The 2017 Major League Soccer regular season is fast approaching. For Orlando City SC, less than a week remains before they christen their new stadium this coming Sunday against New York City FC (5 PM ET, ESPN). The game will take place nearly two years to the day after the teams kicked off their inaugural MLS season of 2015 against one another in Orlando.
Both sides dealt with their fair share of struggles that year. For NYCFC, it led to them firing manager Jason Kreis after the season with Patrick Vieira taking over in his place. The move worked as the Bronx club rebounded in 2016, finishing with the second best record in the Eastern Conference and making the playoffs for the first time.
Orlando, on the other hand, endured another rough campaign last year. And it led to the club parting ways with head coach Adrian Heath in July. The abrupt mid-season move shocked some as Heath’s ties with the team go back to its inception as a USL team in 2008. Kreis ended up replacing him and the Lions finished the season positively, winning their last two.
Sunday’s showdown with NYCFC will probably feel surreal for Kreis who patrolled the opposite sideline in Orlando two seasons earlier. But the atmosphere will most definitely be the same. And this time, the raucous, sold out crowd will be on his side, hoping to see the Lions get the full three points.
But one game does not make an entire season. And this one is fairly important for a team starved for success after two seasons devoid of the playoffs. With that in mind, which questions are most pressing heading into a make or break 2017?
Three Questions for the 2017 Orlando City SC Season
How Will the Kreis 4-4-2 Work in Orlando?
Kreis came to prominence in MLS coaching circles over the course of his seven-year stint as Real Salt Lake head coach. Under his watch, the club won MLS Cup in 2009 and made another appearance in the final four years later. The most distinguishing hallmark of those RSL sides from a tactical standpoint was the 4-4-2 diamond formation.
The frontal tip of that midfield is about as set in stone as it gets. After all, Orlando boasts Kaká as its playmaking number ten. He’s certainly no spring chicken at 34 but certainly has plenty left in the tank if 2016 was any indication. Despite playing fewer minutes, he equalled his nine goal haul from the previous season. He also amassed ten assists, three more than in 2015.
The base of the diamond requires an industrious, precise holding mid able to win possession and distribute down field. The player expected to fill this role is Christian Higuita. The 23-year-old played in roughly half of the teams minutes in 2016. But he led the team with 6.9 tackles and interceptions per 90. Will Johnson and Matías Perez-Garcia might be viable options in the shuttler roles on opposite edges of central midfield.
The switch to a two-striker system gives Kaká an additional target to provide service for up top. Cyle Larin is already a known quantity, with the Canadian tallying 31 goals during his first two MLS seasons. His expected strike partner, Carlos Rivas, is more of a question mark. The Colombian managed just three goals since joining the club two seasons ago. Giles Barnes, recently acquired from Vancouver for Brek Shea, is another potential impact player.
Can a Revamped Defense Begin to Make Strides?
During their first two seasons in MLS, Orlando City SC’s weakest link has clearly been the back four. In 2015, the club let in 56 goals which ranked 17th in the league. A year later, the Lions plumbed new lows in conceding a league worst 60. Since the league went to a 34-game schedule in 2011, only four teams gave up more during the regular season.
Needless to say, soundness on the defensive side of the field might be the difference between Orlando contending for the playoffs and getting left out once more. The biggest move of the off-season aimed at shoring up this unit was signing center back Jonathan Spector. The 31-year-old American played the previous six seasons with England’s Birmingham City. He’s expected to pair up with Jose Aja, acquired on loan last summer, in central defense.
Shea’s departure creates a bit of a void at left back. But he’s never really been known for his defensive quality and is better suited in a more advanced position out wide. The possibility of Kreis deploying a diamond seemed to make him a tradable asset. New signing Victor “PC” Giro might slot in on the left side in Shea’s place, with Donny Toia or Rafael Ramos starting at right back.
If Cyle Larin Continues to Excel, Does Europe Come Calling?
Further up the field, there’s much less uncertainty. That’s because the Lions have one of the league’s top young strikers in Cyle Larin. The number one overall pick of the 2015 MLS SuperDraft made an immediate impact, finishing tied for fifth in MLS with 17 goals during his rookie year. Though he pulled back a bit last year with just 14 tallies, he remained in the top ten among the league’s goal scorers.
Heading into his third year as a pro, there remain whispers regarding his future with the club vis-a-vis a potential move abroad. Last summer, those whispers turned into a cacophonous chatter when a report out of Portugal linked him to Benfica, one of that country’s most storied clubs. Though nothing came of it, the rumors probably aren’t going away anytime soon.
They’ll undoubtedly return ahead of this year’s summer transfer window if Larin gets off to a hot start. The Brampton, ON native already has a fairly prominent endorsement in his well-traveled teammate Kaka. During the team’s media day, the Brazilian legend declared Larin as more than capable of holding his own overseas if a European club came in with an offer.
It’s probably not something fans want to hear. Larin’s meant so much to this club over its first two MLS seasons. And for the time being, he’ll remain so moving forward. But his skill set as an attacking talisman and goalscoring sensation with a knack for net is a highly coveted asset.