Half Term Report: Orlando City Soccer … the Season So Far!

Orlando City Soccer 2 Colorado Rapids 0, Orlando Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Florida - 24th June 2015 (Photographer: Nigel G Worrall)

With some 17 games of their inaugural Major League Soccer season now behind them, Orlando City Soccer has reached the half way point of an exciting opening campaign.

The team has shaped up and is sitting rather nicely in third position in the Eastern Conference. The club has made history with nearly everything they have done so far with the first game, first goal, first win (home and away) as well as being a part of the first official hydration break in MLS history.

It’s been an exciting time to be in or to follow Orlando as they have recorded excellent wins over Houston Dynamo, Portland Timbers, LA Galaxy, Chicago Fire, D.C. United and Colorado Rapids. They have also earned creditable draws against New York City, Montreal Impact, New England Revolution, San Jose Earthquakes and Columbus Crew in stacking up 23 points from their 17 games.

The season started off tentatively with two draws, one loss and a win at Houston but it wasn’t until the LA Galaxy came to the Orlando Citrus Bowl that you really felt as if this team was really here to compete. That excellent 4-0 win over the previous seasons MLS Champions did the players a power of good and installed a belief system that they could take on anyone and beat them. A point backed up when they sunsequently defeated Eastern Conference league leaders D.C. United 1-0 in the middle of May.

A five game unbeaten streak starting with that Galaxy game propelled the club up the table and has given supporters great hope that the club can become only the second ever team to make the MLS play offs in an inaugural season.

For many fans who have followed the team and become accustomed to success in the USLPRO league, even this has proven a little extraordinary as the team has come together to deliver some stellar performances. Truth be known, it might have been even better but for a few individual mistakes that have cost valuable points, some vital injuries to key players and the all important rub of the green at crucial times.

All of the credit for this has to go to Head Coach Adrian Heath, his excellent coaching staff and of course, to the players… many of whom who have excelled and performed like native MLS players from day one. The real highlight though, apart from the delight of watching World Player of the Year Kaka strut his stuff, has been the emergence of lesser recognised players like Rafael Ramos, Darwin Cerén, Cyle Larin, Luke Boden and to an extent, Lewis Neal. It’s easy to pick out the performances of some of the more established players the club has signed but this little group has been extremely important in gelling the team together and finding some real consistency of late.

At the start of the season many questioned how vital some of these players would actually be but all of them have proved beyond any shadow of a doubt how vital they are to the team and that they are indeed quality players at this level.

Orlando City Soccer 2 Colorado Rapids 0, Orlando Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Florida - 24th June 2015 (Photographer: Nigel G Worrall)

Lewis Neal (pictured above) has been an absolute stand out in that regard. Neal left Orlando for D.C. United and the lure of MLS soccer in 2012 after helping the club to a 2011 USL PRO Championship. After some 53 appearances and two goals in the nations capital, he was mysteriously allowed to return to Central Florida. D.C.’s loss has most certainly be the Lions gain as he has played a foundational part in the teams better performances this season.

There is no question that the 2015 player is a greatly improved player over the previous version and Orlando clearly missed him while he was out for several weeks after sustaining a neck injury in training shortly after the Houston away game, where he probably played his best ever game in an Orlando shirt. His subsequent return to the team after that injury has added an extra dynamic as the team has looked far more solid.

Orlando City Soccer 2 Colorado Rapids 0, Orlando Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Florida - 24th June 2015 (Photographer: Nigel G Worrall)

Another player who has made great strides this season is Luke Boden (pictured above). One of the players who has been with Orlando from its inaugural USL PRO season, Boden initially had to wait for his chance to shine. He started the season missing out on the starting line up for the first six out of seven games but since starting against New England he has made the left back position his own forming a solid partnership with Brek Shea on the left side of the pitch.

Orlando City Soccer 2 Colorado Rapids 0, Orlando Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Florida - 24th June 2015 (Photographer: Nigel G Worrall)

Perhaps the most significant development in the team has been in the right back slot where Rafael Ramos has put in some sterling work. For me, he probably has claims to being the player of the season so far, such has been the strength of his performance. The young Portuguese defender has shown some great touch along with a great deal of pace to trouble opponent after opponent this season and it’s been great to watch. He’s had a couple of moments where the game has bitten him though, namely the red card he received in Columbus and the careless chested back pass that was intercepted gleefully by New England but he has bounced back admirably from those set backs to learn from his experiences.

