Orlando City is under pressure to win.
The much-hyped club with a passionate fan base entering its fourth year of existence needs to find itself in the top six of the Eastern Conference at the end of the 2018 season.
Any other result will be deemed unacceptable, just like it has been for each of the last three seasons as other expansion sides New York City FC and Atlanta United have clinched postseason berths.
A statement had to be made by the Lions in the offseason to reach the next level in an evolving Eastern Conference that grew leaps and bounds in 2017.
Orlando recognized that and revamped its roster in one that contains some of the best chance creators in the league.
Normally, it would be hard for a club to replace the impact of Kaka and Cyle Larin in its attack, but with the additions of Justin Meram, Sacha Kljestan and others, the Lions have gotten better on paper and most likely on the field.
As much as he meant for the first two years of the club, it was time for Kaka and the club to move on from each other. The Brazilian legend, who retired after his announcement to leave Orlando, only contributed six goals and five assists in 23 games in 2017.
Sure, you could make the argument that the 35-year-old was still important because of the attention he attracted and his ability on set pieces, but helping create one goal per every two appearances isn’t good enough for a No. 10 on a team with playoff inspirations.
Orlando cured that issue with the addition of Kljestan, who since he left Anderlecht for MLS, has been one of the best players in the league.
Over the last three seasons, Kljestan recorded 16 goals and 51 assists compared to Kaka’s 24 goals and 22 assists. The American is the perfect playmaker to have sit in behind Dom Dwyer, whose acquisition last summer from Sporting Kansas City started the wheels on Orlando’s busy offseason, and create chance after chance for one of the top scorers in MLS.
This week’s trade for winger Meram makes the Orlando midfield deadlier and gives opposing defenses nightmares when it comes to putting together a game plan to stop it.
The 29-year-old Iraq international is coming off the best season in his career with 13 goals and seven assists for the Columbus Crew. With Meram bursting down the wing and Kljestan popping through seams in the middle of the park, the Lions will be able to feed Dwyer from multiple angles.
Not only have the Lions made big splashes within the league, they picked up Josue Colman, a Paraguayan No. 10 to add depth to the midfield group. Former LA Galaxy midfielder Jose Villarreal and Cam Lindley, who was traded from the Fire to Orlando, will also provide as needed reinforcements during the drawn out eight-month regular season.
Orlando also made a smart move on Tuesday by acquiring Oriol Rosell, who was Sporting Kansas City’s defensive midfield ace when they won MLS Cup in 2013. Adding Rosell to an experienced collection of Will Johnson, Dillon Powers and center back Jonathan Spector reinforces the spine that some opponents may see as a weakness with a top-heavy attack.
The concerns about the Orlando defense are valid since it conceded on 58 occasions a year ago, but there’s also hope that the Spector-led back line with new faces itself, including left back Mohamed El-Munir will develop a chemistry and not force goalkeeper Joe Bendik into a plethora of game-saving denials.
If you look at every position on the roster, Orlando has made some type of upgrade. Without even hearing Kreis speak, you’re aware of what the Lions’ intentions are in 2018.
It’s postseason or bust for a franchise in desperate need of taking the next step as other clubs continue to bolster their stature across the East.