"Our goal and our aim in the first year is to get into the playoffs," Orlando City SC founder and president Phil Rawlins said in 2014. "We know that is not going to be easy."
It sure wasn't. Although the team was technically still in playoff contention until the final match day, the Lions lost their last game and missed the cut, ending the year 5 points behind Toronto FC and 7 points ahead of NYCFC. They finished the year 12-8-14 with 46 goals scored and 56 goals against. They were a streaky team, going on a 5 win tear near the end of the season, but only after losing 7 out of the 10 games before the streak.
They had the fourth highest payroll in MLS at around $11 million, so they didn't miss the playoffs for lack of trying. However, a big chunk of change went to Kaká, who took home a cool $7 million, making him the highest paid player in MLS history.
Orlando had very strong inaugural season ticket sales, drawing 32,847 fans per game, and they were only behind the Sounders in attendance. The Lions' home opener drew 62,510, the 9th largest crowd in MLS history. And the big crowds no doubt helped them perform much better at the Citrus Bowl, where they went 7-5-5 with a +6 goal differential. Merchandise sales were brisk too, with Kaká and Brek Shea landing in the top 10 for MLS jersey sales.
So in a year where they just missed out on their MLS playoff dreams, what went right and what went wrong for Orlando City SC?
Continuity at Head Coach
Unlike the built-from-scratch NYCFC, Orlando City had played in the USL from 2011 to 2014. They had success there, finishing first in the regular season USL table three times, and winning the Commissioner's Cup twice. They also made the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup in 2013, and that same year the lead the USL in attendance.
Head coach Adrian Heath, a former Everton F.C. star, led the USL team to an impressive 82-23-16 record, and was twice named coach of the year. Although he lacked first-tier professional head coaching experience, it was a no-brainer for Orlando's MLS ownership to keep Heath at the helm given his past accomplishments.
Throughout his first season with the team, Heath managed a roster in constant flux thanks to injuries, international call-ups, a passport snafu, and even the temporary disappearance of two of his players after a match in New York. (Note to AUFC: Curfews are a good policy when playing in New York and LA.) Yet the team did finally gel, going on an end-of-season hot streak that nearly landed them a playoff spot.
LESSON: It was great to see the Orlando ownership remain loyal to a coach who'd brought them success in USL, and unlike the trigger happy owners at NYCFC, Orlando's top brass showed calm by giving Heath another season. Atlanta United FC should emulate this kind of patience, within reason of course. And they also should consider hiring a head coaching talent from the U.S. soccer pyramid's lower tiers. Michael Anhaeuser, head coach of the Charleston Battery, definitely deserves a closer look, especially since he'll have worked with at least a few first-year AUFC players. Plus, Anhaeuser's clearly capable of handling a rotating roster full of young, raw talent. One obvious concern is that he's never had to deal with big-name international singings at the level of Kaká, but then again, not too many coaches have.
There's Value to Be Found in USL
Orlando City also carried over a few players from USL, including Luke Boden, Darwin Cerén, Harrison Heath (Adrian's son), Estrela (Valdomiro Lameira), Kevin Molino, Rafael Ramos, Tommy Redding, and Tyler Turner. Cerén was an extremely valuable asset as the defensive anchor in midfield, completing 86.5% of his passes and averaging 3 tackles and 2.5 interceptions per game. He was named the MLS Latino Player of the Year in 2015, but only cost $66,000 in salary. Bolden and Ramos put in major minutes at left and right back, and while they were part of a weak defensive unit, at least both players didn't cost much.
LESSON: I love it when the fine readers at Dirty South Soccer do my work for me. Commenter Zontar said it best on a previous post: "I hope that AU will be scouting NASL and USL to look for guys who may have slipped through the cracks and could be picked up." That may sound obvious, but given the emphasis on scouting talent in MLS and foreign leagues, it can be easy to forget there is young, cheap talent to be found in the domestic lower tiers (Poku, anyone?). A key focus this year for AUFC scouts should be finding, signing, and stashing away future AUFC players at the USL affiliate in Charleston.
