After promising start to 2017, Orlando wilts in summer heat once again
If you're thinking of visiting Orlando for the soccer rather than its other tourist attractions, maybe don't come in summer. It's been another hot summer and another struggle for the Lions in 2017, whose falloff in form at the end of spring has become something of an annual fixture, whether under Adrian Heath or, latterly, Jason Kreis.
Over the weekend Orlando was at Red Bull Arena, and having led early, ended up losing 3-1 in a game in which an initially spirited effort lapsed into indiscipline and uncertainty. By the end of the game, Orlando looked less like teammates fighting for one another in the numerous flashpoints all over the field and more like a collection of individuals looking for someone -- anyone -- to pin their frustrations on.
On that note, Kaka saw red late on, in an absurd moment in which video replay captured the motion but none of the intent of his lighthearted skirmish with Aurelien Collin. Doubtless the lack of discretion exercised by the referee in that moment, after reviewing the footage of the two friends' laughing exchange during an otherwise heated mass confrontation, will be used as evidence of the limitations of VAR. But in truth, this was an unedifying incident on a number of levels.
For one thing, Kaka, who was involved in his fair share of scuffling incidents during the game, should have known better than to give the referee a decision to make, but on another level, it was a bad optic for the team in that moment. As his teammates at least showed a semblance of passion about their situation, Kaka's jocular grabbing of Collin's face suggested he was less than bothered by another loss. Whatever his true feelings, both men walked away grinning, but only one was celebrating his return from injury with a win. The other saw red and was gone from the field by the time his teammates renewed hostilities at the final whistle.
And the reality is, Orlando might have plenty of time to bicker among themselves about another season gone astray come playoff time. The team is suddenly facing a real battle to get back above the red line, and a resurgent Columbus Crew SC could effectively kill their season when it visits on Saturday. Crew SC beat a stumbling Chicago at the weekend and could go eight points clear of Orlando, albeit having played a game more, with a win on Saturday night.
Atlanta is the lowest-placed playoff team but is five points clear of Orlando having played two games fewer, while Montreal, tied with Orlando on points, has also played two games fewer. And Montreal, of course, won on the road in Philadelphia this weekend -- and not only that, did so with the immediate impact from new signing Samuel Piette.
Piette muzzled the Union attack, playing in front of his defense, and immediately gave the impression of adding value to a Montreal team that is historically tuned in for the run-in. Compare that to Orlando's blockbuster signing of Dom Dwyer, which has already come to seem like one of the riskier outlays of the summer, especially as other teams such as the Impact have since done their business with more immediately tangible benefits.
Put simply, Dwyer looks more like a gamble than the guarantee Orlando needs right now, because of the awkward learning curve of incorporating his particular style of play into an attack built around Cyle Larin. It's not a knock on Larin or Dwyer so much as a suggestion that both will need to adapt to be at their most effective for this team. And the team's league-worst record of 2-9-6 since the opening two months of the season suggests that once again Orlando has squandered the margin for error that might have made such a learning curve affordable.
Orlando could still go on a run, of course; in fact in chasing Montreal for a final qualifying spot, it's in familiar territory. In its brief MLS history, Orlando has served as a kind of late-race pacemaker, keeping the Impact honest in the final weeks of the season without ever truly looking like overtaking them or having the wherewithal to go deep in the playoffs even if it did.
Kreis was brought in to change that, of course, but this year so far, there's been a worrying familiarity about what's happened to Orlando once the excitement and form at its brand-new stadium wore off. Already this looks like a team that could be rebuilding again in the offseason, but as Saturday's game showed, of more pressing concern is the lack of coherent character in the team under crisis. Such flashes of character that the team is showing right now looks like players playing for their jobs rather than one another, and the seams are showing.
There are worse coaches than Kreis to have on hand when character is required, but he needs all his motivational skills to ensure this season is not a write-off. Perhaps he can start by stealing a line from one of his old teams, Real Salt Lake, to remind his players that "the team is the star."
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.