Two years in a row with a playoff appearance.

A gif is worth a thousand words:

Yeah, by a lot of measures I think it’s fair to classify this season as a disappointment for Orlando City. Their attacking group never really clicked, their defense wasn’t as sturdy as in 2020, and the midfield never came close to exercising the type of control they had for vast stretches of Oscar Pareja’s first year in charge.

And they still made it to the playoffs anyway, giving a pretty good account of themselves in the process. No, they didn’t end up where they wanted, but it’s worth remembering “Orlando City” was a punchline just 24 months ago.

Two straight years in the postseason is undeniable progress even if they didn’t stick the landing.

Formation and tactics

There wasn’t all that much mucking about from Pareja, who seemed to realize pretty early he wasn’t going to get this side the type of ball-dominant, free-flowing soccer that had worked so well and been so damn pretty to watch last summer during the MLS is Back Tournament.

So instead, he had this group settle into a pretty grim and linear 4-2-3-1 relatively early in the season, one in which chances were more often created via set pieces, counterattacks or a bit of 1-v-1 brilliance than scripted attacking patterns.

It all added up to a team that was somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

Highlights

It’s tough to pick one particular instance – not because there were a ton, but because there just weren’t many signature moments, and certainly no signature wins. (Of course, they were denied one of those on Halloween by a controversial refereeing/VAR decision).

I think a right call is to go back to the first 10 games of the year when the Lions started 6-1-3 and perched themselves near the top of the Eastern Conference.

But the right call is actually on Decision Day, when they went to Montréal in need of a result to just advance to the playoffs. Their 2-0 win was not an aesthetic masterpiece, doesn’t technically count as an elimination game and you wouldn’t be wrong to argue shoddy CFM finishing let them off the hook.

But, for all intents and purposes, it was an elimination game on the road, and who gives a damn about aesthetics or the other team’s profligacy when you bag two goals and win your way into the playoffs?

Boom. Playoffs achieved, successful season achieved.

Lowlight

They spun that win into a 1-0 lead at Nashville in Round One of the playoffs, courtesy of a Daryl Dike set-piece header, and then they just crumbled. Hany Mukhtar equalized within seven minutes, the hosts took control and largely controlled play, and the winner was eventually going to come. It did in the 74th minute, once again through Mukhtar, before Jhonder Cadiz fired in a stopping-time coup de grace for the 3-1 final.

There were other worse moments throughout the season, and certainly Orlando City had played worse games. This, however, was their chance to go against a team they hadn’t lost to all season long, and that they’d actually kind of beaten on Halloween, and do the damn thing, just as they’d done the previous game against Montréal.

But they weren’t the kind of team that could string those kinds of performances together back-to-back. They hadn’t been all year, and that didn’t change in the playoffs.

Revelation

Nobody.

To be fair, this was very much a “run it back” year after the promise 2020 had held, and even though it didn’t work out, I don’t think that was the wrong choice. But none of the new young signings hit, none of the other young or youngish players leveled up to a notable degree, and Orlando cut both of their first-round SuperDraft picks at the end of the year.

Not great.

Disappointment

We all expected Nani’s production to drop off during the second half of the season, right? Well, it didn’t just drop off in 2021; it cratered.

  • Nani in his first 19 games of 2019: 8g/8
  • Nani in his final 11 games of 2019: 4g/2a
  • Nani in his first 16 games of 2020: 6g/6a
  • Nani in his final 10 games of 2020: 3g/0a
  • Nani in his first 15 games of 2021: 9g/6a
  • Nani in his last 15 games of 2021: 1g/2a

This is the danger with older DPs and that guaranteed third year. The gut-punch, though, is neither Mauricio Pereyra (0g/3a from September onward) nor Chris Mueller (1g/2a from September onward) helped pick up the slack.

It was down to Dike and set pieces, and that’s just not enough.

2022 Preview

Five Players to Build Upon:

  • Robin Jansson (CB): The 30-year-old is a very good defender who also happens to be one of the best passing center backs in the league.
  • Antonio Carlos (CB): A rugged, mobile and natural CB partner for Jansson. Pretty easy to bring these two guys back as the foundation.
  • Jhegson Mendez (CM): He hasn’t quite leveled up to Best XI-caliber as his talent says he should, but Mendez was mostly very good and occasionally excellent this year, and is just hitting his prime.
  • Pedro Gallese (GK): Had an up-and-down year, and the underlying numbers don’t like him as much as the eye test, but I don’t think there’s a legit reason to move on from the 31-year-old.
  • Ruan (RB): The midfield’s inability to hold onto the ball meant he couldn’t get forward as often, which dampened his effect, but he’s still a weapon (even if his crossing, uh, needs some work).

Offseason Priority:

Nani’s gone. That’s an open DP slot. Pereyra’s out of contract and while they’re working to bring him back, I can’t imagine they’d plan to do so on a DP deal. They also have a third open DP slot.

How big do the new owners, the Wilfs, want to go? I think there’s an argument this foundation is a group that can win a title if they get three high-level DPs in – guys who are Best XI-caliber. Are they going to go that big?

And then beyond that, what happens with Dike? I don’t think there are any $20 million offers coming, but I also think the EPL interest in him was/is very, very real. Can they keep him? Should they?

There are at least three, and potentially four gigantic moves for this team to make this offseason. Clock’s tickin’.