It’s year three for Orlando City, and after two seasons of missing the playoffs and a head coaching change, the Lions enter 2017 ready to take the next step under head coach Jason Kreis.
The Lions finished 2016 eighth in the Eastern Conference, missing the playoffs by a point behind the Philadelphia Union and the New England Revolution. The end result was a disappointment to a team who had narrowly missed the playoffs in 2015 as well. But after the mid-season coaching change, Kreis believes the way the team played gave a lot of reason for optimism.
““I was pleased, really pleased. I think apart from a three game stretch where I felt like we went on the road, we lost to LA quite severely, and then another two matches where it just wasn’t quite up to what the players had put forth before that and after that, I think apart from that I was really, really pleased with the performances.” Kreis told SBI. “Not always the results we wanted but our performances for the most part were really strong, and I felt like what we were trying to implement and teach the players, they were taking on board. I think really the culmination of all that came over the last three matches of the season. The team really started to look the way we wanted them to look and so it felt like we were heading in the offseason in a pretty positive frame of mind.”
The way the team concluded 2016 isn’t the only reason for optimism in Orlando. Kreis believes the 2017 edition of OCSC entered the preseason as fit as they have ever been. Citing the team’s training program, Kreis praised his team’s preparedness as he detailed why this year’s team would succeed where the last two seasons had failed.
“From the very first training session we had in the preseason this year, I actually felt that the players were more fit than they were when we started with the group in August of last year.” said Kreis. “The training sessions to me have seemed, the players have been able to be more intense for longer stretches of time. The training sessions have been more competitive and the amount of focus in the training sessions has risen right away. So the work that the players did in the offseason was extremely important.”
With Kreis now having a full offseason and preseason to mold his roster into his preferred shape, the playoffs remain the goal for the Lions. They’ll open their new stadium, the beautiful Orlando City Stadium, against Kreis’ former team, New York City FC, on March 5th on opening weekend.
“We’re all really eager to get in there, to see what it’s like, and hopefully create, along with the fans, an atmosphere that’s very, very daunting for opposing teams to come into.” said Kreis.
With a slate of five straight Eastern Conference foes to begin their schedule, the early season could go a long way to determining whether OCSC’s ambitions rest at hosting a playoff match, or simply aiming to finish above the red line.
Here’s a closer look at the 2017 Orlando City team:
ORLANDO CITY SEASON PREVIEW
2016 FINISH: 9-11-14 (8th in Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Jonathan Spector, Will Johnson, Josh Saunders, Donny Toia, Victor ‘PC’ Giro
KEY LOSSES: Kevin Molino, Julio Baptista, Mikey Ambrose, Patrick McLain, Pedro Ribeiro, Luke Boden, Harrison Heath, Tyler Turner
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Jonathan Spector
One of the premier acquisitions of the MLS offseason, Jonathan Spector brings years of much-needed experience to the Orlando City back line. The 30-year-old American defender has made a name for himself across the pond in England, where he’s featured for over a decade with Charlton Athletic, West Ham United, and Birmingham City. After expressing his desire for a return to the U.S., Spector was granted his release and joined the Lions in January, where he’ll look to stabilize a defense that allowed a league-high 60 goals last season.
PRESSURE IS ON: Kaka
It isn’t that Kaka has played poorly, he’s been a solid contributor for OCSC in each of his first two years in MLS, scoring nine goals in each season and notching a personal best 10 assists in 2016. It’s just that when compared to other recent DP acquisitions, such as fellow expansion team New York Ciy FC’s David Villa, or Toronto FC’s Sebastian Giovinco, a regression in total points and league standing for Orlando City paints their prime play-maker in a less than perfect light. Entering year three, playoffs remains the goal for the Lions as new head coach Jason Kreis starts his first full season with the team. Fair or unfair, achieving that goal will go a long way to deciding Kaka’s legacy in the league.
The 2017 Orlando City roster looks stronger at first glance than its 2016 counterpart. Still centered around Kaka in the midfield and Cyle Larin in attack, the Lions bolstered the remainder of their roster around their two stars with several MLS veterans, who aim to instill a sense of leadership and experience that they hope can carry them through difficult moments.
The most notable acquisition is one returning from abroad, as Spector joins the team. He will need to help solidify a back line that allowed the most goals in the league in 2016. Joining Spector on the back line is Victor ‘PC’ Giro, with the 22 year old Brazilian defender signing a four year deal from the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies, and Donny Toia, who can fill in at either midfield or defense.
The three defensive acquisitions will join fellow midfielder-defender Brek Shea, who’s versatility enables him to slot in where needed as the competition for spots in the back four heats up. Featuring on the wing, at fullback, or wide midfield, Shea has been a regular fixture in the Lions’ eleven for the past two seasons, notching three goals and six assists, and he’s prepared to help the team achieve their playoff goal in any way necessary.
“Position-wise I’ve played many, many positions and so I’m used to that.” Shea told SBI. “I’ve been here all three years and I’ve been around for a while so I try and do what I can when I can and help the team any way I can.”
Among the new acquisitions, there is one that Shea points out as crucial in terms of the leadership and command he provides. Will Johnson is the ultimate MLS journeyman, beginning his career with the Chicago Fire, before continuing it with Real Salt Lake, the Portland Timbers, and now OCSC. Johnson has succeeded in every situation he’s been placed, winning two MLS Cups, one with Jason Kreis in Real Salt Lake in 2009, the next with the Portland Timbers in 2015, and reaching a third MLS Cup Final in 2016 with Toronto FC, and Shea believes his leadership will be invaluable.
“I think Will Johnson, that’s just the kind of player he is, he’s been everywhere and has been successful in a lot of places.” said Shea. “He’s very vocal and I think he’s the leader on and off the field. You can just see the way he trains and wants to win and he’s a good teammate to have.”
While the defense certainly looks more solid than in previous years. Johnson will need to help the attack maintain a level of goal-scoring that will suffer from the departure of star midfielder Kevin Molino to expansion side Minnesota United. Kreis is well aware that the defense’s improvement only matters insofar as the team maintains the ability to score and win, and he’s counting on his attackers, including Johnson, to pick up the slack.
“I think, when we think about the players that left us, in particular Kevin Molino leaving us in the preseason this year, I think that we need to, all of the players in the attacking half of the field, need to think about how we’re going to make up those goals that he takes with him.” Kreis said. “He brought a lot to the table last year, those goals and those assists. So I would say all of the attacking players need to think about what kind of role they can take in making those statistics up.”
With the successful close to 2016, a full offseason/preseason under Kreis in 2017, and the multiple new veteran leaders, there’s a lot of reason for hope around this year’s Orlando City team. If the offense can maintain their productivity and the defense can cut down their struggles, there’s no reason this Lions team can’t make the playoffs for the first time, a goal which Shea is adamant the players are working to make reality.
“I think that the fans deserve us to make the playoffs.” said Shea. “They come each week and give it their all, so I want them to know we’re pushing really hard to pay them back.”
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP