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Putting Orlando City’s U.S. Open Cup Run in Perspective

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After Tuesday night’s disappointment comes clarity in the cold light of Wednesday.

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-Atlanta United FC at Orlando City SC Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not here to sugar coat Orlando City’s loss to Atlanta United last night in the U.S. Open Cup semifinal. It was a disappointing performance from the team and just a little sharper play could have produced a truly magical result. The players know this and they were “gutted” after last night’s game in Head Coach James O’Connor’s words.

Losing in the final or the final four just seems to hurt more than it does in Round 4 or 5. Coming close to the pinnacle makes it a bit more agonizing, but in the end, only one team’s fans will be happy at the end of the tournament. The best the rest can hope for is satisfaction.

Even though last night’s result was disappointing, it’s important to keep Orlando City’s run in the 2019 U.S. Open Cup in its proper perspective. I’m not talking about simply looking at the bright side or making any excuses for the team’s performance. I just want to discuss the overall picture in the wake of the team’s departure from the competition.

Overachievers?

The Eastern Conference’s ninth-place team, Orlando City was one of the last four MLS clubs standing overall, and one of the last two from the conference. Before the season, if most fans knew the Lions would reach the semifinals of the competition, they probably would have been excited at that prospect and eager to see it play out. In hindsight, we’re left wanting more, because that’s simply how sports fans are wired. It’s easy to forget that it’s Orlando’s deepest run yet in the competition and something that (hopefully) the club can build on.

The U.S. Open Cup was always going to be an uphill battle for Orlando. After an expected win at Memphis, the Lions ousted two teams above them in the conference standings to reach the semifinals. The Lions beat a hot New England team — providing the only blemish on the Revolution’s record since May until the Revs recently lost to LAFC. Orlando then took out New York City FC in one of the most memorable matches in the club’s history.

The “Running of the Wall” is a moment that will never be forgotten and is sure to end up high on our list of top moments of 2019. No one can take away those moments. They’re special and, even if it’s difficult to do so this soon after elimination, those moments should be savored.

In the end, Orlando doesn’t have as talented a roster as Atlanta and, having never beaten that club, last night was always going to be difficult. It would have been a tremendous upset to have won that match, but alas, here we are. Oftentimes talent prevails.

USOC Provides Roster Analysis

We learned a lot about the team during the 2019 Cup run. Orlando has as deep of a holding midfield as just about anyone. It didn’t matter if it was Will Johnson and Sebas Mendez out there or Uri Rosell and Dillon Powers. All the team’s defensive mids played well. The Lions have some promising young players, including Benji Michel, who provided a moment of magic in the 96th minute against the Revolution.

Weaknesses of the team were exposed, however. With the fixtures coming fast and furious, some of the rotation didn’t work. O’Connor clearly went for the win against Dallas on Saturday and then again played Lamine Sané and Robin Jansson on Tuesday night. It showed a lack of faith in using other players in central defense, which isn’t surprising, given that Shane O’Neill and Alex De John have been in concussion protocol and Carlos Ascues played the full 97 minutes Saturday in the midfield. Rookie Kamal Miller could have played, but O’Connor stuck with his first-choice guys, believing they would be fully recovered.

This is in contrast to Atlanta, which is much deeper on the back line. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez didn’t play Saturday against the LA Galaxy while Michael Parkhurst sat the bench both Saturday and Tuesday for Atlanta. For Orlando to get to where Atlanta is, the quality of the central defense depth must be upgraded. If O’Connor and Luiz Muzzi believe that De John, Miller, and O’Neill can provide that, then those players must be called into action when fresh troops are needed — and they must deliver.

At fullback, it may be telling that neither Kyle Smith nor Danilo Acosta dressed for last night’s match. Both were fresh. Both are U.S. players. While both have been serviceable, this is an area the club may want to improve.

With Santiago Patino away on international duty, there weren’t many options for rotation up top. Nani should have been fresh and he honestly played better than many fans on social media have given him credit for — a team-high four chances created (two of which should have ultimately been assists on goals that were not scored), a team-high 77 touches, a shot attempt, seven defensive recoveries. The 75% passing rate wasn’t as good as you’d expect, but I credit Atlanta’s smothering defense for at least 10% of the unsuccessful part of that equation.

Dom Dwyer is rightfully being criticized for missing the target in the 19th minute, although that miss was, in my mind, no worse than Sacha Kljestan’s in the second half. This came just moments after a very nice finish on an offside play, so it was extremely disappointing. If only those finishes were reversed, we could have had a different outcome. Dwyer hasn’t played much in recent weeks and after going 72 minutes on Saturday night, I expected him to start on the bench and come on as a sub later. Instead, it was Chris Mueller starting on the bench after he struggled in his 54 minutes against Dallas.

Tesho Akindele might tell you he felt good entering last night but his play seemed to indicate fatigue, nerves, or both. His touch was poor, he often made the wrong decisions, and he lost a lot more 1-v-1 battles than we’ve seen throughout the season. Even his shots didn’t seem to have the usual threat in them.

We’ve known since the preseason that the team needs more attacking depth. Entering the year with only two rookies behind Dwyer and Akindele (Mueller, for all he does well, is not an MLS caliber striker, though he’s fine as a winger or other adjacent roles) was never a great position in which to be. A deeper well at forward would have done wonders for the fixture schedule this week. Perhaps Michel and Santiago will provide that in the future or someone new could be brought in.

The goalkeeper position is solid, if unspectacular. Both Brian Rowe and Adam Grinwis have acquitted themselves well in 2019. While they may lack the big name of a Brad Guzan, the club is fine at the position.

Progress Has Been Made

Finally, the deep run in the U.S. Open Cup shows the transformation of Orlando City’s culture and mentality. O’Connor has made the Lions a difficult out. Teams that used to show up and push Orlando around the field — Dallas and Atlanta are two examples of this — are now finding it much tougher to get results against City. Not everything is fixed, obviously, but this is a mentally tough team. Many teams would have folded after giving up that 96th-minute goal to New York City FC. Previous incarnations of OCSC might have conceded two or three more goals in extra time of that match. This year’s Lions fought back.

Kljestan was extremely critical of Orlando City’s culture at the end of 2018. After last night’s match, he talked about how the team was not quite there yet but it’s getting closer to where it needs to be. He’s right. You can’t watch the 2019 Lions and see “same old, same old.” The effort level could often be questioned last season. I defy anyone to go back and watch the away match at Chicago last September and tell me they’ve seen a performance like that from the Lions this season.

The first step in becoming a winning team is to become a team that’s difficult to beat. That’s half the battle. The other half is shoring up roster weaknesses and building confidence in the group — the swagger that successful teams have that make them expect victory every time out rather than battle hard and hope for it on a night-to-night basis. Orlando has become much more difficult to beat. A simple comparison of the team’s 2018 and 2019 scorelines illustrates that quite clearly. But the next step must be taken. It’s possible that this year’s Cup run can be a springboard to that, but we’ll have to find out about that in the weeks to come.