One DP to Rule Them All
Orlando took an interesting approach to choosing their designated players. While NYCFC paid top dollar for three international stars, the Lions splurged on one superstar: 2007 Ballon d'Or winner Kaká. It wasn't a shocking choice given the team's Brazilian ownership, but Kaká's record-setting $7 million paycheck was eye-popping, at least given the 33 year-old's falling form in recent years. Kaká started the season as hot as a Manaus afternoon, scoring 7 goals in a 9 game stretch in May and June, and unlike other DP's who didn't deserve to earn an MLS All-Star appearance...cough, Gerrard and Lampard, cough, cough... Kaká most certainly deserved his selection. Brazil's national team took notice of his return to form, calling him up to join the squadâmainly to warm the bench, but stillâfor a few World Cup Qualifiers.
He finished the year number one on the team in assists (7) and second in goals (9), but as the Florida summer dragged on and racked up more minutes, Kaká's age began to show. He didn't score at all in August or September, and his poor late season form came as his teammates played well down the final stretch.
The team's other two DP's, Carlos Rivas and Bryan Róchez, were disappointing. Both were "Young Designated Players," a classification created by MLS in 2011 to allow teams to make long-term investments in young internationals without taking big hits against the salary cap. Rivas' youth and inexperience came through with a very low 71.4% pass completion rate and get this: zero goals on 63 shots! (Not a typo.) Róchez, the youngest DP in MLS history at the time, arrived late in the season because of passport problems and wound up playing just 16 times and scoring 3 goals.
LESSON: Signing just one big-name DP meant Orlando had room to add new players to the roster in the event of a rash of unforeseen injuries. That's exactly what happened to them, and the team had 30+ players suit up.
If AUFC does decide to break the bank for one player, they should look to get someone closer to their primeâGiovinco for example. Obviously he's a dream choice, but if someone like him isn't available the option of two DP's, both with smaller contracts, might be the best way to hedge the risk. And obviously, they should do their research to ensure our DP's to get stuck in immigration limbo.
Hitting the Draft Jackpot
Orlando City nailed their #1 SuperDraft pick when they chose Cyle Larin out of UConn. He had one of the all-time great rookie seasons, scoring 17 goals and crushing the MLS rookie record by 6 goals. Named the AT&T Rookie of the Year, Larin got even hotter as the season went on, scoring 6 times in the final 4 matches. (Sorry U.S. fans, Larin's a Canuck.)
As for the rest of their SuperDraft and Expansion Draft picks, only midfielders Pedro Ribeiro and Lewis Neal put in any meaningful time on the field, and neither set the world on fire with their play.
LESSON: Not that our dear leaders need to hear this from us, but please please PLEASE make that first SuperDraft pick count.
A Carousel of Centerbacks
The Lions scored 46 goals, putting them in the middle of the MLS pack in terms of offensive production. But they struggled mightily in the defensive third, giving up 56 goals, the fourth most in MLS. (At least their D better than NYCFC, but not by much.) They let in tons of goals despite playing a defensive-minded 4-2-3-1 formation, with two defensive mids to provide additional cover. Cerén and Higuita were solid as the DM tandem, but it often wasn't enough to keep the score sheet clean.
The backline struggled for two reasons. First, though MLS veteran Aurelian Collin was an anchor at the center back position, he was partnered with seven different players during the course of the season. It's hard to gel as a unit without continuity. Second, they were awfully young and inexperienced. Among the centerbacks, only Collin had MLS experience, and their main leftback Rafael Ramos was only 20 years old.
Goalkeeper Tally Hall seemed like a good pickup with 6 seasons at Houston under his belt, but he was also coming off an ACL injury. The team had a 10-8-5 solid record with Hall in goal, though he had a very mediocre 64% save percentage.
LESSON: Both NYCFC and Orlando City paid the price by failing to emphasize defensive fortitude when building their rosters. AUFC can learn from their mistakes and maybe build from the back, starting with experienced centerbacks. I also like the way Orlando used two DM's to provide additional support in the back.
TO SUM UP:
- Rather than go for a one-and-done coaching pick, strive for continuity in the position. Maybe even consider looking to our lowcountry brethren in Charleston for help.
- Look for good deals in USL or NASL.
- You might get one chance, at most, to pick a quality player in the draft. Choose wisely.
- Get that backline squared away. And try not to get your keeper off another team's injured reserve.