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Orlando City experiences up, down swings typical of expansion season

Listening to a mashup of Adrian Heath’s remarks after Orlando City’s past two games may result in whiplash. The emotional swing is palpable, almost violent. Combined, his comments certainly illustrate the agony and ecstasy of an expansion season.

Last week, Orlando was leading Eastern Conference power D.C. United by a goal when a 67th-minute hamstring injury forced Aurélien Collin from the field. D.C. drew level in the 70th and eight minutes later, scored the winner.

Heath seethed outside the visitors' locker room at RFK Stadium.

“It doesn’t help losing Aurélien. But if people do their job, pick up people they should be marking, then we might be OK. I’m fed up with going through this,” he told reporters. “People don’t do their job properly … we can’t keep killing ourselves. We shoot ourselves in the foot every week.”

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Four days later, fielding a lineup featuring three new starters, Orlando dismantled the visiting LA Galaxy, 4-0.

The reigning champs were missing Robbie Keane and Omar Gonzalez, among others, but that hardly mattered to the 40,000-plus fans at the Citrus Bowl. And it didn’t seem to bother Heath, who was eager—perhaps desperate—to see a 90-minute performance and the club’s first home MLS win.

“I’m delighted for everybody connected with the club, especially the supporters, who’ve been incredible for us,” he said Sunday. “After that, I’m just really pleased because they’ve been working so hard. They had a few kicks in the teeth the past few weeks … It all bodes well for us. I think it’s been a great night of work.”

Orlando City (3-5-3), which plays at the San Jose Earthquakes on Sunday, has tied two games after scoring in the 90th minute or later and lost two games after conceding in the 90th minute or later. It’s dealt with a surreal spate of injuries, most notably to promising winger Kevin Molino, who’s lost for the season with an ACL tear. It’s already lost more matches this year than in any of its four complete regular season campaigns in the third-tier USL. And it’s drawing more than 37,000 fans per game.

It’s been a spring of promise and perspective, during which Heath and Orlando City’s USL holdovers—inside the club and in the stands—have had to deal with losing, the ups and downs of the expansion learning curve and the trial and error of building a competitive top-tier team. Speaking to shortly before embarking on that D.C./LA roller coaster, Heath acknowledged the degree of difficulty. But the former Everton and Burnley star, who won two English league titles, an FA Cup and the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup as a player, remains convinced that a few bounces and a couple tweaks are all that separates Orlando from a playoff berth.

The 2009 Seattle Sounders are the only one of MLS’ nine 21st-century expansion teams to make the playoffs in its first season.

“When I look at the body of work from the start to where we are now, there’s a lot of pleasing aspects to it,” Heath said, adding that a late April loss to Toronto FC was the only game in which Orlando wasn’t competitive.

“People in our club, not only on the outside, they’ve been used to every Monday morning at the staff meeting talking about another easy win and the crowd was really good–9,000 against Harrisburg—and everything’s looking rosy. It’s been a bit of a culture shock for a lot of people. But there are teams that are .500 that can make the playoffs. So you can win as many as you lose and you’re still in with a shout.”

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Orlando and its expansion counterpart, New York City FC (1-6-4), launched to considerable fanfare but now are feeling the weight of expectations.

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There’s a long, long way to go, but at the moment, NYCFC is on pace to post the worst first-year record since Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA entered the league in 2005. Before the LA win, Orlando was near the bottom as well.

The improvement at the top of many MLS rosters, along with the difficulty in building depth (which also impacts the quality of the expansion draft), arguably has made winning early harder than ever. Chemistry takes time to develop, and not every player is capable of taking the next step.

Without being asked, Heath brought up NYCFC coach Jason Kreis’ poignant comments following his team’s May 3 loss to Seattle.

Kreis said, “I guess I didn’t realize it would be this difficult. Maybe I forgot how very hard it is to build a team in this league and have success on a consistent basis.”

Said Heath, “I thought it was interesting. That’s from somebody who’s spent all his career in MLS—played all his career here and coached here. For me the fact that it was somebody else saying it…”

It means the struggle is real.

“What has been an Achilles heel and something we have to address is we make a mistake that proves really costly nearly every game. Really cheap turnovers—bad errors which are individual mistakes. We have a young team, but we can’t keep doing it,” Heath said.

