Orlando City’s July schedule is an absolutely brutal gauntlet that will test the Lions in every way imaginable. With eight games in 28 days — an average of one game every 3.5 days — the month will have a huge impact on Orlando’s soccer fortunes during the 2022 season.
How Tough is the Schedule, Really?
Since joining MLS, Orlando City has never played eight matches in a calendar month. The upcoming slate is the most difficult stretch for the team in one month since the back-to-back seven-game months of July and August of 2019. That year, the Lions played seven times in 25 days in July (a game every 3.6 days), and seven more times in 29 days (a game every 4.1 days) in August. Prior to that, there were a couple of other seven-game months in the team’s history, but never an eight-match calendar month.
Major League Soccer’s schedule makers weren’t easy on Orlando City for the month of July and the club didn’t make matters any easier with their own success in the U.S. Open Cup or the club’s decision to participate in a friendly against Arsenal. Those latter two items ended up sticking two additional midweek games into an already busy month.
Making things even more difficult will be the ratcheting up of the intensity of these matches as well as location. Of the eight July games, two are against established southeast rivals Inter Miami and Atlanta United, one is against Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia, and one is a semifinal in a knockout competition. Although only three of the eight games are on the road, one of those is at altitude in Colorado, one is on the knee-devouring turf of Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, with its hostile and sizable crowd, and the third — the final match of this trying stretch — is in the difficult environment of Audi Field.
The gauntlet starts Monday, July 4 when D.C. United visits Exploria Stadium. That match will kick off the first of three double-match weeks this month. The four days between Monday’s game against D.C. and Inter Miami’s visit on Saturday will be the most consecutive non-game days of July for Orlando City.
After facing Miami on Saturday night, the Lions will have a short turnaround before flying to Colorado to take on the Rapids, who are off to a poor start this year but have still managed to go 5-1-2 at home due to their unique advantage of living with the thinner air of their elevation every day. Orlando won’t have much time to recover from that trip before heading to Atlanta on July 17 for the first of three games in seven days.
The Arsenal friendly takes place July 20 and, although it’s a meaningless friendly, the stage provided by playing a big club from England basically demands at least a token appearance by the team’s top players. It’ll likely be a short appearance for them, but the bench is going to be tested this month so even those players who normally serve as second-half substitutes may be feeling a bit leggy at that point in the month. After two off days, the Philadelphia Union come to Orlando on July 23.
Before the events of Wednesday, that final week of July was going to present the Lions with a full week of rest before the trip to D.C. on July 31. However, by slipping past Nashville on penalties in Wednesday night’s U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal, the Lions have booked a home date with the troublesome New York Red Bulls for July 27.
Here’s the month at a glance:
- Monday, July 4 — vs. D.C. United
- Saturday, July 9 — vs. Inter Miami
- Wednesday, July 13 — at Colorado Rapids
- Sunday, July 17 — at Atlanta United
- Wednesday, July 20 — vs. Arsenal (friendly)
- Saturday, July 23 — vs. Philadelphia Union
- Wednesday, July 27 — vs. New York Red Bulls (USOC semifinal)
- Sunday, July 31 — at D.C. United
A Test for the Roster
July would be a problematic month for any MLS team, but it looms as an especially threatening iceberg in the water, waiting for the good ship Orlando City, which has shown its struggles with depth already this season. After a strong start to the season, Alexandre Pato’s play has tailed off and his postgame comments after Wednesday’s match seemed like those from a player who either is having a hard time accepting a backup role or who may be on his way out soon.
“So many things happened in my time here in Orlando. I am a little uncomfortable for my situation here,” Pato said. “I think my focus here is right now, in Orlando, I need to do my best.”
Aside from Pato struggling to achieve the same production level of Ercan Kara, the team has gotten virtually no offense from Benji Michel or Tesho Akindele, and for all of Facundo Torres’ obvious qualities and potential, the Uruguayan is still extremely young and has been more of a setup player than a scorer thus far. Additionally, Junior Urso’s offensive contributions have largely dried up in recent weeks, which includes missing a sitter on Wednesday night with the game still scoreless.
And the simple fact is that Orlando has no viable backup for Mauricio Pereyra — another player who is a provider but seldom scores goals himself. Everything that has been tried in his absences the last couple of years has failed to yield acceptable results, although the previous presence of Nani helped mitigate that at times.
Defensively, it’s great to have Antonio Carlos back, but it would be unwise to push his body too hard after coming back early from his thigh injury. With six league games in July, there’s a strong possibility that Robin Jansson will pick up three yellow cards, thereby earning himself a third accumulation suspension on the season. Another suspension for yellow card accumulation could also happen to Rodrigo Schlegel if he sees enough playing time. And fullback is already experiencing some issues with Joao Moutinho’s recent injury and Michael Halliday’s international duty.
The team’s only real depth is in central midfield, where Sebas Mendez could reliably spell either Cesar Araujo or Urso. The latter situation would push Araujo into the No. 8 role or necessitate playing Andres Perea, a still-young player who has had some trouble finding his form, or Joey DeZart.
While the depth will be tested in July, and reinforcements could be added in the transfer window — although they may not be cleared to play in time to be of much help before August — there is also the possibility in a stretch like this that tired bodies could sustain injuries that could keep players out even longer. Recovery and rest will be crucial and no training staff has a magic bullet to deal with the situation.
When the dust settles at the end of the month, if the team is healthy for the stretch run over the season’s last two full months and the start of October, that’s a win in and of itself.
Busy months are nothing new in soccer. More and more competitions seem to be added to the calendar each year. Friendlies and deep runs in cup competitions clutter the club fixture schedule sometimes. And that doesn’t even address those players who need to travel for international duty at times.
It’s a situation that teams have to deal with periodically and, as the Lions are professionals, they’ll roll up their sleeves and get to work with no complaints about the number of games, and you’ll likely hear the phrase “one game at a time” often this month. But this is a July that could mean the difference between a successful 2022 season and one that will have fans wondering what could have been.
When the Lions get through the gauntlet and Aug. 1 arrives, it will be interesting to see where this team stands and how much is left in the tank for the season’s final months.