Chicago, Orlando have fallen to the bottom of the East after lofty expectations
Looking from the vantage point of the middle of May, this weekend's meeting between the Chicago Fire and Orlando City seemed like a potential playoff preview. Orlando was one of the hottest teams in the league, winners of seven in a row during one stretch. Chicago started more sluggishly, but it was at least treading water, and following a breakout 2017 season could reasonably dream of a midseason surge.
Less than four months later, Sunday's match at Toyota Park is of interest only to the morbidly curious.
If MLS had a relegation system, or if its draft were still a relevant talent-acquisition mechanism, there would at least be something other than pride at stake between the two bottom sides in the Eastern Conference. As it is, there's little draw other than to gape at how it went so wrong for two teams that, in their own ways, at one point seemed to have plenty going for them.
Chicago is less than one calendar year removed from being a dark horse title contender. It had the league's leading scorer in Nemanja Nikolic and a culture-changing DP in Bastian Schweinsteiger. It boasted what seemed to be a highly competent brain trust in general manager Nelson Rodriguez and coach Vejlko Paunovic.
A year on, the Fire haven't won a game since June and were riding an eight-match losing streak before a recent home draw against Columbus. To Paunovic's credit, he doesn't go the route of many MLS coaches and blame injuries or bad luck for his team's struggles.
"It's ourselves," he told ESPN FC in a phone interview. "We weren't capable -- and I consider myself part of that -- of finding the right formula for consistency. ... We had a huge step forward last year. This year, we couldn't consolidate it."
Paunovic described 2017 as two steps forward and said that, even if the club has remained stagnant in 2018, it is still ahead of where it stood in 2016. That's a tempting narrative, but it's also possible that last season was just an aberration for a club that has been a basement dweller for the bulk of this decade.
Diagnosing Orlando City's problems is both more complex and more straightforward.
It's complex because this club has seemingly everything in place to become a consistent contender: a shiny, new downtown soccer stadium; a sizable and engaged fan base; financial backing to make ambitious roster moves. The Lions have a cool color-scheme and logo, and just feel more big-time than a lot of other clubs around the league.
And yet, nearly four years into its MLS era, Orlando City has yet to really even sniff the postseason. Which brings us to the more straightforward part: Ownership has been problematically impatient, changing course midway through various rebuilds.
This season has been the club's recent history in miniature. Despite allowing coach Jason Kreis the leeway to overhaul the roster in the offseason, the plug was pulled almost as soon as the team hit its first prolonged patch of adversity. Kreis was fired following a six-match losing streak, which might have been fair enough had the coaching change inspired an immediate turnaround, but the team went on to lose six of its next seven anyway.
"The successful teams in this league are the ones that don't change a whole lot," Orlando City midfielder Will Johnson said. "They know their identity, and it works. That said, if that identity isn't working, you need to make a change. But every time you do that, you sort of start at square one."
That is also this club's problem in a nutshell: It has never stuck with any single philosophy for long enough to find out which might actually work. Asked whether he will be given enough latitude to finally implement a club-wide identity, new coach James O'Connor -- who played for the Lions at the USL level and was promoted from minor-league affiliate Louisville City -- was pragmatic.
"I've been here just about nine weeks, so I would certainly hope so," O'Connor said. "That's something I can't control. What I can say is that the meetings [with ownership] have been great. There's a huge desire to win."
A desire to win has never been in question, perhaps more obviously in Orlando than in Bridgeview. Finding a way to do so on a consistent basis has been the tricky part for them both.