By Kevin Minkus (@kevinminkus)
2015 in review
Orlando City largely exceeded the typical expectations of an expansion team in 2015. The Lions finished in seventh in the East, just five points out of a playoff spot. 33-year old Kaka looked stellar running the show from the midfield, adding seven assists to his nine goals. He finished 16th in expected goals plus expected assists, ahead of well-established playmakers like Lee Nguyen, and Javier Morales (guys who needed no adjustment time to get used to the league). First overall pick Cyle Larin scored 17 goals on 10.5 expected goals on his way to Rookie of the Year honors. Fans showed up in record droves for an expansion team. Overall, their first year in MLS should be certainly be regarded in a positive light.
In spite of these successes, the team did have their problems. Depth, notoriously, is an issue for teams entering the league, and OCSC was no exception. Promising winger Kevin Molino went down in early May with an ACL tear, to be replaced by a combination of cromulent Eric Avila, an out-of-position Darwin Ceren, and Adrian Winter, a Swiss summer signing who spent most of his season getting his MLS legs under him. Young designated player Bryan Rochez spent much of May, June, and July not quite match fit after coming back from the U-20 World Cup in New Zealand late due to visa issues. Brek Shea missed most of the middle of the season with a sports hernia. Ceren missed a few crucial September games with a knee injury. Midfielder Cristian Higuita missed multiple games due to yellow card accumulation. On top of the negative effects of having to give significant minutes to bench-level players- guys like Servando Carrasco, Pedro Ribeiro, and David Mateos- these injuries really hampered the squad's ability to develop consistency.
Slow starts are also frequently an issue for expansion teams, and the Lions experienced some of that, as well. Nine points in their first 10 games dug them into a hole, though they perhaps undeservedly lost some close matches in that span, including a particularly tough one to D.C. United in stoppage time. After the difficult start, the team began to right the ship, buoyed by three wins and two draws in their next five. The rest of the season featured a 1-7-2 stretch and a five game win streak. As should probably be expected for a team new to the league, there were ups and there were downs.
At their best, Orlando City frequently generated chances both from the middle and from out wide. The Kaka to Larin connection led to 3 of Larin's 17 goals, while Carlos Rivas to Larin resulted in 4. City's best wins - 5-2 over Columbus, 4-0 over the Galaxy, 5-2 at Red Bull Arena - featured a good mix of both. At their worst, both facets stalled, and they failed to hold possession and create high quality chances.
Goalkeeper and Defense
It remains an open question whether the front office brought in enough pieces to improve upon last year's occasionally shaky defense. The Lions allowed 46.4 expected goals (not including own goals and penalty kicks), and 56 actual goals (including own goals and penalty kicks). Perhaps they were a bit unlucky, but neither is the number of a contender-level defense.
Having Brek Shea back, ideally for the entire year, should help shore things up, especially with a full season playing outside back under his belt, but even at the end of 2015 he was occasionally questionable in his decision-making. Promising youngster Rafael Ramos will probably get the bulk of the minutes in the other outside back position, with Luke Boden filling in for either Ramos or Shea as necessary. Ramos' development will be something to watch this season. 20-year old defensive mid Devron Garcia, a new signing from the Honduran first division, may be asked to fill in at centerback, given the team's depth at his natural position. If that is the case, he and homegrown player Tommy Redding may be the centerback partnership of the future, but they are probably a year or two away from truly stepping into MLS starting roles. For this season, though, walking red card Aurelien Collin will definitely have one of the two starting spots, likely being paired with Seb Hines, at least on opening day. Orlando City, then, should have a good mix of youth and experience on the back line, but it is unclear whether that group will have improved enough from last year to make a difference.
Regarding goalkeepers, Orlando City let goalkeeper Tally Hall walk and brought in Toronto FC's Joe Bendik to replace him. Analytically assessing goalkeepers is quite difficult, and I am certainly not good at it. If I had to guess I'd say I'm not sure he's an improvement, but Bendik should fit in fine.
Orlando City's midfield will be crowded this season, but given their problems with depth last year, I imagine that's a problem Adrian Heath will be looking forward to. Orlando City's biggest offseason signing, Antonio Nocerino (not Andres Nocioni, as I orginally had hoped), can fill-in anywhere in the midfield, though he typically plays more as a defensive midfielder or a box-to-box type guy. Given that, it probably makes sense to give him either Ceren or Higuita's spot, though if Kaka has injury issues there could be room for all three. Molino and Rivas will probably start on the wings.
|Team||Touches Per Shot|
|New York City FC||46.1|
Molino hopefully will get a full season to expand on his solid 2015 start. He recorded 15 key passes in just 7 appearances last season. Rivas gets quite a bit of well-deserved flak for his decision-making, but if he can rein in that aspect of his game he can become a real talent. Almost 60% of his shots last season were worth under .05 xG. For a team like Orlando City that prefers to hold on to the ball, these wild shots almost always result in loss of possession. Compare that with Ceren, Higuita, and Kaka, who all prefer to play patiently with the ball.
One of OCSC's problems last year was turning that possession into meaningful chances. Orlando City ranked second highest in touches per shot, meaning for how much they had the ball, they did not create a proportionally high number of shots. They were frequently content to knock the ball around without any attempt at moving toward goal at all. If the midfield can all get on the same page, Heath can find room for his best pieces, and they can work that issue out, the midfield has the potential to be truly elite.
The Lions are essentially banking on Cyle Larin being able to repeat his stellar rookie performance. Frankly, there's no reason to expect him not to. He looks to have all the tools necessary to be a complete center forward. For Rochez, obviously last season did not go as expected. OCSC will be hoping he returns to the form that netted 20 goals in the Honduran First Division in 2013-2014. Given the youth on the forward line, it might've been beneficial to bring in a guy like Conor Casey to the side for the right price to add an experienced center forward to mentor Larin and Rochez, and occasionally spell them when needed. Between Larin and Rochez (and Ribeiro), they'll probably be fine, but, given their youth, there is some uncertainty there. They're not really comparable, but Rodrigo Faria also once held the rookie goal-scoring record, so it might be worth tempering some the expectations on Larin.
For fans of Orlando City, there's reason to be bullish. What was a decent expansion side has really only gotten better. Unfortunately for OCSC, the teams ahead of them last year (except maybe D.C. United), have also gotten better. Still, I could see them fighting for fourth place in the best case scenario. In the worst case scenario, maybe they just miss the playoffs. I'm not sure they added the defensive pieces to truly challenge for the top of the East, but an appearance in the knockout round should be well within their grasp.