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Reflecting on the MLS is Back Tournament

What was good, what wasn’t, and where the Lions go from here.

SOCCER: JUL 31 MLS is Back Quarterfinal - Orlando City SC v LAFC Photo by Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As you read this, it’s been over 24 hours since Orlando City fell 2-1 to the Portland Timbers in the MLS is Back Tournament final. As I write this, it’s been less than 12 hours. I knew I would be writing about my feelings on the match regardless of whether the Lions won or lost, but obviously I hoped it would be the former. In the business and political worlds a postmortem is used to look at process improvements, assess future risks, and promote best practices. In an effort to maintain my positivity, that is what we’re going to do here.

Other than the coaches and players, no one really expected Orlando City to win this tournament. To be fair, how could we have known how successfully Óscar Pareja had instituted the improvements that we ended up seeing? We heard the coaches and players saying the right things, but professional athletes and coaches are well versed in doing so. It really wasn’t until the club took to the pitch in the tournament that we could evaluate the truly massive amount of progress that this club has made in such a short time.

The Lions look and feel like a different club than at any other time in the MLS era. The club generally plays cohesive team defense, possesses the ball with a purpose, and is able to break the lines of some of the best in MLS. This is not an accident. In fact, it is exactly what Pareja is hoping to build. It might sound silly, but the lockdown and the bubble tournament might have sped up the culture change process, since the focus was very singular for the club.

We have been saying on The ManeLand PawedCast for well over a year that the Lions are desperately in need of an MLS 3.0 striker. This was brought into stark relief during the tournament as Orlando City had trouble finishing chances on goal. With the loss of Dom Dwyer to injury the task became even harder. The club was able to overcome this all the way up to the final with timely goals and individual moments of greatness.

Against Portland, those moments and goals were not to be found. Orlando City could use some improved depth at several positions, but the lack of a premier scorer is one of the key factors that kept this club from winning a piece of hardware on Tuesday night. Additionally, it’s not something that the front office can necessarily address in the short term. Dwyer is still under contract until the end of the year, and his price tag and Designated Player tag make him harder to replace for the moment. This means that in all likelihood the Lions will have to rely on Tesho Akindele, Benji Michel, Santiago Patino, and Daryl Dike. Akindele hasn’t shown himself to be able to be “the guy,” while Michel, Patino, and Dike simply don’t have enough experience.

With all that said, don’t despair. The Orlando City defense is formidable and can hold even the most potent attacks at bay. When the club does that, the “score by committee” approach can be enough to get results. This is not Pareja’s finished product. There are pieces missing and playing time needed to get to the end goal of a championship. What the MLS is Back Tournament showed us is that the club might be much further along in the process than we — or certainly I — might have expected. Orlando City’s reputation has been enhanced by this performance. Other clubs, pundits, and players will be taking this team much more seriously going forward. To quote Lao-tzu:

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

This tournament was that first step, and I’m here for all the steps to follow.