He’s right. Orlando is young. There are several ways to build an expansion team. One is to sign a lot of older, more experienced MLS vets who know what it takes to win. They’re more likely to avoid a younger player’s missteps and inconsistency. But that sort of roster would require an overhaul sooner rather than later, and that’s not the route Heath and City GM Paul McDonough chose to follow.

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There’s MLS experience in Orlando, of course, starting with Collin, Brek Shea, Amobi Okugo and goalkeepers Donovan Ricketts and Tally Hall. But they’re surrounded by foreign newcomers and newer pros. Alongside Kaká, the league’s highest-paid player, are designated players Bryan Róchez, 20, and Carlos Rivas, 21. Of the 14 City field players who’ve appeared in at least five games, five are 21 or under and nine are 25 or younger.

“I think that we are a club that has consistently wanted to bring young players in to improve them and keep them in the club. Steven Gerrard will be a success [with LA], make no mistake. Robbie Keane, even Kaká, they’ve come for the right reasons. From our point of view, we want to bring in younger ones with Kaká and improve them here,” Heath said. “They could be with us six, seven years, or if they materialize the way we hope they’re going to, they could be assets to move on to replenish the club as we’re going on. We don’t feel as though it’s dead money. There’s money that’s been put into players we feel will make us money down the road or will stay with us and play in our team and make us better.”

That’s taking the long view, and it requires patience. And it means injuries and national team call-ups—Orlando could lose three players to the U-20 World Cup, and another trio to the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Kaká is an alternate on Brazil’s Copa América squad.

Heath said the injury glut was a coincidence, but it’s forced him to improvise. In 11 MLS matches, Orlando has used nine starting lineups. Twice, Heath had to bring fewer than 18 players to a road match. In Washington, for example, he was missing the suspended Okugo, the injured Seb Hines and Tommy Redding and Conor Donovan, who was with the U-20s. And that was just on defense. Nineteen-year-old Harrison Heath, the coach’s son, started in midfield and when Collin went down, the only option was Tyler Turner, another 19-year-old who’d never played center back. The match inevitably turned.

Heath said he thinks his team has played some good soccer. Kaká has shown flashes of brilliance and his players often move the ball well (no MLS team has suffered more fouls and City is fifth in corner kicks—both signs of threatening possession). But the manager admitted that additional savvy, or “bouncebackability”, would help.

“Hopefully we can tweak the roster a little bit moving forward over the next couple of months. It’ll probably be a couple more experienced players,” he said.

The club has been linked to Mexican striker Javier "Chicharito" Hernández, whose contract expires in the summer of 2016. He’s scored eight goals in 32 appearances this season for Real Madrid.

“People at our club spoke to his people and I think where that goes, obviously he [played last week] in the Champions League semifinal, so that puts in perspective what we’re talking about,” Heath said. “I don’t think there’s a team, an ambitious club in MLS, who wouldn’t be interested in talking to Chicharito. I’d put us in that mix.”

There is no questioning Orlando’s ambition. And that can buoy morale in tough times. Expansion seasons are hard. They should be hard. It wouldn’t say much for the competition if they weren’t. Heath said he embraces that reality and that he prefers the pressure. He wants the club’s fans to demand success and he wants to feel like the results matter.

“I’ll have this every day of the week,” he said.

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The key, then, is to balance that ambition with realism and patience.

Collin knows what it takes to build a champion. He joined Sporting Kansas City in 2011, when the club returned to the playoffs after a two-year absence.

The following season, SKC won the U.S. Open Cup. Then in 2013, it lifted the MLS Cup. Collin was named MVP of the final.

“Especially from Kansas City, where everything is very professional, the fans are amazing, stadium amazing, training center great, and then I came to Orlando to sign in December. The owner told me, Phil [Rawlins], ‘This is the first year. We’re making everything we can to make the best of it but it’s going to be the first year so be prepared if there are some things that are not as good as Kansas City.' But everything is better,” Collin said, lauding everything from the club's facilities to its ambition to attract players and fans from across South America and Europe.

“We’re a new team. An expansion team. But we have a lot of great talent. All the young guys, they’re a great generation. Of course, we showed our youngness in the first games, but at the end of the day we’re almost better than any team we’ve played against,” he continued. “We know what we have, what we have to focus on, and that’s it.”