In the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals against NYCFC last week, Orlando City SC nearly blew it. They held a 1-0 lead at home, with a chance to squeak into the semifinals of a tournament that could be a boon for the playoff-less Lions. Simply playing important knockout games is enticing for a restless fanbase just waiting to get excited about something.
Now in their fifth MLS season and hanging outside the red line for the fifth straight year, Orlando has a history of tough luck, roster mismanagement, and late-game mishaps. They lived up to their reputation late in the quarterfinal against New York City, conceding a scrappy, last-ditch equalizer to Maxi Moralez in the 96th minute. Fans could do nothing but sigh. History, at that moment, repeated itself.
But by the time penalty kicks came around after a dull 30 minutes of extra time, Orlando had another opportunity to steal that win they so badly needed. The supporters’ section sprinted across the stadium concourses, enveloped security, and filled the empty stands behind the goal where the kicks would be taken.
It was a sight to see, and the shootout lived up to the theatrics. The Lions’ backup goalkeeper Adam Grinwis stoned Alex Ring’s first penalty kick and stopped Maxime Chanot’s sudden-death effort to secure a thrilling win for Orlando. Fans could celebrate.
The win won’t signal a complete shift for the club, nor will it even confirm they will advance past the semifinals of the Open Cup. (They will host Atlanta United on Aug. 6.) But this season has been an overall positive for a team now taking the slow and methodical route to turning the ship around. Coach James O’Connor has established himself as competent, and has implemented a defined system of hard defensive work and counter-attacking.
In contrast to last season, when they revamped the core of the roster and went for a shot at contention, Orlando are counting more on youth and cohesion. This shift is partially out of necessity; bad contracts permeate the roster, so spending significant money would be difficult and risky. Nonetheless, there is a new sense of confidence around this team now.
O’Connor hasn’t done anything revolutionary. He recognizes what he has and puts his players in positions to succeed, coaxing internal improvement and crafting a more defined tactical identity. Bad players don’t play. There is no attempt to make Orlando into something they are not.
It is a refreshing departure from years past. During the Adrian Heath and Jason Kreis years, Orlando were never able to establish the stability that O’Connor has, in part because roster-ruining weak spots are less prevalent now—the frequency of catastrophic defensive errors has dropped. Orlando have given up 27 goals in 20 games, a perfectly acceptable and capable total.
As the Colorado Rapids and New England Revolution have showed us in recent weeks, managers can change the culture and attitude of teams, and sometimes that’s enough to reverse negative trends. Whereas Anthony Hudson and Brad Friedel fell flat and couldn’t get players to coalesce, Connor Casey and Bruce Arena provided a noticeable jolt. O’Connor has propped up the right players and bred a new sense of confidence.
The Lions are a borderline (at best) playoff team in spite of these improvements. FiveThirtyEight puts their playoff chances at 44 percent, and the possibility of a second-half run from Toronto FC will dampen short-term Orlando optimism. But they don’t have to make the playoffs this year. They’ve built a legitimate base, and now they can build. More calculated transfers, thrifty moves, and internal development should come.
First, they have to get bad contracts off the books. A player like Oriol Rosell, who makes $522,500 to play a depth role, is essentially dead weight. Will Johnson and Sacha Kljestan are starters (and Johnson has found a very Will Johnson-type niche in this midfield), but they make a pretty healthy amount of money and are in their early 30s. Cristian Higuita feels like a midseason trade candidate. Even Dom Dwyer, club legend, looks a bit like a contract albatross.
Their offseason is looking better and better in hindsight, with a few important acquisitions. Ruan has been one of the league’s best right backs and can play wingback in O’Connor’s flexible systems. Joao Moutinho has been legit at left back. Tesho Akindele was a great intra-league trade find and has been a classic “change-of-scenery” player. Center back Robin Janssen has been a big part of the back line’s stabilization.
Kyle Smith, who played under O’Connor in the USL, has been a quality, low-cost backup left back. Benji Michel and Kamal Miller have been intriguing younger options, Michel a Homegrown and Miller a SuperDraft pick.
