Some Orlando City fans (not all, but some, and you know who you are) don’t seem happy unless there is something to complain about. That’s not unique to the OCSC fan base, nor is it confined to soccer. Sports, in general, lends itself to nitpicking by fans of even the most successful teams. No team in sport is ever going to do everything right 100% of the time. Even the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins could have been better in several areas.
One of the areas this year where Orlando fans on social media and here on this site have been critical is the team’s offense. That’s a completely fair criticism for a team that scored just 44 goals in 34 games. Only two teams in the Eastern Conference and six teams in the entire league scored fewer goals. But, just like NFL fans are quick to jump on starting quarterback play and lay far too much credit/blame at that one player’s feet, some Orlando fans have largely taken out their frustrations on the Lions’ Designated Player striker, Ercan Kara.
Blaming Kara for Orlando’s offensive struggles is completely oversimplifying a complex problem. Strikers, like quarterbacks, often get more of both the blame and the credit than they deserve.
When a soccer team’s offense isn’t scoring, the striker can be at fault if he’s missing on an unusually high number of good scoring opportunities. We saw this firsthand when Dom Dwyer fell out of form after his 13-goal 2018 season. Starting in 2019, Dwyer was visibly missing quite badly — regularly — when presented with high-percentage chances to put the ball in the back of the net. It was the most maddening case of the yips in Orlando City history. So, we know what that looks like.
What we have seen this year from Kara has looked nothing like that. He actually finishes his chances at a high rate (more on that below).
But the 26-year-old Austrian also has committed the unpardonable sin of not being Daryl Dike. The former OCSC striker was an immensely popular player among the fanbase for obvious reasons — an infectious personality, great smile, threw around center backs like they were rag dolls, had fun goal celebrations, regularly got under the opponents’ skin, and scored a lot of great goals for the team. He was a special player who could have had several monster years in Orlando, but the club did right by him in granting him his wish and selling him so he could play in Europe.
“The guy who replaces the guy” is often found wanting by fans, even if they’re very good. But if “the guy who replaces the guy” can stick around and keep producing, like Brian Johnson did in AC/DC, he can win those fans over. Kara has the talent to do that and he’s already shown his ability to do it.
Don’t believe me? OK, fine, let’s get into it.
A Ludicrous-Yet-Interesting Comparison
Let’s start off by getting really crazy and comparing Kara to the MLS Golden Boot winner, Hany Mukhtar of Nashville SC. Here’s a quick, simple, 2022 season comparison:
Kara: 48 shots, 19 shots on target (39.6%), 11 goals (22.9% shooting percentage, 57.9% on-target shooting percentage) in 1,789 minutes.
Mukhtar: 126 shots, 65 shots on target (51.6%), 23 goals (18.3%, 35.4%) in 2,835 minutes.
Kara doesn’t get quite as many of his total shot attempts on target as Mukhtar from a percentage standpoint (39.6% to Mukhtar’s 51.6%). However, if that seems like a problem, consider that Kara and Austin’s Sebastian Driussi (40.2%), the league’s Golden Boot runner-up with 22 goals, get approximately the same percentage of total shots on frame, and Kara is only a couple of percentage points behind Chicharito in that category as well. So he’s not missing the target notably more than some of the league’s other top strikers.
Kara’s data shows he has actually been a better chance finisher than Mukhtar, scoring on a higher percentage of his total shots (22.9%-18.3%) and on a much higher percentage of his shots on target (57.9%-35.4%) than the league’s goal-scoring leader.
So it’s not Kara’s ability to put the ball in the net that’s the issue, it’s volume, and it would have been interesting to see what Kara would have done had he played 11.6 more games’ worth of minutes (He played a third of an entire season less than Mukhtar! That’s 2,835 minutes compared to 1,789.) to get a more direct comparison with what Mukhtar did. Kara’s 0.55 goals per 90 minutes doesn’t seem too far below Mukhtar’s 0.73 goals per 90, although that adds up over time.
If you’re wondering if Kara is somehow not getting enough shot attempts, it can seem that way in individual games, but Kara is attempting 0.03 shots per minute on the field, not far behind Mukhtar’s 0.04 shots per minute and pretty much even with Driussi. The translation of that is that if Kara had held his shooting rate and played the same number of minutes as Mukhtar, he would have finished the year with 76 shot attempts — tied for the second-highest total in team history, trailing only Dwyer’s 2018 total of 78. That’s actually remarkable given the team’s average shot attempts per game under Oscar Pareja.
To widen the goals-per-90 comparison, Kara’s rate was better than that of Jeremy Ebobisse, Lewis Morgan, and Sebastian Ferreira, and about on par with Julian Carranza, Diego Rubio, and Brandon Vazquez. Those players each scored between 13 and 18 goals on the year. Kara’s 0.55 goals per 90 is just 0.06 less than Jesus Ferreira, who finished fourth in MLS with 18 goals.
