Note: It’s “What If?” Week at SBNation. The purpose of this platform-wide theme is to explore some of the fun/cool/interesting things that could have happened for our teams. After seeing how Cyle Larin and Dom Dwyer worked together up top at the end of 2017, I thought this would be a good discussion topic.
We all remember the acrimonious split between the Lions and striker Cyle Larin at the start of the 2018 season and there is sufficient blame to lay on all parties for that happening. Larin was under contract after having his option picked up by Orlando City, so he shouldn’t have gone to Turkey to join Besiktas without a transfer deal in place. His agent no doubt played a large role in that happening. And the Lions could have made life so much easier for Larin by giving him the raise he deserved from three seasons of scoring double-digit goals.
Larin made no secret about his desire to play in Europe for a Champions League team. He was never staying in Orlando forever and it’s hard to blame a kid for following his dreams. The Lions never made staying more attractive by ripping up his rookie deal and paying him on a level that his production warranted. Regardless of who is most to blame, all parties share some responsibility.
But what if he had stayed in Orlando for 2018?
One of the highlights of 2017 was the partnership that Larin and newly (re)acquired Dom Dwyer formed at the end of the season. Dwyer came to Orlando from Sporting Kansas City in the summer window and produced three goals and four assists after a slow start in purple. The Larin-Dwyer partnership played together nine times in 2017 and from those games, the duo accounted for seven goals and six assists. Most of that happened from late August onward, as it took Dwyer a few games to acclimate to his new teammates.
In the nine matches they played together in 2017, the Canadian was involved in 0.67 goals per appearance, while Dwyer was part of 0.78 goals per game. Dwyer contributed to just 0.5 goals per appearance in 2018 without Larin, scoring 13 times but failing to contribute a single assist. The Lions’ second-leading scorer that season was Sacha Kljestan, who scored just six goals and added six assists.
Even if you count the games where Dwyer hadn’t yet quite settled in yet in 2017, if you project the Larin-Dwyer numbers from their first nine games together into the 2018 season, it looks something like this (games played figured by averaging appearances per season in Orlando):
- Larin: 29 games played, 13 goals, six assists.
- Dwyer: 26 games played, nine goals, 12 assists.
A couple of things jump out immediately. First, these projections would demolish Dwyer’s career single-season assist mark. Dwyer’s best season for assists over his MLS career came in 2017, when he had five — four of those after joining Orlando City. Larin too would have set a career high for assists, doubling his previous best. He notched three in both 2017 and 2016.
The 13 goals would be pretty well in line with Larin’s three-year career in Orlando, where he scored 17 in 2015, 14 in 2016, and 12 in 2017. Dwyer’s would be a slight dip, but his assist mark would have risen high enough to make up for that. Being part of 21 goals is an effective season for an MLS forward.
Although scoring more goals is good, 2018 was still the year the club set a league record by conceding 74 times, so it’s unlikely Larin’s presence would have elevated the Lions into a playoff spot. The team would have had to accumulate 22 additional points.
However, Orlando tied Columbus for the fewest goals scored in the Eastern Conference, with 43. Larin’s continued presence in purple that year — assuming his partnership with Dwyer maintained its success rate (it could also have improved over time as the two players grew more familiar with each other) — Orlando would easily have scored more than 50 goals on the season and likely somewhere in the range of 55 to 60. It’s difficult to project which goals would not have been scored had Larin been on the pitch rather than someone else, but this is probably in the ballpark.
The variable that’s difficult to track is when those goals would have been scored. Had they given the Lions the lead, that could have cut their goals against, because tactically they’d have been chasing fewer games and protecting more leads. It’s possible the team could have shaved 10 goals against (or more) off the total.
It’s safe to say Orlando would not have finished in the Eastern Conference basement in 2018 had Larin stayed, but unlikely the team could have climbed over Chicago, Toronto, New England, Montreal, and Philadelphia. The likely scenario is that Orlando would have remained in the chase until late in the season and finished somewhere around 40 to 43 points, which would have been eighth or ninth spot rather than 11th. The best-case scenario would probably be somewhere around 47 or 48 points, which would have still missed the playoffs by just a few points with a seventh-place finish.
So, while Larin couldn’t have saved Orlando’s season had he returned in 2018, the Lions could have been much more respectable and competitive, most likely wouldn’t have conceded a record 74 times, and the games would have meant a bit more in the season’s final months. A more competitive finish in 2018 might have served as a springboard for James O’Connor’s side heading into 2019, but there’s no way to account for that.
Getting back to Larin for a moment, the club could have sold him to Besiktas or another suitor after a fourth double-digit goals season and a career high in assists, raising the price tag. How the club would have used the extra money in the off-season between 2018 and 2019 will have to forever remain a mystery.