Much of Orlando City SC’s inaugural season was filled with excitement and drama, including the club’s home opener against New York City FC at the Citrus Bowl.
Orlando City did experience a rough summer, many red cards and just missed out on the MLS playoffs, but overall, there was a lot of excitement that surrounded the Lions in year one.
Year two has picked up right where last season left off, as the club announced a #FillTheBowlAgain campaign in the hopes of repeating the same turnout as last year’s home debut. Head coach Adrian Heath is expecting great things from his club and the city as the MLS season quickly approaches.
“Our fans never cease to amaze me, so if we were to get 62,000 again on the opening day, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Heath told SBI ahead of the 2016 MLS season. “Any time we’ve asked the supporters for anything, they’ve always delivered. I think we raised a few eyebrows last time when we said we were going to fill the bowl. I don’t think many people thought we could, but we managed to do it, so if we run out there in front of 62,000 on the opening day, I won’t be surprised.”
What can those thousands of supporters expect come opening day on March 6? For one, they will watch a talented defensive midfielder join Brazilian star Kaka, and see the return of two key members of the club who faced injuries last season.
Here’s a closer look at the 2016 Orlando City:
ORLANDO CITY SEASON PREVIEW
2015 FINISH: 12-14-8, 44 points (7th in Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Antonio Nocerino, Joe Bendik, Devron García, Hadji Barry, Kevin Alston, Richie Laryea
KEY LOSSES: Estrela, Tally Hall, Corey Ashe, Eric Avila, Danny Mwanga, Josh Ford, Lewis Neal, Adam Bedell, Sidney Rivera, Tony Cascio
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Antonio Nocerino. It’s no secret that the 30-year-old Italian midfielder was the addition of the offseason for Orlando City. Coming from AC Milan, Nocerino adds international experience to a key area of the field for the club. With him in the defensive role and Kaka leading the attack, Orlando City’s midfield can be considered one of best in the league on paper. And if he performs as expected, the Eastern Conference may need to look out.
PRESSURE IS ON: Brek Shea. The winger turned left back performed well in 2015, but was unable to compete in many games for the club after suffering a groin injury in the middle of the season. Shea will be asked to do a lot in 2016, and if the club is to make a run towards the playoffs, he will need to be one of the leaders.
Orlando City’s first season was also coach Heath’s first time in charge of an MLS team, and he quickly learned the importance of every point in a league known for its parity.
The team barely missed out on the playoffs after winning five of its last six games to challenge Toronto FC for the sixth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Lions weren’t able to qualify on the final day of the regular season, but Heath pointed to games earlier in the season as the reasons why the club missed out on a chance to make history.
“I think the one thing that came through for us was that every point, whenever you get it, is important,” Heath told SBI. “We had a horrendous July and August, and had we just taken a couple of more points in one of those games, nicked a win or nicked a draw, then that probably might have been enough for us. And we wouldn’t have been put under the pressure we ended up playing on during the end of the season. We did prove at the end of the season that we can compete, home and away, against very good teams.
“Obviously, we want to start where we left off, but more importantly the one thing I take from last season is that every game is as important because when I look back on the early games, we conceded a goal against Vancouver in the 93rd minute, one against D.C. in the 96th. Had we not conceded one of them goals, conceivably, we would have made the playoffs,” Heath said. “When you consider the run we had in July and August, when we didn’t win for 10 or 11, it’s there for all to see. Every game is important. Taking something out of a game, even if it’s only a point, can be crucial down the stretch at the end.”
Heath has made a few changes to the team in the hope of avoiding such late defeats. Nocerino comes into the club and will likely slot into a defensive midfield role, but he can play as a box-to-box if needed. Heath is considering using a 4-3-2-1 after working on it in the offseason, but he may end up using a 4-2-3-1 formation.
The 30-year-old midfielder will likely line up next to El Salvador captain Darwin Ceren, but Cristian Higuita could easily fill in and contribute if called upon. Kevin Molino, a two-time USL MVP, has returned from an ACL tear he suffered last May, and is expected to play on the left wing from the get-go. On the right side, Carlos Rivas could be expected to start more games this year after performing well down the final stretch of the first season. First-round pick Richie Laryea has impressed in preseason and should offer depth at multiple midfield positions.
Nocerino has stolen most of the spotlight this offseason, but Heath and the club have made some important additions elsewhere to help create a group that can potentially do some damage in the Eastern Conference.
Bendik, who joined the club in December, is one of those key under-the-radar signings made by the Lions this offseason. The 26-year-old is the clear replacement for Tally Hall, and is eager to help Orlando City reach the playoffs.
“We kept lot of the players from last year, which is an important way to kind of grow the core of the team and keep the team chemistry,” Bendik told SBI. “For me, that’s one of the biggest things. On the field, attacking-wise, I think we’re very strong. It’ll definitely take a little bit of time, but we have such a strong group of core guys that the team chemistry is there already.”
Another one of those key additions is Kevin Alston, who was chosen by Orlando City during Stage 2 of December’s MLS Re-Entry Draft. He is versatile enough to play either outside back position, but Alston will be challenging Rafael Ramos for minutes to start the season with Brek Shea all but guaranteed to fill the left back position.
In central defense, it’s a little clearer. Veteran centerback Aurelien Collin will almost certainly play alongside Seb Hines to start off the season, but Tommy Redding could fight for more playing time this season.
Cyle Larin, who broke the rookie goal-scoring record last year, will be hoping to avoid a sophomore slump this season. However, Heath thinks he has what it takes to do just as well in year two.
“The key is him thinking that he’s made it. The key is him thinking that everything is just going to keep going like this. The one thing I know about football is you have to work hard at it every single day. Every day that you come into training, you try to get better. Every game that you play, you want to be better than the game before. And if he keeps his feet on the ground and works as hard as he can, the sophomore slump is nonsense,” Heath said.
“With all the tools that Cyle has, he’s getting bigger and stronger by the day, there’s no excuse that he doesn’t have the same type of season. He always gets chances. He always gets himself in good spots, so unless he stops doing that, I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t have the season this year like he had last.”
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP