Orlando City SC were kings of the offseason.
A roster overhaul that included the additions of Justin Meram, Sacha Kljestan, Josue Colman, Uri Rosell and Lamine Sane, among others, had plenty of people picking the Lions as their "Most Improved" team heading into 2018. Orlando were shoving their chips into the middle of the table and the result was a talented, veteran team that looked like a playoff contender.
With expectation comes a pressure to win, however, and through the first three games of the season, Orlando City were winless.
Never mind that the Lions hardly looked on the field like the team that had built on paper. Suspensions, injuries, fitness and other issues kept a rotation of players off the field, including Kljestan, Colman, Rosell, Sane and Dom Dwyer, all of whom were projected starters. Absences slowed preseason preparation and, not unexpectedly, impacted early-season results.
The team so many people envisioned after the flurry of offseason moves had not yet stepped on the field together, and yet the lack of wins became a larger indictment about the direction of the franchise.
Meanwhile, Orlando City coach Jason Kreis and his staff was working to keep the growth moving in the right direction as they waited for something approximating a full squad to be ready for selection.
“It [was] a challenge and I’d say it’s still a little bit of a challenge,” Kreis told MLSsoccer.com. “At the beginning of preseason, we worked with the group we had, tried to make it very clear as to, ‘These are our principles of play and this is how we put those things out there and work toward those things,’ and then as players came back in they get folded into that as well.”
Orlando City players celebrate Dom Dwyer's game-winning goal in a dramatic, 3-2 come-from-behind victory at home against the Portland Timbers on April 8. | USA Today Sports Images
Unsurprisingly, as some of the pieces have returned to the mix, Orlando City’s fortunes on the field have begun to change. The Lions are on a three-game winning streak, they have a bit of momentum and confidence, and they are creeping up the early-season standings in the Eastern Confidence.
One three-game sample should not be given too much weight – not the first three games, nor the next three – but Orlando City are at least starting to look more like the team it envisioned when it put together its offseason plan.
Dwyer has four goals in three games since returning to the lineup, Kljestan has a goal and two assists in the last three games and Sane has started to look the part in the middle of the backline.
Kreis said the team is far from reaching any sort of objective, calling it a work in progress, but there are signs this team is starting to sort its identity.
The Lions want to be tactically versatile and started the season in Kreis’ favored 4-4-2 diamond formation. As players returned to the mix, however, Kreis said he started to see a 4-2-3-1 as a better fit for the group. The change has given Orlando City a bit more balance.
It’s also given Kreis plenty of options and dilemmas, and he has not been afraid to bench presumed starters – Colman and Meram were left out of the lineup last Friday in a win over Philadelphia – if it enhances the competition within the squad.
Kreis declined to reveal what sort of conversations he may have had leading into that decision, but said, “every player should know there is competition for your position on a weekly basis.” Those like rookie Chris Mueller have seized such opportunities, earning praise and playing time.
Orlando goalkeeper Joe Bendik stands over New York City defender Yangel Herrera on March 17. Orlando lost the match 2-0, their last defeat before running off three consecutive wins. | USA Today Sports Images
It’s a problem Kreis didn’t have earlier in the season, and it’s a headache he welcomes.
“When you can raise the level of competition, the level of intensity in training sessions every single day, then I think you get to a different mentality, a higher mentality, more of a winning mentality,” Kreis said.
Kreis has not yet had a chance to field a team that most would consider his “Best XI,” though he’s getting closer. Rosell has finally worked back from a knee injury and should get closer to 60-minutes fit this week, Kreis said. Meanwhile, center back Jonathan Spector re-entered concussion protocol but has been feeling better and is day-to-day, Kreis said.
While three straight wins may have eased the clamor in one of the league’s most demanding markets, it will only last as long as the wins keep coming. After three seasons in MLS, Orlando City have yet to make the playoffs, and anything short of that will be met with disappointment.
Full squad or not, the pressure will always exist on the outside. Kreis said it will be up to his team to meet its own goals and to keep that pressure from seeping into the locker room.
That same theory applies to him and his job, as well.
“Ultimately if there is one truth I know about myself it is this: Nobody can put more pressure on me than I put on myself, and nobody can be as critical of my performances as I am of myself,” Kreis said. “It was the same way as when I was a player. I look at that the same way as that saying, ‘You can’t be more pregnant than pregnant.’ I can’t have more pressure than what I put on myself. … I cannot be bothered by what anybody outside of this club thinks about me or about my performances or about what I give. I just can’t, I don’t have time for it and it’s not a healthy situation. I only care about, I only pay attention to the opinion my players have, the opinions my staff have, and the opinions my club and the people that lead me have.”
If the last few weeks are indication of what Orlando City will be able to accomplish, Kreis may not have to worry as much to tune out. Six games into the season, however, Orlando City has experienced the volatility that expectations can bring – fair or not.
Managing those expectations will be as much a part of this team’s potential success as anything else.