Twelve matches unbeaten. Orlando City is on a historic run of form, despite dealing with a tight schedule, some international absences, and plenty of injuries. Indeed the Lions have clinched the playoffs with five regular season matches still to play. There are many reasons that Orlando City has been able to accomplish this feat, though many would feel that it could have been even better than it has been. Let’s take a look at the factors around this run and a look ahead as Orlando City goes for glory.
Coming out of the MLS is Back bubble, the only people not surprised by the Lions’ performance were the players and coaches. Supporters, other clubs, and the media all took notice, but many also questioned whether Orlando City could transfer that success to whatever form the regular season took. Once again, the players and coaches were the ones who didn’t doubt. The reason for that confidence is that Óscar Pareja, his staff, and the players knew what was happening during training. They knew that the players had bought into the culture change. They knew that every single player up and down the roster was getting comfortable with the system and their place in it.
On The Mane Land PawedCast, we mentioned that the clubs that dealt with the compact schedule, rotated wisely, and had the fewest injuries would fare the best. If you look at the 12-match run, you will see that the Lions scored many more goals in the first nine matches than the last four matches. Early on, Pareja had more players available, and was able to rotate them more frequently.
As time went on, more players were injured, forcing others to play longer, and some others to make their MLS and/or Orlando City debut. Add in the temporary loss of Pedro Gallese and Sebas Méndez to international duty, and pickings were slim for Pareja. Despite all of this, it seemed that no matter who got the start for Orlando City, the Lions kept chugging along. It wasn’t always pretty, nor did the goals come as frequently, but the results were still there. If that’s not the definition of a good club, I don’t know what is.
Even though the Lions have clinched a playoff spot, there is still plenty to play for in the remaining five matches. If Orlando City remains in the top four in the Eastern Conference, it will host a first-round playoff match. While it’s unlikely that Orlando City will catch Toronto, there’s still the top spot available if the Lions get on a roll. Currently, there’s no Supporters’ Shield being awarded, but MLS has reiterated that the team with the most points at the end of the regular season will still get the top seed in the playoffs, a berth in the Concacaf Champions League, and the usual team bonus.
So, now what? There’s every chance that Orlando City will start getting players back from injury. Not all at once, of course, but as those players come back it will replenish the Lions’ depth. There are also the additions of Matheus Aiás and Alexander Alvarado to bolster the attack. Orlando City should have both Gallese and Méndez back this weekend. While all these players need to reintegrate and some must get back to full match fitness, Orlando City could get stronger exactly as the playoffs are ramping up.
There are a lot of ifs, but seeing how well the Lions have done given the circumstances, there’s every reason to believe and to hope for the best.