Orlando City, Real Salt Lake emerge as MLS's surprise final unbeatens
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UPDATE: Orlando City lost its unbeaten status on Friday night when it fell to the Philadelphia Union, 2–1.
There probably aren’t many people who thought Orlando City would wind up enjoying an unbeaten start to the season when it entered stoppage time of its March 6 opener down two goals. And there probably aren’t many who guessed visiting Real Salt Lake would recover so quickly after blowing that lead and limping back to Utah with a stunning 2-2 draw.
After all, Kaká was struggling with a thigh strain and would miss a couple more weeks. RSL had a brutal schedule to negotiate—a home game against Seattle followed by visits to Portland and Kansas City.
“I flinched,” RSL GM Craig Waibel said when he first saw the fixture list.
And of course, neither team managed to make the playoffs in 2015, when MLS generously expanded the postseason field to 12. These clubs hadn’t been used to losing. Under now-departed coach Jason Kreis, GM Garth Lagerwey and president Bill Manning, RSL built a sort of small-market dynasty. It qualified for the playoffs seven straight times, surpassed 50 points in five consecutive seasons and played in numerous finals.
Orlando entered its inaugural MLS season on the heels of a dominating four-year stretch in the USL, during which it finished first overall on three occasions and claimed two championships.
“With that four years of continual success, we set the bar really high. We wanted to make the playoffs,” coach Adrian Heath said.
Neither Orlando nor RSL managed, resulting in significant offseason introspection and speculation. Owners Dell Loy Hansen (RSL) and Flávio da Silva (OC) hadn’t earned the benefit of the doubt and were regarded by some as meddlesome or impatient. Orlando GM Paul McDonough left the club in December and took a job with 2017 expansion team Atlanta United. Would Heath, who’d coached City since its 2011 inception, be next out the door? Was Jeff Cassar, a former goalkeeper who had abandoned RSL’s traditional 4-4-2 in favor of an identity-altering 4-3-3, the right man to coach Salt Lake? Did Waibel, who’d only coached since retiring in 2010, have the executive chops for the task ahead?
Four games in MLS, especially the first four, won’t ever provide any satisfactory answers. The past five league champions were a combined 6-7-7 over the first month. Portland went winless (0-1-3) last year. It’s the final four games that really matter, and there’s a long way to go between now and then. But a look at the 2016 standings, as fresh as they are, reveals only two unbeaten clubs out of the 20—Orlando and RSL (each 2-0-2).
Naturally, neither is celebrating anything yet. But for two teams that suffered in 2015, a small sign that they’re on the right track has been a very welcome sign of spring.
Neither club made a ton of changes over the winter. In fact, Orlando and RSL were two of the league’s least active teams. Only Montreal signed fewer players. City traded for Toronto FC goalkeeper Joe Bendik and inked midfielders Antonio Nocerino and Devron García and forward Julio Baptista. The three field players have logged a combined 117 minutes of action (all Nocerino). The return of veterans Yura Movsisyan and Chris Wingert and the addition of midfielder Sunny Obayan were RSL’s only transactions of consequence. Rather than an overhaul, both teams had evidence that time, experience and stability were the answer.
“The message of missing the playoffs was awful. It was hard to kind of watch it happen but when I took this position, given where the roster was and the contracts that I adopted, I had to build a two-, two-and-a-half-year vision of where we’re heading,” Waibel told SI.com. “Last year’s transition into this formation was a really difficult one, but I think our guys are starting to understand their roles within it.”
A healthy Joao Plata and a full Salt Lake offseason for Juan Manuel ‘Burrito’ Martínez, the two outside forwards in Cassar’s 4-3-3, would be critical to the club’s hopes. In Orlando, Heath was counting on avoiding the absurd array of injuries, suspensions and call-ups that decimated his young team in 2015. He put together a video of all the late goals the team conceded in order to drive home the need to focus for 90 minutes or more.
And when there was adversity, a year of MLS seasoning would make the difference.
“I think we’re more prepared and we have more strength and depth than we had last year. I can’t imagine that we would have either the injuries or the suspensions we did last year, so we should be able to cope admirably with whatever comes our way,” Heath told SI.com. “We have to be aware of the fact that with younger, inexperienced players there’s a fluctuation in performance. There’s a bit of up and down and not as much consistency as you’d like at times. I sat down with a lot of the guys and said, ‘There’s no excuses this time. We know what this league offers. We know what it’s all about. Are we going to go to the next stage? Are you going to go to the next stage?’”
Orlando will face a couple of challenges on Friday evening when it visits the Philadelphia Union (2-2-0). Brek Shea, who’s re-entered the U.S. national team conversation with a strong start to the season, will be suspended and leading scorer Cyle Larin, the imposing Canadian forward who’s showing no signs of a sophomore slump, might miss out with a hamstring injury. But Kaká, who was awesome in last weekend’s 4-1 demolition of the champion Timbers, is humming and midfielder Kevin Molino is demonstrating much of the promise that was cut short by injury last year.
RSL will welcome the rival Colorado Rapids (2-1-1) to Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday night. Part of the motivation for Salt Lake’s formation shift was the age of captain Kyle Beckerman, 33, whose status as an RSL icon might leave many forgetting that he spent five years as a Rapid. It’s in Waibel’s interest to squeeze as much as he can out of Beckerman, who was very good in the national team’s 4-0 win over Guatemala last week, during what can be a long, grinding season.
“We’re not in a diamond midfield anymore and that’s largely based on our personnel. The diamond requires a very, very talented holding midfielder. Kyle filled that role for a very long time,” Waibel explained. “However, can Kyle at this point in his career sustain that performance level over the course of 10 months in a modern-day MLS which is far more demanding than any time in its history, with attacking players, dynamic counterattacks? Those are pieces we have to evaluate as an organization.”
Sunny (or Luke Mulholland) now sits alongside Beckerman. Waibel and Cassar believe the presence of Martínez and Plata also will help save some wear and tear on Javier Morales, the Argentine playmaker entering his 10th season in Salt Lake, by allowing him to spend more time centrally. The hope is that eventually, RSL will rediscover its knack for possession, adding that to what already is team that’s proven to be such a danger attacking at speed.
And Orlando showed its offensive prowess against Portland, with a rejuvenated Kaká running the show and tallying one goal and two assists. Heath, who at times last year worried about how he was going to field a full team, now has a lot of options. Nocerino and Adrian Winter offer experience and Molino provides of the “guile” Orlando needed last year, Heath said. Darwin Cerén, Cristian Higuita, Pedro Ribeiro and Servando Carrasco all are capable in support.
“I said to the players, ‘Let’s make sure when Ricky gets back we’re still undefeated.’ That was a big plus for us. He’s the leader of this group and the lads really respect him,” Heath said. “One thing I am certain about is if we’re going to achieve our goals, we need Ricky to be like he was the other day.”
In the end, both teams hope to find that staying the course was the right approach. So far, so good.
“We’re not Man City. We’re not making a [tactical] change and then changing 14 guys on our roster. You need to build methodically and believe that experience will pay off. You have to believe you have the right guys and one bad game doesn’t mean they’re not capable,” Waibel said.
“It’s not easy at times. It’s not easy on the coaching staff, for the ownership group and sometimes it takes a little bit more time than you’d like,” Heath said. “But if you’re going to keep blowing up your plan after 12 months, you’re not going to be successful.”