Sunday marked Orlando City’s third loss on the bounce. After spending most of the season comfortably in the top three of the Eastern Conference, Orlando is down to fourth, one point ahead of Montreal and two ahead of red-hot Atlanta. D.C. United, the last team outside the playoffs, is only four points behind the Lions. The power has started to seriously shift in the conference standings and if current trends don’t change, Orlando City could be in serious danger.
After finally making the playoffs in Oscar Pareja’s first year as head coach, Orlando brought back its entire core and made some minor additions, creating a roster that could legitimately battle for silverware, although the team didn’t fill its third Designated Player slot or make the kind of off-season signing that might push the team over the top.
Despite that, through the first few months of the year, fans’ high expectations were seemingly on track. The Lions were within reach of the Supporters Shield and were seemingly a lock for another home playoff game. With nine matches left to go, it’s suddenly a battle to guarantee a playoff spot.
The reality of the situation is that the Lions are a far cry from the MLS Cup contenders they looked like in June. The goal scoring has dried up, the defense is cracking, and, most importantly, the injuries are nearly insurmountable. With the current complexion of the roster, winning playoff games against New England, Nashville, or even Atlanta right now looks much more unlikely.
Is Orlando really an MLS Cup contender anymore? Well, despite all the negatives plaguing the team right now, the answer can’t be no. This league is too weird to rule anybody out. In a single-elimination game, a weird bounce or fortunate call can win a game over a better team. But that’s not a realistic expectation at the moment — and won’t be, unless Pareja can get the ship turned back in the right direction in the coming weeks.
At this point, clinching the playoffs and hopefully hosting in the first round is the goal. As fans it’s easy to get spoiled, but in the grander context of Orlando City’s MLS history, just making the playoffs two years in a row is a great success. Maintaining that level of success and establishing that as the standard is a key element to building a successful culture. The Pareja and Luiz Muzzi era is still in its infancy. Ideally, this is not a three-year blip, but the birth of a consistently competitive club, matching the likes of either New York club or — in an extremely ideal world — Seattle. Even if a title run can’t be made this year, another trip to the playoffs is pivotal for the longevity of this regime.
It’s important to avoid extreme overreactions to a brief blip in form. I said it earlier: MLS is weird and anything can happen. If Orlando can go on a multi-game win streak sometime before the end of the year, there’s a good chance I, or someone else, will write a post saying the sky’s the limit for this team. But the last few months tell me that’s looking less likely. Orlando City just hasn’t consistently looked as good as its conference counterparts for weeks on end at this point, and we, as fans, should adjust our expectations accordingly.
Then again, maybe I’m just a cynic.