Why exactly has Orlando City SC performed so poorly in the month and a half since smashing the reigning MLS Cup champion Portland Timbers on April 3? Undefeated and looking like the beasts of the MLS’ Eastern Conference, the Lions have since collapsed. Beginning with a 2-1 loss in Chester, PA to Philadelphia on April 8, Orlando City has drawn three games and lost three matches. While it has become fashionable among Lions supporters to blame the referees for the team’s difficulties due to the preponderance of controversial calls in matches involving Orlando, the fundamental cause of the Lions problems have been self-inflicted wounds.

Here is a brief look at why Orlando City SC has fallen so far, so fast.

Bad offseason

Orlando City SC’s offseason was probably the worst in MLS. In fact it was one of the worst in the recent history of the league. The constant shuffle of front office personnel led to a disastrous offseason where  the club did not begin making serious player acquisition moves until January. General Manager Paul McDonough left the organization and his network of scouting and talent evaluation was lost in the process. McDonough had helped to build in 2015 one of the best first-year MLS clubs in recent memory putting together a squad of players brought up from the Orlando City’s USL days, MLS journeymen, some promising young international talent and of course, Kaká. Despite long odds and the unrealistic expectations generated by a fan base accustomed to winning at the third division level where competition was poor from 2011-2014, Orlando City SC was within one game of making the MLS postseason and finished with a higher points total than five clubs that were existing and established MLS franchises in 2015. Still the ownership sought to blow up the football structure of the club feeling the team hadn’t met some unrealistic and quite frankly delusional goals of being hyper-competitive immediately after the move to MLS. Not only was this arrogant, but it was disrespectful toward the MLS product and how difficult it is to win quickly in a competitive league environment.

Poor defensive shape

The Lions like to play attractive attacking soccer. That’s a good thing but unfortunately it means that the defensive shape is going to be critical for the side. In Rafael Ramos and Brek Shea, Orlando City SC has two fullbacks that like to bomb forward fitting Head Coach Adrian Heath‘s desires to play with a lot of pace in wide areas and whip crosses into the attacking areas. All too often this leaves Orlando’s fullbacks exposed and many times this season the defensive shield playing in front of the back four has been out of position and too far up the pitch. Antonio Nocerino, whom Orlando City SC had a protracted saga trying to sign this offseason isn’t reading the game quickly enough to play as a holding midfielder and when he plays on the left side of midfield he neglects his defensive responsibilities regularly leaving Shea exposed. A better option on the left side of defense right now might be Luke Boden who has been with the club since 2011 and remains a good man-marking defender. But the Yorkshire-born Boden has been largely disregarded this season and was loaned to Orlando City B a few weeks back because of an injury crisis. Boden returned to the first team in the loss Sunday to Sporting Kansas City and was probably the Lions best player after coming into the match in minute 66. On the right side of defense, Kevin Alston an MLS veteran remains an option on the right side instead of Ramos.

Orlando City is in salary cap trouble but need to find a way to acquire a proven holding midfielder that can shield the back four, keep positionally sound and win the ball effectively. The Lions don’t have that player right now and made no attempt to sign that player this offseason.

Officiating mistakes and the reaction to these errors 

Yes, Orlando City SC has gotten some questionable calls this season. Incidentally so has the opposition though that is often forgotten by many Lions supporters.  The standard of officiating across all divisions of North American pro soccer isn’t good enough – full stop. Orlando supporters are right in expressing that view and articulating it forcefully. However, one club really doesn’t have it worse from officials than others and this is where the argument many Lions fans make is off the mark.

What’s very disappointing is that Heath and the club have consistently made an issue out of questionable calls not just after games but during the week leading up to the next match. Then when a call goes against the Lions as it arguably did on April 24 in Harrison, New Jersey the team mentally switches off. It’s been a smart PR strategy locally for the club at times to fan the flames of this as while Orlando has some very sophisticated soccer fans in the supporters groups (The Ruckus and Iron Lion Firm) many other fans, the ones who buy the more expensive tickets each week aren’t the most soccer savvy individuals. If those fans feel the Lions are being victimized every week, not winning games matters less and the spirit of the fans remains high.

But what about the players? All too often we’ve seen heads slump and players demand calls from the officials late in matches. While that fighting spirit served the team well in the heroic 2-2 comeback in Foxborough, Mass on April 30 when Carlos Rivas netted a critical 90th minute equalizer, all too often it’s lead to disjointed play.

Where do we go from here? 

The wonderful thing about MLS is that 12 of 20 teams make the playoffs and especially in the far weaker Eastern Conference, Orlando has the attacking talent to beat anyone. If the defensive shape can be solidified with a clever signing or two during the July window (which is easier said than done given the Lions salary cap predicament) the team still can achieve its 2016 goals. But right now, the project is badly off track.

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