In Major League Soccer, a team is likelier than not to make the playoffs. 12 out of 20 teams in the United States and Canada will attain berths at the end of October for an intricate five-week, home-and-home, first-round-bye knockout process that incentivizes heating up at the right time. Regardless one’s thoughts on ‘playoffs’ and their impact on the regular season’s importance, it’s a damn good soap opera, perennially stocked with evil-Empire heavyweights and plucky Cinderella stories.

It also must mean you really suck if you can’t get in. With such a low bar to reach the next level, the list of goals conceded, chances squandered, and injuries suffered for a team on the outside enviously looking in must be lucrative fodder for psychiatrists tasked with hapless, newly-unemployed MLS coaches.
This should be the case for Orlando City SC, currently seventh in the MLS Eastern Conference. With 38 points from 31 games, they’re currently the first team out of the playoffs, a distinction up there with being the skinniest kid at fat camp. With three games left to play and four points separating them from the final playoff qualifying team, which has two games in hand, their chances are grim. Barring a historic collapse by the Montreal Impact or Toronto FC, the Lions’ inaugural season will end prematurely.

At the same time, OCSC shouldn’t panic and jettison their long-term plans by signing (another) overpriced Designated Player  or overhauling their technical staff. All things considered, 2015 showed promise, certainly a baseline that current manager and former Everton star Adrian Heath can work with. 

OCSC’s results are way above the average MLS expansion side’s, for starters.  At least in their first season, expansion sides are built to fail. A new coaching squad and a brand-new grouping of 28 guys, culled in an expansion ‘draft’ from preexisting sides, are squashed together with little time to build chemistry. Only the Seattle Sounders made the playoffs as an inaugural team in 2009, finishing third in a stacked Western Conference. The rest finished well-outside playoff position or, like Chivas USA in 2005, Toronto FC in 2007, and Vancouver Whitecaps in 2011, dead last in the MLS, not just their respective conferences. 

The Lions have had playoff-caliber spurts this year, but they’ve been hamstrung by defensive blundering all season. They’ve given up the most goals in MLS (53) and have the second worst goal differential (-12). OCSC’s owners repeatedly prioritized offense, spending all three of its Designated Player allocations on attackers, the first slot on 2007 Ballon d’Or winner and FIFA ’11 cover boy Kaka; the final two on college-aged yet promising strikers from Colombia and Honduras. The offense-first dogma shined through early in the year with neglect of the back four screwing up everything.

To be sure OCSC had some horrid personnel luck. Frequent hamstring knocks for defensive stalwart Aurelien Collin and a lengthy hernia recovery for left back-cum-midfielder and US national team contender Brek Shea kept Heath from putting out his ideal defensive personnel for large parts of the season. Veteran Irish defender Sean St. Ledger arrived in March after a successful trial, starting early and often, only to be out the door in July after skipping a team flight and several days of training. And that doesn’t even go into the fluke visa issues suffered over the summer.

Mostly, though, the Lions back line put in the kind of effort that secondary students would be running wind sprints for. In the early months of the season, OCSC could explain away its losses to mental lapses on stoppage time set plays, intercepted back-passes, idiotic red-card challenges, and acres of space frequently given to solitary strikers or counter-attackers. 

The kind of form that makes coaches really question their self-worth, though, came from July to August at the worst of the personnel crises . One win in eleven games and a -19 goal differential thanks to more red cards, concrete feet, blown assignments, plenty of room for the Holy Spirit to dance in between Lion defenders and their attacking counterparts, and mind-boggling X-on-1 counterattacks made for football that belongs in  Amateur-level FIFA, not a professional league.

Add all of that onto an attack at once jittery, with MLS’s fourth most offsides calls, and anemic, averaging less than four shots a game,  and it’s almost miraculous that the Lions are even still in the playoff chase. 

Despite their shortcomings, the Lions have some hope and some bright spots to build on for this season’s final charge and the future. He missed five games to injury and international call-up, and put in underwhelming displays for others, but 33-year-old Kaka still notched nine goals and six assists. As late as June 20, on the heels of a five-game unbeaten streak, they were third in the Eastern Conference; when they felt like it, the Lions could actually play well together.
Undoubtedly, however, this season’s brightest spot and inevitable source of unreasonable future expectations was 20-year-old Canadian striker Cyle Larin. The former University of Connecticut undergraduate, the #1 pick in the MLS’s “SuperDraft,”  had been expected to need ample time to develop and improve his technical skills, but as a substitute and then starter, he began scoring goals. 

Mostly tap-ins predicated on skillful positioning, but he could also create his own shot from deep with both feet. Even with OCSC’s anemic attack, he’s scored 13 goals in 21 appearances so far this year. With a hat-trick at the weekend, the triumphal exclamation mark on a three game win streak, he set the MLS rookie goal-scoring record. 

Despite their concerted push in the last few weeks, the Lions are still long-shots to make the playoffs. Should they lose Saturday, many websites have their qualification odds at 0.1%, up there with a snowball’s chance in hell.  With the hopes for Larin’s sophomore year, however, OCSC’s hopes for its own second season are looking up. It’s not like the defense could get any worse.

By Samuel Patterson. (He’s also on twitter here). Imagery used in this article from Orlando City SC.