What Are They All About? Orlando City SC
Alternate realities. This past weekend the Chicago Fire suffered yet another home loss, falling 3-2 to the Houston Dynamo. After a lively first half in which Chicago was dominant for a spell of about fifteen minutes was overshadowed by the overall story of the match, complete dominance by Houston in the final third of the field. Out-paced on the wings and out played centrally, Chicago gave up thirteen shots in the match. Another poor performance from Richard Sanchez made the outcome inevitable to onlookers. The result further cemented eighth place for Chicago, a team spiraling to towards the doldrums of seasons past.
Their distance from last year’s highs was perhaps best evidence by Bastian Schweinsteiger’s post-match interview which included phrases like “it’s not good enough, I mean that’s clear, we played at home, too many losses here” and “everyone needs to step up, everyone needs to take responsibility”. The German was visibly frustrated on the pitch, throwing his arms in the air, shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head, kicking balls into the crowd, and even getting into a spat with head coach Veljko Paunovic after Houston’s leveler. After witnessing those actions from a player used to the highest level of professionalism, Schweinsteiger's frustration should be a clear indication of the current state of the Fire.
Someone who does not share that frustration and paints a very different picture of the club is General Manager and Club President Nelson Rodriguez. Wednesday marked the first of three media roundtables hosted by Rodriguez and his ego-stroking remarks signaled that he was not going to accept a bleak outlook no matter how realistic it is. A reiteration of Chicago’s proximity to the playoff line (just six points out), doubling down on not over- spending on transfer targets, touting his analytics model of player evaluation, and a firm reminder that trophies were never promised within his three-year plan were some of the highlights of the ninety minute long Q&A session. Ultimately, it was the kind of fluff that the community has come to expect from Chicago’s GM and the true story will continue to be written this weekend as the Fire travel to Florida to take on Orlando City (6:30 CT on ESPN+). Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Orlando Form Guide: L-L-W-W-W
Previous Result: A 2-1 away loss to Toronto.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Bendik; El-Munir, Tarek, Sane, Johnson; Higuita, Rosell; Meram, Kljestan, Mueller; Pinho
Strengths: As the Eastern Conference starts to separate between the likely playoff contenders and those sides that point to hypotheticals, Orlando City is firmly amidst the former. A strong end to May against Chicago and a victory over NYCFC to start off June could see them jump as high as second in the East, a feat they have yet to achieve in their short history. The squad is jam packed with talent and although the core is built to win now, there are a few pieces there with longevity in mind as well. Let’s see where they might succeed this weekend.
All In: When Jason Kreis replaced Adrian Heath in July of 2016 he was brought in because of his experience in the league and his championship pedigree with RSL. In a sport and a league that are both becoming exclusively about immediate results, Kreis and Orlando entered into a partnership that was about the here and now and their current roster reflects that. The offseason additions of thirty-two-year-old Sacha Kljestan, twenty-nine-year-old Justin Meram, thirty-one-year-old Ludovic Sane, and thirty-year-old Chris Schuler in addition to last season’s acquisition of thirty-two-year-old Jonathan Spector have formed a core that is built on league experience and veteran leadership. Those are traits that have proven necessary for recent MLS cup contenders. There is a sense of urgency about this Orlando side exhibited every time they take the field and prior to their recent bump in the road, led to an immense amount of consistency for Kreis’ charges. An unbeaten streak of six matches was ended by their loss to Atlanta two weeks ago, but a return to form is only a win away.
Worrisome Statistics: As the Fire approach this encounter they will likely reach the unfortunate realization that areas where they have struggled this season—shots against, generating chances when not dominating possession, and fouls conceded—are areas where Orlando has inversely thrived. Having a possession advantage, generating double digit shots, and set pieces goals (or goals from crosses) have been the norm for Orlando over the last five matches and if that continues, the Fire could have another howler on their hands.
Flip Positives into Negatives: Asked about recent results during their midweek press conference, Orlando players and staff alike reiterated the necessity to view their two consecutive losses as learning opportunities. Joe Bendik highlighted the evenness of the match against Toronto despite a makeshift squad and a difficult environment, Will Johnson applauded their tactical shape and approach to both matches while decrying tiny mistakes for the losses. Jason Kreis pointed out that they limited both opponents to a few chances in each match. There doesn’t seem to be a slump in attitude among this Orlando side and that could be the difference against a Chicago team that is devastated by injuries and struggling mentally as well.
Weaknesses: Although Orlando is fairly comfortable in fifth with a five-point cushion supporting their playoff goal, things can change quickly in MLS and there are reasons for concern for Kreis’ side. Let’s see where they might struggle this weekend.
Exposed on the Left: One of the most obvious weaknesses for Orlando over the last few matches has been their utilization of Will Johnson as a right back. Traditionally a number eight, the Fire PDL product thrived in that position for RSL and Toronto and featured their frequently for Orlando last season. An influx of midfielders arriving in the offseason—Sacha Kljestan, Justin Meram, Josue Colman, Oriol Rosell, and former Chicago academy player Cam Lindley—meant that Johnson would not see the field in his traditional role. However, his high salary, veteran experience, and longtime friendship with Kreis have seen him re-purposed. Unfortunately for Orlando, he has not thrived there.
In the previous match against Toronto, youngster Ryan Telfer was given explicit instructions to go at Johnson down Orlando’s right-hand side. His speed and agility proved to be too much for the veteran as Toronto succeeded down that flank time and time again. Both goal scoring sequences in Toronto’s 2-1 win occurred through such an approach and Telfer was rewarded with his first ever professional goal as Johnson looked gassed and completely lost sight of the Toronto native on the 87th minute winner.
This was not a one-off performance as a similar approach was taken by Atlanta the week before with Almiron and Barco both drifting towards Johnson’s flank. The PK won by Garza came from a cross allowed by the right back as did Garza’s assist to Barco. With no obvious alternative on the bench, Johnson is sure to feature on Saturday. If only the Fire had a speedy left winger to take advantage of this short coming…
A Sigh of Relief: Another glaring shortcoming for this Orlando side is that they will likely be without leading goal scorer Dom Dwyer for this fixture. Listed as “out” on the MLS injury report with a “lower body injury”, Dwyer trained on his own this week and could miss a second consecutive match. With six goals in seven appearances this season, Dwyer has been his usual dangerous self. Although a second injury this season might be worrying for Orlando and the Englishman, all indications are that this injury is not serious. Kappelhof and whoever partners him will be happy that they don’t have to deal with the energetic forward and clinical finisher. They’ll also breath easily knowing that Stefano Pinho’s eight successful passes and one blocked shot against Toronto weren’t exactly confidence inspiring for Orlando’s hopes of an adequate replacement.
A Little Voice: While we do not often dabble into psychology, there is something peculiar about the way in which Orlando has fallen apart season after season since their entrance into the league. Despite entering the league in 2015 with ambitious intentions from owner Flavio da Silva that included the marquee signing of Kaka, a revolutionary approach to stadium building and fan culture, the funding for their own USL side, and an overall commitment to spending, Orlando has yet to make the playoffs. Last year was exceptionally painful for Orlando as they won six of their first seven, elevating expectations, before collapsing in the summer and winning just four matches after July. As alluded to earlier, this is probably Kreis’ last chance to get it right and many of the veteran’s last chance at silverware. The tools are there but something tells us that MLS voodoo will strike again.
Prediction: Our predictions have been as abysmal as some of Chicago’s performances this season. We’ll give it a go anyway. Chicago 1-3 Orlando. Meram, Kljestan, and Lindley for Orlando, and Nemanja Nikolic for Chicago as the Fire analyze themselves to another loss.