In fact, in doing the math, if Kara maintained his goals-per-90 rate of 0.55 for an additional 11.6 games’ worth of minutes (the 1,046 fewer minutes he played than Mukhtar did), he would have completed the season with 17 goals and finished tied for eighth with Ebobisse in the Golden Boot race, just one behind Vazquez, Brenner, Chicharito, and Jesus Ferreira. Those 17 goals would have tied Larin’s club record for goals in a season.
And of the 19 players in MLS who scored more goals than Kara this season, eight of them scored at least four times from the penalty spot to Kara’s one.
If you still think Kara’s this team’s problem (and even if you don’t), read on...
Target Strikers Require Teamwork
Not all goal scorers are built the same. Some of them, like Mukhtar, Carlos Vela, Daniel Gazdag, and Raul Ruidiaz, are sort of hybrid attacking midfielders/strikers. Those like Kara are target strikers and require more help getting the ball in good position — guys like Kacper Przybylko, Kei Kamara, C.J. Sapong, and Jozy Altidore come to mind, as well as Cyle Larin in his time in Orlando. Dike is also that target-type striker but with the added ability to simply discard a defender through sheer strength to set up their own clear-cut chances.
Watching this team (not the ball, but the team, which is much easier to do in person than on TV), it’s clear that there is not nearly enough being done to get Kara the ball when he’s in a good position to receive it. Early in the year, teams simply swarmed Facundo Torres and Mauricio Pereyra, which effectively choked off the service to Kara. To combat this, Oscar Pareja dropped Pereyra deeper on the pitch to put space between his two best playmakers, and that helped somewhat. So too did the late addition of Ivan Angulo, who is enough of a playmaker on the left side to take some of the opposition’s attention away from Torres and Pereyra.
But, overall this season, there wasn’t enough in the attack from players working down the left channel (Benji Michel, Joao Moutinho, Jake Mulraney, Angulo) or nearly enough from Ruan — the de facto right wing in Orlando’s weirdly shaped attacking formation — on the other side to make teams pay for all the attention they were paying to Torres and Kara (Orlando’s goal scorers) inside. When the ball went into the wide areas, crosses were either off line, delayed in delivery to the point where the defense recovered, or never even attempted. Ruan, in particular, seemed to ignore his ability to get to the end line and often opted instead to curl back and send a slow-rolling pass to Torres at the corner of the box, which immediately put the young Uruguayan under pressure and limited his options.
Torres himself was part of the service issue by being a little too one-footed. Playing mainly on the right side, Torres was reluctant to use his quickness to get up the field and cross in with his weaker right foot. The Young DP can grow out of that by developing his weaker foot, although some players never do (looking at you, Silvester van der Water).
And without center back Robin Jansson in the lineup, there were no balls over the top to reward Kara for his efforts to widen and split opposing center backs, which is what he’s doing while most fans are watching Antonio Carlos, Rodrigo Schlegel, Moutinho, and Cesar Araujo kick the ball around the back to each other. Nashville’s Walker Zimmerman would be pinging that ball forward to pick out Mukhtar in many of those instances.
Even without much service to get him touches, in a season plagued with multiple injuries early in the year — while he was supposed to be building chemistry with his new teammates — and adjusting to a new league and culture, Kara still scored 11 goals, which was one fewer than Vela, a player most people consider pretty good at soccer. Kara played 544 fewer minutes (the equivalent of six fewer games) than the 2019 MLS MVP, and Vela had more goals from the spot.
Only four players who scored more goals than Kara during the 2022 MLS season played fewer minutes than Kara’s 1,789 — D.C.’s Taxi Fountas (12 in 1,469 minutes, of which four were scored in the two meetings with Orlando); Philadelphia’s Mikael Uhre (13 in 1,633); New York City FC’s Valentin Castellanos (13 in 1,463 before transferring to Girona); and Miami’s Gonzalo Higuain (16 in 1,750). So, Kara is also largely being compared by fans to players who were on the field more than he was when they point to his goal total.
By scoring 11 goals this year, Kara gave Orlando City eight consecutive seasons with a double-digit goal scorer. No Major League Soccer team had previously had a double-digit goal scorer in each of its first eight seasons until Orlando did it. Both Kara and Torres have a great shot at getting there next year to extend the streak to nine.
Criticisms of an Orlando striker are nothing new. Some people complained about Larin being “lazy” in seasons when he wasn’t getting as much service. Big strikers who aren’t producing are always accused of being lazy. It was actually that particular criticism that was lazy, not Larin’s play. Neither is Kara lazy and although he doesn’t have blazing speed, he’s got enough pace to be successful in MLS.
Kara scored a fourth of Orlando City’s total goals in 2022 and nearly another fourth was scored by Torres. The issue in Orlando isn’t that the striker isn’t scoring enough, it’s that very few others are scoring much at all (Junior Urso scored five goals, and literally no one else netted more than three), and they’re also not getting their striker the ball enough.
