accomplished chance creators.
And the team isn’t scoring on set pieces either. Corner kicks have generally ranged from laughably bad to oh-shit-the-other-team-might-score, with only a couple of near misses giving any hope that eventually the Lions might cash one in. Free kicks have been marginally better. A lot has to go right for a set piece to work, but the Lions can’t seem to get the service in sync with those who would head the ball home. In fairness, aside from Lamine Sané and Akindele, there isn’t a lot of height on this team, but you’d still like a corner kick to produce something every now and again. And don’t get me started on how awful the short corners have been. #BanShortCorners
Here’s your 2019 offense by all players who are not commonly positioned as wings or forwards:
- Sacha Kljestan — one goal, two assists.
- Carlos Ascues — one goal, one assist.
- Will Johnson — one goal, one assist.
- Cristian Higuita — zero goals, one assist.
- Dillon Powers — zero goals, one assist.
- Uri Rosell — zero goals, one assist.
- Sebas Mendez — zero goals, zero assists.
- Ruan — zero goals, four assists.
- Joao Moutinho — zero goals, three assists.
- Kamal Miller — zero goals, zero assists.
- Danilo Acosta — zero goals, one assist.
- Kyle Smith — zero goals, zero assists.
- Robin Jansson — zero goals, zero assists.
- Lamine Sané — zero goals, zero assists.
- Shane O’Neill — zero goals, zero assists.
- Alex De John — zero goals, zero assists.
So, that’s three goals and seven assists in 27 games from the Orlando City midfield, no goals and eight assists from those who typically play fullback or wingback, and zero goals and zero assists from the center backs. In short, there’s not much help for the forward line of the 4-3-3 and there are players slumping among that group.
On May 19, Nani scored a brace in a 5-1 win over FC Cincinnati. Since that game, he’s scored only two goals and both were on penalties. It’s been three months since he’s scored in the run of play. Part of that is likely the league adjusting to him and some of it is no doubt the fatigue of playing his second season consecutively.
If Nani, Dwyer, and Mueller are all slumping at the same time (Mueller’s last league goal was July 3) and there’s no help from the midfield, fullbacks, or defenders (on set pieces), it’s basically the Akindele show. Again, not the best recipe for success regardless of how good Tesho has been in 2019 — and he’s been head and shoulders better than any of us had a right to expect.
On top of all of that, when Orlando City gets a lead, it doesn’t maintain that momentum and tends to sink deeper or play anywhere-will-do out of the back, which seems safer until you realize how much possession the players are conceding. The law of averages favors the opponent when you continuously hand them the ball. The same dearth of chances that keeps Orlando from scoring a second goal ultimately rewards the opponent for creating 15 or 20.
Even that many half-chances will eventually pay off, as we saw on Saturday night when a stupid bounce off a throw-in cost the Lions two vital points during a murderer’s row part of the schedule. Get the ball into the box enough times and eventually something good will happen. Or something bad, in the Lions’ case defensively.
I chalk the so-called “bunkering” up to a lack of comfort on the ball from a defensive-minded midfield. Thumping the ball downfield or out for a throw isn’t a bad play to waste a few seconds but it’s not a way to kill off a game.
To me, it doesn’t look like traditional bunkering — a concerted effort to sit on a one-goal lead — and James O’Connor never really seems pleased with the turnovers and lack of possession after matches. It simply looks like a lack of willingness by players to make the right pass, get forward, and go on and win the game. Maybe it’s confidence, or maybe it’s the instinct of having eight defensive players on the field and isolating the three up top who think more about scoring and have the skill to do so.
Five of Orlando’s draws have been 1-1 final scores. Those could have been put out of reach with a second goal, but you can’t score if you give away the ball and if you’re not clinical in front of goal, you minimize the few chances you do generate.
Mauricio Pereyra may help with all of this, being a good defensive midfielder who can also create offensively. He’s exactly what the team has needed in 2019 and he showed signs of that Saturday night. In fact, if not for Akindele being a couple feet offside, Pereyra’s willingness to get forward would have helped produce a game-winning penalty.
But it’s going to require more than Pereyra if Orlando is going to make the postseason. The Lions must be bolder. They must be confident in going and getting a second goal. They must hold onto the ball more when leading. They must finish when they have opportunities — Akindele had a golden opportunity to put Saturday night’s game away but saw his late shot saved. And it wouldn’t hurt to get Dwyer, Nani, and Mueller going again or for Robinho to step up.
Without a bit more quality on the offensive end, it’s unlikely this team will squeak above the playoff line. I said before the season started that this looked like an eighth-place team. Hopefully the Lions will prove me wrong in a good way, but to do that goals must be scored.