From its 2-1 win over D.C. United last Saturday, Orlando City has a 14-day gap between then and the day it will face FC Cincinnati on the road on Oct. 16. This is largely a good thing given the deluge of injuries, suspensions and general loss of form that led to a five-game winless streak at very nearly the worst possible time. However, there is a chance, albeit a small one, that the long break won’t completely work in the Lions’ favor.
Discipline issues were something avoidable that plagued OCSC during the five-game winless run. The Lions racked up three red cards during those games, and Robin Jansson also went over the yellow card limit during the loss at New England. That is...a lot, especially considering that the players who received red cards were Nani, Andres Perea, and Antonio Carlos — all important players, to say the least. The discipline issues also unfortunately came at a time when the Lions were finally getting some other guys back on the field consistently. No sooner were Joao Moutinho, Ruan, and Perea finally back for a run of games than things started to really go pear-shaped against the Montreal Impact, which was when Nani and Perea were sent off, foreshadowing the Lions’ fortunes for the next few games.
The unavoidable thing that Orlando has struggled with since before the season even started has been injuries. First, it was Moutinho on the sidelines while recovering from off-season surgery for an injury sustained in September of last year. Then, it was basically every member of Orlando’s starting XI aside from Antonio Carlos and Jansson, who took it in turns to spend varying numbers of games sidelined due to injury. The injury bug bit deeper too, with Perea and Joey DeZart also missing a number of games and DeZart yet to make his return after exiting the 3-1 loss to the Philadelphia Union after only playing 20 minutes.
Fortunately, Orlando’s injury fortunes have begun to turn around. Ruan, Moutinho, Nani, Mauricio Pereyra and Daryl Dike have all had extended runs in the team, and perhaps most importantly, Sebas Mendez has finally returned from an injury sustained all the way back in July. Even at the beginning of the gap between games, the Lions’ injury report is the thinnest it’s looked in weeks, with Chris Mueller and Uri Rosell listed as questionable and Alexandre Pato and DeZart both out. It’s fairly likely that Cash and Uri will be available again on Oct. 16, and there’s even a chance that the other two will be ready to go as well.
Even if none of those four are available next Saturday, Orlando City will still be largely healthy and suspension free, with an almost full complement of players to choose from for maybe the second time all season — all at the time when it matters most. That could very well spur the Lions on to a strong finish, and while it would be the height of foolishness to outright expect OCSC to end in second place in the Eastern Conference given how good Nashville SC has been this year, finishing that high isn’t out of the question for a healthy Orlando team. If the Lions can stay focused down the stretch, as our own Topher Adams said earlier this week, then the most reasonable expectation for a full strength squad is probably for Orlando to have a strong finish to the season and end somewhere from second to fourth.
There is another possibility though, although I’ll preface things by saying that I don’t think it’s particularly likely. In a nightmare scenario, the two-week gap comes at precisely the wrong time for OCSC, and while it helps get the team healthy, it also kills the momentum generated by the two huge, last-gasp results. With only seven points separating Nashville in second and Montreal in seventh, and eighth-place Atlanta only one point below the line, there is a chance that Orlando can’t quite get it together after the break and ends up falling out of the playoff places.
Similar to how halftime sometimes can arrive at the worst possible time for a team that’s in the ascendancy and bossing play and breaks that team’s momentum, there’s a chance that the gap in games leeches away at the much-needed momentum that OCSC was starting to build up.
However, I don’t think that will be the case. This team has too many skilled players, is well coached, and has enough experience to get it done down the stretch and make the playoffs. While the losing streak was pretty damn scary, every team goes through rough patches in form and injuries and suspensions conspired to make it a horrible run of form. Ultimately, the break between games is a great opportunity for the Lions to rest, recharge, get some more guys healthy and finish strong in the playoff places, and I think that’s what will happen at the end of the day.