By Ian Lamberson (@ahandleforian)
It was the worst of times. 2018 is a year that Orlando City fans could forget if it didn’t make up 25% of the team’s MLS existence. No, the dull scab of mediocrity that Orlando had become finally broke sometime in April of last year and the rest of the league was there to season aggressively with rock salt. Jason Kreis was dismissed, and while that was indeed understandable, James O’Connor’s task of righting a sinking ship has now unfortunately shifted into excavating a wreck. In a league that has had no shortage of underachievers in its youth and adolescence, Orlando’s 2018 was a special kind of dark comedy. They stepped on every conceivable rake, went out, purchased several new rakes at great expense, and then stepped on all of those as well.
So what went wrong?
Everything. Trigger warning for Orlando City fans: Talking about Orlando City.
So just how bad was Orlando City? So so bad. 28 points weren’t the very worst in the league but if “better than San Jose” is the only bar you can clear you’re probably better off not jumping. Going back through our dataset (since 2011) The Lions posted the third worst xGA (59.9) and the very worst actual goals allowed (72). Their xGD of -17.8 is the fourth lowest in our dataset, and their actual goal difference (-31) is the fifth worst.
Now, I can only assume at this point that you’re no doubt saying “Ok Ian, but you’re just talking about the defense. Surely the offense wasn’t that bad.”
Well, while the offense wasn’t as historically bad as the defense, it was by no means good. An xGF of 42.1 was the fourth worst in the league, and a tally of 41 actual goals scored was tied for the league’s second-lowest mark.
So with an abysmal defense and an impotent offense, it should come as no surprise that Orlando City did not have too many games where they were better than another team. The eight wins they managed were equal to the second lowest in the league and six of those came before May 7th. What followed was a six month run of form that would have made Chivas USA blush, taking just seven points from the final 72 on offer.
Ok, you get it. Orlando City was terrible, but was there anything good? Anything that can be built on? Well. Yoshi Yotun was actually excellent. That's the kind of midfield rock on which you can erect the foundation of a team, and (checks notes) he’s gone.
Chris Mueller looked promising in his rookie season, with a 0.32 xG+xAp96 comparing favorably to some of his peers like Yamil Asad, Paul Arriola, and Cristian Roldan. Logging 2000 minutes in your rookie season is a solid return no matter for whom you play, and he deservedly finished runner-up in the annual Rookie of the Year vote (in an admittedly underwhelming rookie class).
Ah, and who can forget those heady days of March 31st through May 6th when Orlando was unbeatable. Six matches in a row. Eighteen points. For those six weeks, Orlando simply would not drop points. Last gasp comebacks and late match drama had fans enthralled and prompted the club to give themselves the horrible moniker of "Cardiac Cats." This nickname was terrible, somewhat nonsensical, and in my opinion at least 80% to blame for the tragic fall that occurred shortly thereafter. You know what? I'm not even joking. I JUST now realized that they went with "Cats" because they're the lions. This somehow makes the nickname even worse.
Anyhow, while those six wins were thrilling to be sure, the manner in which they came should have set off alarm bells instead of popping champagne bottles. Whether we knew it or not the wheels were already coming off the wagon, and while that breakneck downhill plunge certainly got the heart thumping, it's a good reminder that winning matches in a not so thrilling fashion is probably a safer indicator of future success.
So what can be expected in 2019? Let's look at our offseason moves thus far (information from mlssoccer.com).
F - Tesho Akindele (12/9/18 - trade from Dallas)
D - Joao Moutinho (12/11/18 - trade from LAFC)
GK - Greg Ranjitsingh (12/19/18 - transfer from Louisville City)
D - Kyle Smith (12/19/18 - transfer from Louisville City)
M - Sebastian Mendez (12/28/18 - transfer from Independiente del Valle)
D - Danilo Acosta (12/28/18 - loan from Real Salt Lake)
F - Benji Michel (12/31/18 - Homegrown)
D - Alex De John (1/10/19 - free)
F - Santiago Patino (1/11/19 - SuperDraft)
D - Ruan (1/16/19 - free)
Orlando's acquisition strategy seems to be something like "SIGN ALL THE FULLBACKS!" They sent Mohamed El-Munir to LAFC for left-back Joao Moutinho, picked up left-back Danilo Acosta on loan, acquired Brazilian right-back Ruan on a free, and signed Louisville right-back Kyle Smith.
In other positions news, defensive midfielder Sebastian Mendez seems to be the biggest offseason acquisition, likely in an attempt to fill that giant Yoshi Yotun sized hole. Greg Ranjitsingh will be competing for GK minutes with Nerwis and Mason Stajduhar.