And, of course, Nani has so far lived up to expectations. He will poke around the best XI race if he keeps up his scoring pace, which sits now at eight goals and seven assists in 1,217 minutes. Every team needs an elite attacker who can run things up front, and Nani has been that guy for Orlando. For a team that spends much of its time counter-attacking, a true difference-maker up front is crucial.
Orlando can feel safe marinating this core of players and sorting out a defined core going forward. A few players seem to be guaranteed parts: Nani, Sebastian Mendez, Chris Mueller, Lamine Sane, Ruan, Janssen, and Moutinho. You could talk me into Akindele or Higuita, and other players (like veterans Kljestan, Dwyer, and Johnson) are clearly crucial parts of the team now.
Management will have to wrestle with whether they consider Moutinho as the long-term left back (right now, they should), and whether they consider Mendez a No. 6 or No. 8 (either is fine; he’s flexible).
Most pressing: How do they grow from where they are now, as a non-playoff team, to become an MLS contender? O’Connor’s tactical setup fits the current group, but most contenders are comfortable playing on the ball and dictating possession. Orlando has to consider the shape of the league’s current best teams, most of which have the ball a lot. Evolution tactically will be at the forefront of any discussion of Orlando’s path forward.
It is not unreasonable to craft an identity based around playing off the ball, defending stoutly and running on the counter. The Portland Timbers did roughly that last season en route to MLS Cup. If that is the direction Orlando wish to go, they have to commit fully to it. No wavering, or throwing it out the window the way the Houston Dynamo seem to do at times.
Mendez could well be the Diego Chara of the operation. Mendez is a midfield bulldog, covering ground and winning second balls in front of the backline. With him, along with Johnson, a fellow workhorse, Orlando have found success enveloping opposing superstars.
Once they get the ball forward, Mueller has found ways to keep it there. He has often looked like Orlando’s most important attacking piece. He is calm on the ball, understanding when he should and shouldn’t run at defenders. His most impressive trait is his understanding of what happens after he beats defenders off the dribble. There isn’t a panic, or sense of satisfaction that he has skinned another fullback. He knows he has to do something productive with the ball, and he often does.
He has to continue honing that understanding of the game, and calmness in tight situations. He can get flustered in the tightest of jungles:
The tools are there. The ball sticks to his foot, and his crossing is soft and smart. Defenders struggle to hang with him.
He should improve as a connector and creator. Per American Soccer Analysis, his Expected Passing Percentage is just 74 percent, indicating he is taking risky passes. With an actual passing percentage of 71 percent, he is not hitting on those risky passes.
Part of Orlando’s future plans should be finding a high-caliber future starting No. 9. Dwyer has been in a serious slump and hasn’t been a high-volume MLS goal-scorer since 2016. Orlando could benefit from a hold-up striker who unlocks opportunities for Mueller and Nani.
The second half of this season will be a good test for the current roster setup, and an opportunity to see how high it can fly. Low-cost additions on the fringes (like the trade for Crew winger Robinho) are smart. As money opens up in the future, Orlando should be able to afford bigger moves. They have a DP slot available. The goal should be to at some point open a window of contention.
They will have to spend — the team right now is unlikely to make the postseason, so there are clearly holes that need to be filled and improvements that need to be made. In addition to a No. 9, they should look to use their third DP slot on a ball-moving central midfielder in the mold of Paxton Pomykal. They would do well to look at depth in attack and at center back, as well.
The next step — theoretically into playoff contention — will be easier than the last. A core of solid players is there already, and O’Connor has established a team ethos with a versatile tactical system. They’ve done the hard work of erasing some of the setbacks of previous years and for the first time have a direction to go and a base on which to build. Now we see what they do with it.
Harrison Hamm is a sportswriter who covers American soccer and MLS for FloFC. He also covers sports for FanSided and The Comeback, and has freelanced for the Washington Post.