Before we go anywhere on the trail toward Orlando City’s early-season ascendance in 2017, let’s clear one boulder out of our pathway first.
Jason Kreis’ Orlando City is not Jason Kreis’ Real Salt Lake.
This is one point in particular Kreis is no doubt likely to make relatively clear early in the discussion these days. Kreis spent seven hugely formative seasons at RSL, to the point that his identity (and that of his attendant front office) became grafted onto the club itself. But to take his success in Sandy and port it directly to Orlando is a disservice to both clubs, and frankly to Kreis’ mental machinery as well. Both are unique challenges, and Kreis approached and is currently approaching both in different ways, however overt or subtly.
But there’s something special happening in Orlando right now. And it certainly bears that familiar Kreis stamp.
The latest in an increasing string of successes was a 2-1 win over NYCFC on the road on Sunday. Playing in the narrow Yankee Stadium bandbox is eminently difficult for visitors, especially so because coach Patrick Vieira’s teams hog so much of the time on ball. All Orlando City did was lose the possession battle 63-37, get out-shot on target 7-3, complete just 67 percent of their passes and nonetheless maneuver into sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference about a fourth of the way through the season.
Five wins in their first six? Certainly sounds like Kreis.
The easy answer as to why Orlando City is bounding past teams left and right is Cyle Larin. The Canadian scoring phenom has six goals in those six games, including both of Orlando City’s tallies in the aforementioned win over NYCFC. In fact, in three of the team's five wins this year, he’s constituted the entirety of Orlando City’s goal-scoring.
But there is depth here, far more than Larin himself would indicate. Kaká’s played all of 11 minutes this season, his start to the year cut short by a stubborn left hamstring that’s refused to cooperate. Kreis became famous at RSL for the systematic 4-4-2 diamond that ran through his lineups each week like a familiar titanium rod. Kaka was supposed to be a lynchpin in that formula, a nominal left midfielder in the Ignacio Piatti mold constantly looking to come inside to find runners in the central pocket. After losing him in the first game, Kreis has had to make do.
Even without one of the smartest creative operators in league history, Orlando City’s arguably been the league’s best team. How in the heck have they done it?
It hasn’t exactly been a like-for-like comparison with RSL. But it’s been pretty close.
The heart of Kreis’ historical success, above and beyond anything else, is that he’s a micro-managerial luminary. He sees so many tactical shortcuts before his adversaries are able to plug them that he’s been able to basically slap duct tape on problems and maneuver around them. Every head coach in the league has the coaching badges to prove they know the higher philosophies of the game. But can you throw conventional wisdom to the winds and improvise when the waves wash over the gunwales?
Yes, Kreis is running that familiar 4-4-2 diamond again, and yes, his teams are pressing like possessed men as ever. And certainly, he has his leadership engine room back in Will Johnson. But there’s more than that, and in particular it’s what he’s done with his unique setup without Kaká that deserves unending praise.
In reality, the true pivot point of Orlando City’s first six games wasn’t Kaká’s injury as much as it was the 2-0 loss to Columbus Crew SC on March 18. After Kaká went down, Kreis went to a relative flat four-across midfield with, from left to right, Giles Barnes, Antonio Nocerino, Servando Carrasco and Matias Perez Garcia. It worked in a testy 2-1 win over the Philadelphia Union, but when the bottom fell out on the road in a deserved to Columbus, Kreis ripped up his formula.
And it was at this point that we were formally reintroduced to the Kreis diamond.
The problem with the Orlando City midfield was that it was too scooped out in the attacking third to allow even a dipping second forward like Carlos Rivas much space to collect possession. Chances were too infrequent, and neither Nocerino nor Carrasco were providing much in the way of linkage. It isn’t their game. So when Orlando City busted out the diamond against the New York Red Bulls on April, it almost felt like a retired superhero dusting off his cape again. And when Orlando City won 1-0, beginning a streak of three consecutive one-goal victories through Sunday’s NYCFC win, it somehow felt like old times again. Albeit under a different banner.
In the three games since the loss to Crew SC, Orlando City’s acted out a familiar stage play; run the diamond, cede the run of play, rely on a stern and literally triangulated midfield, and lean on Larin’s imposing frame on quick stabs upfield. Johnson’s been a dogged pursuer and vital leader, Rivas has been the 2009 Charlie Davies to Larin’s Jozy Altidore, and the defense’s pivot from the last two years has been eye-watering. As if you expected anything else out of a Kreis-coached team.
Steel-eyed, upstanding defensive presence might’ve been taken for granted over Kreis’ final years at RSL, but Orlando City fans know to appreciate it. Better than most, I’d wager, considering Orlando City have their defense to blame for missing the postseason in their two previous years in MLS. They surrendered a league-worst 60 goals in 2016, and only three teams gave up more than their 56 the season before. Thanks in large part to the added presence of veteran defender Jonathan Spector, that’s largely an issue drifting away on the Gulf winds today. Another Kreis-ism comes good.
Some time this week, go back and watch Barnes’ performance against NYCFC. He attempted an astonishing seven passes – seven, total – in the nominal No. 10 role, a far cry from the days when Kreis had Javier Morales pumping out 60-70 passes per game in that hole. This was no Kaká. But look again, and you’ll see Barnes caving in to press Andrea Pirlo and to help dog dangerous creator Maxi Moralez and flit around the ball like a weaponized hummingbird. From a pure statistical point of view, Barnes’ day was an abject failure. But watch his harrying influence on game states against a team at home looking to pile up possession from deep on shallow one-two’s, and it was a virtual masterstroke from Kreis. And I say that because it worked.
Orlando City got it wide, they got it into the box to Larin, and they got it into the net. Five wins from six later, and here we are.
The best news for Orlando City is that this is a repeatable formula. International title contenders like Leicester City and Atletico Madrid proved in recent years it doesn’t have to matter how much of the ball you have in the modern game, but rather how lethal you are when you have it. Make no mistake, 2017 Orlando City is more or less the Atletico Madrid of MLS. And then there’s the matter of Kaka’s impending return. He’s a plug-and-play guy, and whenever the Brazilian dynamo comes back, one of the best gets better. The playoffs are still a long ways away, but teams like Orlando City tend to destroy it. They look every bit the title contender.
This has been the way of it for Orlando City through its first six games. All the things we’ve come to know about Kreis over the years have gradually come to bear on a team that features the league’s best pure No. 9 in Larin, a breakout second striker in Rivas, one of its most subtly influential No. 6’s in Nocerino, an All-Star caliber center back in Spector and one of the most underrated 'keepers in the league in Joe Bendik.
Stir all that together and Orlando City’s success isn’t all that surprising. It’s all part of the process.