GK - Joe Bendik (11/27/18 - option declined)
M - Richie Laryea (11/27/18 - option declined)
D - Chris Schuler (11/27/18 - option declined)
D - Jonathan Spector (11/27/18 - option declined)
D - Scott Sutter (11/27/18 - option declined)
D - Donny Toia (11/27/18 - option declined)
M - Jose Villarreal (11/27/18 - option declined)
GK - Earl Edwards Jr. (11/27/18 - out of contract)
D/M - Victor "PC" Giro (12/9/18 - traded to Vancouver)
D - Mohamed El-Munir (12/11/18 - traded to LAFC)
D - Amro Tarek (12/11/18 - traded to NY Red Bulls)
M - Tony Rocha (12/12/18 - traded to NYCFC)
M - Yoshimar Yotun (12/27/18 - transfer to Cruz Azul)
F - Stefano Pinho (1/22/19 - waived)
This is less addition by subtraction and more like subtraction by wrecking ball. We touched on Yotun’s exit above, but it’s worth saying again what a tremendous loss that is. I think Joe Bendik has actually been generally pretty good considering that he spent his entire tenure at Orlando under heavy shelling from opponents. 2018 was definitely his worst season so far, and when you set records for allowing goals it’s hardly inadvisable to renovate your back line a bit. As such, so goeth Jonathan Spector, Chris Schuler, Scott Sutter, PC, Amro Tarek, and Danny Toia. It should not surprise you to learn that Orlando will probably not miss any of these defenders. Pinho is a player that I personally like a good deal, but it’s also not surprising to see him deemed surplus to requirements.
It would be impossible to talk about Orlando City’s issues without getting into their front office. Here’s the thing though, what’s so fascinating about this is that Orlando isn’t doing any one particular thing that I can point to and say “that’s dumb.” I can look at just about every personnel decision they’ve made and in a vacuum say “yes that makes sense”. Of course, you should sign Sacha Kljestan. Justin Meram is available? GET HIM. Dom Dwyer for a million dolla -- ok ok let’s slow THAT particular roll a bit but, you know proven MLS goalscorers aren’t cheap so whatever. Despite all of this, I also can’t with any hindsight look back at any of these transactions and give them a thumbs up either.
So I kind of feel bad for Niki Budalic, who at least SEEMED to be doing the right things, but even if you’re hacking at decent pitches, you keep whiffing and you’re going to get replaced. That brings us to Orlando’s biggest offseason acquisition, FC Dallas’ Luiz Muzzi. It’s hard for people outside of the boardroom to give any sort of insightful analysis about the process. Instead, we get to look at the finished product and make up our minds accordingly. It makes things difficult because I’m sure if we could see the wealth of information and scouting that goes into some of these players, we’d understand why they wanted to gamble on them. Well, unless we’re talking about the Galaxy who are apparently pretty chill about the whole due diligence thing. Muzzi comes from an FC Dallas organization who were very recently forced to recover from their own late-season meltdown. Only time will tell if Muzzi is able to get the most out of the Lions but If you’re looking to be a stable club, you could do worse than borrowing FC Dallas’ playbook.
Part of this season preview is that I’m supposed to come up with a likely starting eleven, and I’m not even going to try and do that. I have no idea who is going to win the preseason battles for those backline slots, and other than Dwyer, Mendez, and Mueller I wouldn’t bet any substantial money on any other player right now and that is potentially a very good thing for a team needing a new direction. Orlando City is a team that is desperately in need of a reboot and not the gritty, edgy kind. Orlando City needs to be fun for once. I don’t have a five-part plan to accomplish this. This goes beyond tactics and recruitment. There is no expected Fun metric I can cite. It would be impractical and likely impossible to completely wipe the slate clean, but this is probably as close as we’re going to get.
So what does Orlando City need to accomplish in 2019 to be considered a success? Well just about any result is an improvement, but with the Eastern conference also-rans being in a bit of flux this season, the minimum goal still has to be to make the playoffs. The club has invested too much money to constantly be finishing below the line. Orlando has a good stadium, they spend money, but they’ve still come up short and their league appointed rivals to the North only highlight the stark contrast in fortunes.
There are still too many unanswered questions about this organization for me to feel confident one way or the other, but mediocrity is the skunk spray of sports and many an MLS side has spent way too much time looking for a tomato bath (unrelated but useful fun fact: tomato juice doesn’t actually help). James O’Connor may still prove to be the right man for the job, but if Orlando stumbles out of the gate you have to think that Orlando will be quick to make a change. I don’t know which MLS manager has the hottest seat going into the new season, but I can’t imagine that O’Connor has his feet up.
Orlando City’s success, like most MLS teams, will likely come down to consistency and health and failing that a whole lot of luck. None of these concepts have been hallmarks of Orlando’s inchoate existence, but the time for excuses has passed and this team is going to need to figure out a way to win.