It’s still March and there’s no reason to panic – not yet, anyway – but that doesn’t mean slow starts shouldn’t have clubs around Major League Soccer a little worried.
Before we jump into the teams I think should be the most nervous, I’ll remind you that every playoff team in 2017 other than the Vancouver Whitecaps (one draw, two losses) won at least one of their first three games.
That might mean something. Or it might mean nothing. There’s still plenty of time to find out.
Only one Eastern Conference team has failed to qualify for the playoffs since 2015. You can probably guess which one…
One point from nine available, including a last-gasp draw with D.C. United and loss to Minnesota United in front of The Wall. That’s a horrible, no-good, very bad start for a team that couldn’t afford one given their offseason moves and the expectations that came with them.
Before you read another word, Charlie Davies already offered up his keys to getting the Lions back on track on this very website following the Lions’ 2-0 setback against New York City FC on Saturday. I expect he’ll take my job soon.
If you’re too lazy to go read what Charlie wrote, here are the cliff notes:
- Get Dom Dwyer back
- Switch from the 4-4-2 diamond to a 4-5-1
- Move Justin Meram back to the wing
- Clean it up at the back (translation: stop making stupid mistakes)
It doesn’t take a genius to realize Orlando have been beat up to start the season. Dwyer (quad), Uri Rosell (fitness) and Dillon Powers (ankle) haven’t played a minute through three games. Designated Player Josue Colman (quad contusion) and TAM center back Lamine Sane made their debuts off the bench at Yankee Stadium — the latter replacing concussed captain Jonathan Spector — while Sacha Kljestan pulled on purple for the first time thanks to the two-game suspension that carried over from the Brouhaha at BMO in the playoffs.
Kreis has to be wondering what he did to deserve this bad luck after an offseason spent spending big both within the league and in the international market. There’s no doubt a significant portion of Orlando’s struggles come down to personnel issues, and since all the players mentioned above, sans Spector, trained fully on Tuesday and should be available March 31 against the Red Bulls, there’s reason to believe the slow start is just a blip on the radar.
But — and there’s always a but — that’s not accounting for the fact that Orlando are going to have to put all of this together on the fly while also finding a way to stop shooting themselves in the foot every single time they take the field.
The former is where Davies’ tactical suggestion comes into play. No matter how Kreis does it, he’s got to get the best out of his best players … and fast. That means putting Dwyer, Kljestan, Meram (please, just let him roast defenders on the wing), Colman, Rosell and Yoshi Yotun in positions they’re comfortable in. Two goals (one from the spot) in three games isn’t gonna cut it.
Maybe that’s the diamond. Maybe it’s a 4-5-1, which Dwyer, Rosell, Meram and Kljestan all thrived in at their previous MLS stops. It’s Kreis’ job to figure it out since, once healthy, the front six is absolutely good enough to give Orlando their first taste of November soccer and perhaps even make a run at MLS Cup.
None of that will matter, however, if the latter (inexplicable mental mistakes) keep plaguing this team. Right now, 2018 feels like 2017 all over again, except without the best-in-MLS start and potentially even more self-destructive and soul crushing.
The good news is that four of the Lions next six games are at Orlando City Stadium — New York just days before the first leg of their CCL semifinal series, Portland, at Philly, San Jose, at Colorado, Real Salt Lake — with three of those matches against Western Conference teams, meaning dropped points don’t allow opponents to build an even bigger gap in the playoff race.
The bad news is that more dropped points will ratchet the pressure up to a point that would test even the most cohesive unit, let alone a rebuilt club desperate to stop their year-over-year downward trend. It’s no exaggeration to say the next two months are the biggest in the club’s MLS existence.
“I think all the guys on our team know that we built this team to be a ‘win now’ type of team this season and we can’t wait too long to get things kick-started before we put ourselves in too deep of a hole,” Kljestan said Saturday. “The pressure is on and we know it.”
Last season was a fairytale, one that arrived a bit ahead of schedule, as Chicago improved by 24 points and went from the worst record in MLS to the third best. So far, the magic hasn’t carried over to 2018. Losses to Sporting KC and Minnesota United mean that all-too-familiar pit is back in Fire fans’ stomachs.
General manager Nelson Rodriguez readily admits his roster has three holes to fill: an experienced goalkeeper, center back to compete for a spot alongside Johan Kappelhof and another attacking piece to complement Nemanja Nikolic and Aleksandar Katai.