Orlando City Soccer 2 Colorado Rapids 0, Orlando Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Florida - 24th June 2015 (Photographer: Nigel G Worrall)

Another of the bright spots to an eventful opening season has been the emergence of Cyle Larin (pictured above). The Canadian national team forward has now netted 6 times in 9 full appearances and shows a willingness to learn his craft along the way. Playing upfront with your back to goal is always difficult to master but Cyle has shown he has an aptitude for hard work and more importantly, being in the right place at the right time to score the goals that have helped Orlando shoot up the Eastern Conference.

D.C. United 1 Orlando City Soccer Club 1, IMG Academy, Bradenton, Florida - 30 January 2015 (Photographer: Nigel Worrall)

In midfield, a lot of important work has gone relatively unnoticed as Darwin Cerén (pictured above) has emerged as one of the stars of the campaign. An underrated performer since joining the club he has come into the limelight with some excellent performances that have helped Orlando City control the midfield in many of their games to date. Cerén, an El Salvador international, has very much been an unsung hero as he has put himself about the field winning the ball back and distributing it intelligently to teammates.

Orlando City Soccer 2 Colorado Rapids 0, Orlando Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Florida - 24th June 2015 (Photographer: Nigel G Worrall)

All in all, it has been a very good start for Orlando City to their first season and one of the other key players in the season so far has, of course, been a certain Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, more commonly known as Kaká (pictured above).

When you add a player of his undoubted ability to a team, the expectation level has to go up. The club has targeted the play offs as their goal this season and with captain Kaká bringing his experience to bear, the club is well on course to achieve that. Not only has the inspirational Brazilian contributed eight key goals to the cause but he’s also shown his leadership ability, not least when he scored and promptly donned the shirt of Kevin Molino, who had ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in a friendly game against Ponte Preta a few days before.

Injuries have also played an important role this season. The club was desperately unlucky to lose Molino, just as he was starting to really believe in himself and the Trinidad international will now miss the remainder of this campaign. Other injuries have also played key roles as Aurélien Collin, Brek Shea, Pedro Riveiera, Lewis Neal and Martin Patterson have all missed out at various times. Of course, with injury opportunity presents itself to others and one of the real concerns of the clubs supporters before the season started was the depth of the squad.

It is all very well signing the well known names like Kaká, Collin and Shea but you do need quality throughout the ranks and the club has proven that they have made some very good acquisitions in acquiring others like Cristian Higuita, Carlos Rivas, Seb Hines, Sean St. Ledger, Amobi Okugo and Eric Avila.

Orlando City Soccer 2 Colorado Rapids 0, Orlando Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Florida - 24th June 2015 (Photographer: Nigel G Worrall)

Initial fan concerns going into the season of being on the wrong end of some large scorelines have proved unfounded as the team has proven to be highly competitive. Head Coach Adrian Heath has drilled his men well and rarely have they looked second best in any of the 17 games to date.

Having served his managerial apprenticeship in England with clubs such as Burnley, Sheffield United and Coventry, “Inchy” has learned his lessons well. Football, as it is known in Europe, is an unforgiving and at times, a cut throat game and while Heath didn’t exactly experience a great time in the UK, he has most certainly learned and applied his brand of soccer extremely well in America.

Sure, the atmosphere is more forgiving but what he has achieved year in, year out with Orlando City has been nothing short of remarkable. Literally, every year he has had to rebuild a new team. Players have come in and gone out every season and Heath has been left with the unheralded task of finding new replacement players who can compete and lift trophies every season. He has never disappointed in that regard and this year, with his mind set firmly on the task of achieving the play offs, it looks like he has built another great squad capable of achieving the goal the club has set.

Owner and Founder of Orlando City Soccer Club Phil Rawlins message has been quite clear to MLS, “We are here to compete” but saying things like that is one thing and delivering it another entirely. Rawlins’ friend and Head Coach has delivered big time with both his tactical nous and his ability to create a comradeship around the team.

Overall, it’s been an outstanding start to their Major League Soccer venture and the club will be looking to improve on what they have built as we move forward. A play off place now seems entirely possible but Heath will know that standards have to be maintained and the players have to be on song for each and every game if they are to achieve their goal. After that, anything else this season is a bonus.

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