It wouldn't be an understatement to say that Orlando City had an abnormal expansion season in MLS.
While most debut campaigns are heavy in the loss column, Orlando's 2015 season had nearly as many wins as it did defeats. The team's competitive nature right out of the gates was seen a surprise by many around the league, but for coach Adrian Heath the fact that his team came so close to making the postseason without actually getting in was much more of a disappointment.
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"Obviously the playoffs are always the Holy Grail in this league and we were certainly disappointed that we didn't do it last year," Heath told Goal Canada, noting that he expected his team to be competitive in its inaugural year. "When we were good last year we were very, very good, and when we were bad we were really poor at times."
The Englishman pointed to consistency as Orlando's missing component in 2015, and he said that it's the biggest priority for his team in its second year as an active MLS franchise.
"We had a really horrendous July and August, and had we just taken a couple of [additional] points in that time ... if we had taken even a couple of draws along the way there, we'd have probably got [to the playoffs]," Heath said of a summer slump in which Orlando claimed only six points from 11 games, effectively eliminating the side from postseason contention despite a subsequent five-game winning streak in the fall.
"When I look at the sort of finish that we had — at least six or seven of the last games that we won — had we gotten into the playoffs I think we would have been a really difficult proposition," Heath said.
Heath admitted that he may have leaned on a small core of players too much, as expansion sides low on depth tend to do, which may have contributed to the summer swoon. With a bigger pool of talent at his disposal — attacker Kevin Molino is set to return after an ACL injury ended his debut MLS campaign prematurely, and incoming Italian midfielder Antonio Nocerino will bring the Lions a wealth of experience to the middle of the park — and a better understanding of the unique trials and tribulations that go into a North American season, the 55-year-old believes that he and his squad are better equipped to challenge for trophies in 2016.
"One of the things that I think that we have addressed is we have got a little bit more set with depth, certainly in the middle of the park, which will be important," Heath said. "If we're to have any cup run with the Open Cup, you know the games do come thick and fast, and with the weather conditions down here you could be playing in 100 degree heat, 90 degree heat with all the humidity, then maybe we can afford to sort of hold back a little bit and use the squad a little bit more.
"These are certain things we'll have to look at during the year."
The main goal, as Heath stated several times, is the MLS playoffs. The coach stressed the importance of the playing side of Orlando City keeping up with the business side, as the team shattered the first-year attendance record for an MLS club and only trailed the Seattle Sounders in overall attendance in 2015.
As the club keeps growing in stature off the field, it needs to "keep pace" on the field as well, Heath said.
"One of the areas that we have to do [well] is to make the postseason and keep the season alive, and hopefully get ourselves two or three more home games," he said. "I know the crowd we would get down here would be incredible. That's got to be the end [goal].
"All or nothing for us would be making the playoffs."
ORLANDO CITY SEASON PREVIEW
2015 FINISH: Seventh in Eastern Conference (12-14-8), missed playoffs
NOTABLE ADDITIONS: GK Joe Bendik, M Richie Laryea, D Kevin Alston, M Antonio Nocerino
NOTABLE LOSSES: GK Tally Hall, D Corey Ashe, M Eric Avila, M Lewis Neal, F Danny Mwanga
TOP NEWCOMER:Antonio Nocerino. Mired in controversy, the former Juventus and Milan midfielder's move to MLS resulted in a public tug-of-war between D.C. United and Orlando. The 30-year-old's transfer was eventually settled and the Florida-based side can look forward to his calming influence in the middle of the park. Head coach Adrian Heath is expected to slot the Italian directly into the starting XI, so any MLS learning curve will need to be dealt with quickly.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Kevin Molino. Orlando's first-ever MLS signing only managed a handful of games last year before his season ended due to a knee injury. The Trinidad and Tobago international is back to health and looking as dangerous in the preseason as he did during the few games in which he did feature in 2015. Molino's creativity in attack and willingness to push forward will be solid additions for a team that was firmly middle-of-the-pack in goal-scoring last year.
"It's strange that you sometimes forget until you've seen him actually back on the grass how much he does give the team," said Heath about Molino, adding that the 25-year-old's return to fitness is "like a new signing" for Orlando.
The Lions should be able to hold on to the ball more in 2016 thanks to the addition of Nocerino and the return of Molino, which should aid in cutting down a lot of the chances given up on the defensive end. With a new goalkeeper in Joe Bendik and a fullback upgrade in Kevin Alston, things should should be better defensively for the club.
Orlando's biggest question mark is in team depth, as the squad was severely depleted for stretches last season through injuries and suspensions. Should Orlando be able to remain relatively healthy throughout the year, a place in the postseason is not out of the question as the team has the talent to compete with most MLS sides on any given day.
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