“I said it in preseason and I think it's my responsibility, I think the roster is incomplete,” Rodriguez told Orrin Schwarz as part of a fantastic, two-part interview last week. “And until we get more competition in certain spots and find another offensive weapon … I think we're going to have to find ways to keep it together.”
Keep it together for what? The summer, given Rodriguez also said moves before the May 1 window closes are possible but that “answers may need to come internally rather than internationally.”
Given the club is flush with assets from trading away their most dynamic attacking threat, David Accam, and knew their shortcomings back in November, it’s fair to wonder why those needs haven’t already been addressed. After all, the rest of MLS spent the winter stockpiling difference-making assets in the areas that the Fire have need.
Head coach Veljko Paunovic and his squad can’t dwell on that, however, so they must find solutions from within. Unfortunately, like Orlando, the Fire are beset by untimely injuries.
Attackers Djordje Mihailovic and Michael de Leeuw are out long term with ACL injuries, center backs Jonathan Campbell and Grant Lillard are on the mend and right back Matt Polster just went down with an MCL sprain – so those answers must come in the form of improved performances from the likes of goalkeeper Richard Sanchez, central defender Christian Dean and veteran attackers such as Katai and Luis Solignac.
Sanchez’s only experience as a starter came with the Mexican youth national teams, and he’s already picked the ball out of the back of his net six times in two games. Dean came to MLS highly rated, but has played fewer than 1,000 minutes in four-plus seasons. Solignac scored seven goals last season, by far his best season in MLS, but is more cog in the machine than individual talent. Katai was brought in to carry a big load, but flopped in Spain after a 21-goal season in Serbia earned him a move to La Liga.
All of which is to say that there’s no guarantee that the Fire will be able to cobble together enough results to stay within striking distance while injured players heal and Rodriguez works hard to pull the right strings for summer.
That means Nikolic, Kappelhof, Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger are going to have to drag the club along until help arrives. That could absolutely happen, but early returns are troubling. Fortunately, the Fire’s next three games will be played at Toyota Park.
The first of those visitors to the Windy City are the Portland Timbers, who needed a bye week to regroup after a precocious Red Bulls side laid the smack down on them in Week 2. Honorable mention here goes to Real Salt Lake, which shouldn’t put too much stock in barely beating the same New York side, suffering from the universal CCL hangover and resting key starters, at home.
New head coach Giovanni Savarese is by all previous indications a Good Coach™, to blatantly steal from Matt Doyle, but he’s got some problems to solve early in his first MLS gig. First among them is deciding what tactical identity best fits this team, which Chris Rifer did a wonderful job laying out over at Stumptown Footy. While you’re at it, go follow Rifer on Twitter, too.
Savarese wants to press as a unit, but neither the full-on variety (2-1 loss in LA) or a toned-down version (4-0 at RBA) was truly effective. Part of that is because Diego Chara (right foot) has been out, and the Timbers just don’t win (0-9-3 including playoffs since the start of 2016) without arguably their Most Important Diego™. Part of that is the backline is a bit of a mess.
Liam Ridgewell is being paid an awful lot to give up on plays like this, and his partnership with Larrys Mabiala can best be described as a work in progress. Of course, it doesn’t help that young fullbacks Marco Farfan and Alvas Powell aren’t yet lockdown 1v1 defenders in space, of which there has been acres given the varying success of the press, and David Guzman looks a step slow.
Is it possible Caleb Porter looked at the roster, saw the end of the current cycle around the corner and got out at a peak, top of the West and a transcendent Diego Valeri MVP campaign? After all, following the Darlington Nagbe trade, Fanendo Adi is the only member of the team’s core under the age of 30 and Valeri can’t prop up the rest of the attack forever.
Personally, I think this group has two years of contention left in them. There’s too much talent, and we’ve yet to see whether the offseason moves will pay off. Maybe Julio Cascante can push or replace one of Ridgewell and Mabiala. Maybe Samuel Armenteros will do the same with Adi. Maybe Andy Polo and Cristhian Paredes can grab hold of the opportunity for playing time and inject some verve into an aging midfield.
In case you didn't notice, that's a lot of maybes...
And yet Valeri is still Valeri, Adi is still one of the most talented No. 9s in this league, Chara will be back soon, their schedule is home-heavy once the five-game away stretch to start the season is over and Savarese’s track record says he ought to be able to bind this team together under one banner in the face of adversity.
That doesn’t mean it will all come together that way. Portland need at least one win and ideally five or six points from their next three (at DAL, at CHI, at ORL). If they get those results, all will be fine in the Rose City. If they don’t, the home opener at Providence Park will be shrouded with worry, and rightfully so.