If You Build It, He Will Score
Mukhtar, like Dike, is a special player, and without him, Nashville would be exceedingly average. He scored 23 of his team’s 52 goals this season (44.2%). That’s a lot!
Looking at the best teams in MLS, the numbers aren’t nearly as skewed. Nashville’s scoring leader accounting for close to half of his team’s goals. However, LAFC’s leading goal scorer was Cristian Arango, with 16. That accounted for 24.2% of LAFC’s total for the season — just about what Kara provided for Orlando. Philadelphia’s Daniel Gazdag was one shy of the Golden Boot, with 22 goals. That was 30.5% of the Union’s goal-scoring in 2022. But even with scoring a slightly higher percentage of Philly’s goals than what Arango and Kara provided for LAFC and Orlando, respectively, Gazdag had teammates like Carranza (14 goals), Uhre (13), and Cory Burke (seven), and he had seven (!) goals from the penalty spot.
What the top teams have that Orlando doesn’t is goal-scoring depth — other guys who step up. And, with more players to worry about, it frees the top scorer up to...well, score. The 22-year-old Torres nearly got to double digits for Orlando City this year, but behind that the drop-off was significant. Urso scored five goals to finish third on the team, mainly by playing higher up the pitch at wing and by swapping spots with Pereyra. That’s still only one more goal than the four he provided as the late-arriving box-to-box midfielder last year. He should be a complementary piece of the offense like Alejandro Bedoya is in Philadelphia, not your team’s third-leading goal scorer.
Everyone loves Michel. He’s a Homegrown Player, a hometown kid who has come up big in some important moments for the club. He’s got a big smile, provides great energy for the team, and has an effervescent personality. Who doesn’t love a good Benji backflip or the way he uses props in his celebrations? But Michel scored a goal on opening day and then did not score again all season long in MLS play — despite appearing in almost every game (31 league appearances). It was a career low and has continued a downward trajectory in his career in terms of goals per 90 minutes.
Others who played striker this year include Tesho Akindele (three goals), Alexandre Pato (three), and a couple of late cameos by Jack Lynn (no goals).
Wing players Mulraney and Angulo combined for zero goals. The club’s DP No. 10, Pereyra, scored one time. The team’s starting fullbacks combined for four goals. Ruan and Moutinho also finished with just four combined assists — that’s 11 behind Philadelphia’s Kai Wagner alone. While there aren’t a lot of Kai Wagners out there, that is not a gap, it’s a gulf.
Soccer is a team sport. That’s never been in dispute. Yet fans still love to pile on the striker when the team has a struggling offense. Kara missed his opportunity on Sunday night in Montreal, it’s true. Kara did not miss Torres’ shot, or Carlos’, or Angulo’s. Kara did not ignore his own setups to run between the center backs. Kara did not serve poor crosses or passes into the area to himself or get those attempted key passes blocked. Kara did not build the attack behind him too slowly to take advantage of Montreal’s three-man back line. In short, yes, Kara could have given his team the lead in the first half of his first ever playoff match, but he doesn’t represent a primary reason Orlando City lost that game or the other 14 league matches the Lions dropped in 2022.
Is He the Right Fit?
It’s a fair question to ask if Kara is simply a good striker who doesn’t fit in with what Oscar Pareja wants to do with his attack. It’s possible, but Pareja has had some previous success with the similarly built Blas Perez in 2014 at FC Dallas, taking his team to the U.S. Open Cup semifinals and only heartbreakingly going out in the Western Conference semifinals against Seattle because of the the away goals tiebreaker, which is no longer a thing. Perez, who scored 11 times that year for an FC Dallas side that finished fourth in the West with 55 goals, had no drop-off from 2013. His 11 goals equaled the MLS career high he had set under previous Dallas manager Schellas Hyndman in the first year after Pareja’s arrival.
So, this type of striker can work in Pareja’s system and Kara is probably much better (and certainly much younger) than Perez was then. One key difference between the 2022 Lions and that 2014 Dallas team is that Pareja had two other double-digit scorers in 2014 — Fabian Castillo and Michel Pereira — and Akindele chipped in eight more that year. Those four players alone combined to score 39 league goals, which is just five fewer than all of Orlando City’s roster had in 2022.
None of the above means I don’t think there are flaws to Kara as a player. Virtually every MLS player has some or they’d be playing in a higher-profile league. Kara hasn’t been a particularly effective defender in the press, although Orlando doesn’t press high that often anyway. His aerial play for his height could be better. And yes, his pace isn’t what Dike’s was, although I maintain that he’s fast enough to get the job done.
How about if — and just hear me out on this — we let Kara and Torres get a second year in the United States under their belts together, get Gaston Gonzalez’s knee healthy and let him cook on the opposite side of Torres, and add some complementary pieces who can be dynamic in the buildup, but also score goals themselves and maybe draw a few more penalties? And what if the club improved its goal-scoring depth at striker this off-season?
If those things happen, it’s almost a certainty that fewer fans will be pointing the finger at Kara and can instead go back to whining about their NFL team’s quarterback.