In a vacuum, a draw on the road is almost never a bad result in MLS. But Orlando City's 1-1 draw at Atlanta United on Saturday didn't happen in a vacuum.
It happened at the start of the stretch run to – hopefully for the Purple Lions – the playoffs. It came a week after they'd dropped all three points by letting Hector Villalba run free between the lines and lash home a golazo. It happened after 50 minutes of protecting a precious 1-0 lead, one that would've propelled OCSC back above the playoff line.
I doubt it feels like a loss, but I also doubt it feels particularly good.
A few things that stuck out from Orlando City's perspective:
• Dom Dwyer and Cyle Larin mostly weren't on the same page, and putting them both out there encouraged a team that's not great at playing long balls into hitting more and more long balls. There aren't a lot of true, two-center-forward pairings in the modern game anymore, but in this one that's how Jason Kreis lined his guys up.
How flat their learning curve is will go a long way toward determining how good their chances of making the playoffs are.
• Larin was invisible through the first 28 minutes. He had no successful defensive actions, no shots, and no completed dribbles. His only completed pass was off the opening kick-off. Worse, from OCSC's point of view, was that he was getting bossed by the Atlanta backline, losing literally every 50/50 ball he "contested" (those are air quotes).
Then he remembered that he's bigger and stronger than anyone he's going against, that he's mostly faster and quicker, that he has soft feet and good vision. And somebody clipped his ankles, and he didn't get a call, and suddenly Larin started playing angry. Which led to this:
From the 29th minute until he was subbed out in the 62nd, Larin looked very much like the forward everybody wants him to be. He showed for balls when checking back, stretched the field when he could, won a bunch in the air, tried to combine with the guys around him, closed down defensively, and even got into it a little bit with Leandro Gonzalez Pirez (who added to his league-leading total of "incidental" elbows when he whacked Larin in the teeth just before the hour mark).
I don't know how much time Larin has left in MLS, but while he's here I'd rather see that version of him than the one who has a tendency to drift through games.
• The Five Stripes goal really was a back-breaker. Obviously the timing and the stakes have a lot to do with that, but so too does the juxtaposition of Atlanta's DPs vs. Orlando City's.
To start the sequence, Carlos Rivas had run himself out of the play with a needless offside, and then kept running so he wasn't able to get back and do any defensive work. That left OCSC defending 10v11, except it was really 9v11 because Kaká was completely out of gas, just sort of shuffling along at midfield while the tireless Miguel Almiron dropped deep to get on the ball, looking as fresh as he had in the first minute of the game.
He carried it forward, collapsed the lines of defense, then found Yamil Asad between the lines. Two touches later it was on Villalba's foot, and then it was in the net.
The difference in what these teams can rely upon from their DPs couldn't have been more stark. Kaká is still capable of moments of brilliance, but he hasn't been an effective, 90-minute, two-way player. Going the distance in a game like this is too big an ask for him, while Rivas just doesn't seem able to develop the correct sense of the moment. This lack often reveals itself in his shot (in)discipline, but also in something as basic as "hey let's stay connected because we're protecting a road lead three minutes into second half stoppage."
That's obviously not the complete story of the game, but it's a good chunk of it. Atlanta got their big-money signings right to start this season, and despite today's disappointing result they're going to the playoffs because of those DPs. OCSC were less successful in that regard, and now, for the third straight year, they're staring at a season on the brink.