Second year will determine Orlando City’s MLS path


Orlando City had a successful first year in MLS. The Lions still fell short of their goals and have to improve in the second year to forge a path in MLS.

Orlando City had a successful first year in MLS by any measure.

The team was among the top teams in attendance throughout the MLS, averaging more than 30,000 fans per game. The team came one win shy of setting the MLS expansion team record for points in a season. Orlando City became one of the most watched teams in its national television appearances.

Things went extremely well for the franchise.

Yet for the first time in the Lions’ short history, they fell short of their goals on the field. The “Defy Expectations” banners around the Citrus Bowl certainly set the goal of making the playoffs. It was the stated goal, if not the expectation.

Fan support never wavered for this new thing, making the step up to the “big leagues” of the MLS. And ticket sales for the second year are well ahead of schedule. Orlando City had to expand its new stadium to meet demand.

A fan base though used to winning — and an organization with clear desires to continue winning — could easily lose patience with another poor year.

Adrian Heath admitted in an interview with Paul Tenorio of the Orlando Sentinel that there was something of a learning curve for the organization moving up from USL to MLS:

“I think it’s very easy now to see what we should have done. I think the best quote was from Jason [Kreis] who said, ‘I never realized how difficult this was going to be.’ This is a guy who has played all his life in MLS and been coach of the year, who probably knows better than most the layout of it all. The one thing I was going to say to whoever gets the Atlanta job, whoever gets Miami, this is a far more difficult task than people ever imagined. And it starts from Day 1, because you don’t know anything about your players. Which is very unusual, that you take over a group of 25 players and you don’t know anything about them. You don’t know what makes them tick, you don’t know whether they’re good trainers, you don’t know whether they’re good game-day players. Running that gambit, which for me is tough because my relationship with my players is probably the most important thing, that first three or four months of getting to know people, getting to know what makes them tick, getting to know what I have to do [to get] more out of him Monday to Friday and more out of him Saturday, that was a challenge. We’ll be better for that.”

That learning curve should be gone for the second year. The expectation to make the Playoffs will be ever present again.

Orlando City certainly has work to do. The team has to find a center back to pair with Aurelien Collin and find a second goal scorer to support Cyle Larin and Kaka (perhaps Kevin Molino’s return from injury will help). The Lions have to find a way to build depth to reach that goal next year.

There is an interesting dynamic working within Orlando City though. It was something brought out more succinctly in an episode of Sports Illustrated’s Planet Futbol podcast, in which Kaka was a guest:

They reach an interesting point that could be a defining aspect of Orlando City’s franchise development. Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl and Brian Straus asked Kaka about the cultures growing within the team — the Brazilian culture from much of the ownership and the English culture of much of the coaching staff.

As good as Heath has been for this franchise, he still has to prove himself at the MLS level. As Wahl and Straus point out in the podcast, foreign coaches have struggled in MLS.

This whole franchise has to re-learn how to win at this level. It has to find a way to create an identity on the field and build off the success from the expansion year.

The new paint will begin to wear off some.

Fan support will be there again for the second season. The excitement should build to the first full year in the new stadium in the third year.

But the team wants to win. And even in the MLS, where parity is a real thing, that is no guarantee.

The work for Orlando City is really just beginning. There is a lot to learn and process for this team to be the true success it wants to be.