Things were looking bright for the future of Orlando City as Head Coach James O’Connor, alongside new Executive Vice President of Soccer Operations Luiz Muzzi, took a team coming off a historically bad season and steadied the ship. While many expected Orlando City to be too early into a rebuild to challenge, it instead had a realistic shot at the playoffs and was in the hunt.
However, Orlando’s playoff hopes took another huge hit in Houston this past weekend as the Lions fell to the Houston Dynamo, 2–1. Leading at the break, Orlando went into the second half knowing that holding on for the win would see the team rise back up to eighth in the conference, two points shy of the playoff places after both the New England Revolution and the Chicago Fire drew earlier on Saturday. Instead the eventual loss saw Orlando remain in 10th, five points off the pace and all but out of the race.
It’s been an unconvincing bid for the postseason — so much so that Orlando now holds the worst current form in MLS. OCSC is the only team to not taste victory in the last six games and has only picked up three total points out of the last possible 18. The next worst is FC Cincinnati and the Montreal Impact, which have both managed to take four points from their last six games. Orlando’s six-game skid (0-3-3) is also the team’s longest winless streak of 2019, coming at the worst possible time with the Lions rapidly running out of games to make up lost ground.
The winless run started on Aug. 17 with the Lions conceding a gut-wrenching stoppage time equalizer to Adrian Heath’s Minnesota United. It responded well when Atlanta United then came to town. Orlando arguably had its best performance of the season, but came away pointless, having lost 1–0. However, the performance came with plenty of optimism around the team’s new-found aggressive approach and high level of chance creation that would hopefully give the Lions success in the home stretch.
It didn’t translate in a tough midweek match out in San Jose, which was over before it began. An invigorated Earthquakes side took the lead in the third minute, went into the break with a 3–0 lead and never let it slip. Determined to make amends and keep itself in the hunt, Orlando took an unlikely 2–1 lead against runaway Supporters’ Shield leaders LAFC but again failed to hang on to the win, ultimately conceding a second-half equalizer in a 2–2 draw to take the winless streak to four. A 3–3 draw against the Revolution was seen as gutsy given the Lions were down 3–1 at the half, but it was still a missed opportunity that kept the Revs in the driver’s seat as avoiding defeat was much more of a priority for them than winning.
There was hope that the second-half comeback sparked some momentum going into the Dynamo game and the early signs were good. Orlando scored its earliest goal of the season and only the third goal the team had scored in the opening 15 minutes this year with a sixth minute header by Dom Dwyer from a Mauricio Pereyra free kick — the Uruguayan’s second set piece assist in as many games. With other results going Orlando’s way, the realization and fear of having something to lose once again appeared to have a paralyzing effect as the Lions retreated deeper into their own half, inviting pressure and struggling to keep possession or create further attacking opportunities.
It was hardly a surprise. Dropping points from winning positions is habitual at this point. Orlando City has dropped points from winning positions nine times in 2019, losing out on a total of 19 points when leading. Not only that, but it’s a trend that skews dramatically towards the second half of the season. The Lions have led in 10 of their last 15 games but only won three, dropping points in the other seven — five of which were within the final 15 minutes of games. Meanwhile, of the five games Orlando has not led in during that period, four have ended in defeat, with the 3–3 draw against the Revs as the sole point earned from a losing position.
For all the progress the team has made, there are clear deficiencies when it comes to a winning mentality. Failing to get a win over the line when leading, especially late on, can have a damaging effect and change the way you play. To do so with such extreme frequency has ultimately led to a self-fulfilling prophecy and the Houston game was once again that principle in action. The lack of winning has had a wider impact than just points on the board — it’s bred a lack of belief and confidence that has spiraled and derailed the end of an otherwise promising season.
Having also lost out in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals, Orlando City desperately needs to find wins in the final two games, having yet to string together consecutive league wins during O’Connor’s 49-game MLS tenure, in order to regain some confidence and give the group some belief to build on for what already feels like a make-or-break 2020 season.