After failing to make the playoffs in each of the club's first three seasons, 2018 was supposed to be different for Orlando City. The Lions had made a bunch of big moves, bringing in successful MLS veterans like Sacha Kljestan, Justin Meram and Uri Rosell. Dom Dwyer was entering his first full season with the team and youngster Josue Colman was brought in to break out. Defender Lamine Sane was signed to help stablize the defense.
All of these moves were supposed to finally guide the team to postseason soccer, yet, 2018 turned out to be the worst season in the club's short MLS history. A six-match winning streak from March through May was followed by a run that saw the Lions collect just nine points from the final 25 games of the MLS season. Jason Kreis was dismissed in June and his replacement, James O'Connor, didn't fare much better. The season was, for lack of a better word, a disaster, as Orlando finished with the second-worst record in MLS while serving as the league's most disappointing team.
Enter 2019, a year where expectations will be tempered but high once again. The Lions completely reshaped a defense that allowed a whopping 74 goals, the most ever conceded in a season by an MLS team. Once again Orlando is facing a rebuild with a slew of new faces as the Lions look to finally chase that highly elusive playoff berth.
How did Orlando City perform in 2018?
2018 finish: 11th in the Eastern Conference (8-22-4), missed playoffs
After moving on from Kreis in the wake of a poor start, it never got much better for the Lions under O'Connor. Orlando finished dead last in the Eastern Conference and with the second-worst overall record in MLS.
Orlando City's key offseason losses
Naturally, following a poor season, changes were made in Orlando as several key players moved on. Goalkeeper Joe Bendik had his option declined and subsequently signed with the Columbus Crew while Jonathan Spector, the leader of the Lions backline, also moved on. Fellow defenders Scott Sutter, Donny Toia, Chris Schuler, Mohamed El-Munir, Amro Tarek and RJ Allen are also gone as the club has opted to completely rebuild what was certainly their Achilles heel in 2018.
The biggest loss, though, is in the midfield as star Yoshimar Yotun was sold to Cruz Azul. The Peruvian international was an All-Star-level player in MLS and one of Orlando's top talents, but the club was unable to convince Yotun to stay on with the team.
Sporting KC's key offseason additions
Former Manchester United winger Nani joins on a free transfer from Sporting CP and immediately becomes the club's most prized addition. The Portuguese star is 32 years old but his ability to create off the dribble gives Orlando an element they were lacking before.
In an effort to rebuild their defense, Orlando went with youth by acquiring two talented young fullbacks. Last year's No. 1 overall pick Joao Moutinho was acquired from Los Angeles FC after he made 14 appearances in his rookie season but struggled to hold down a consistent spot.
Danilo Acosta, meanwhile, joins on loan from Real Salt Lake after finding his way into Mike Petke's doghouse and now must prove himself off the field as well as on it as the situation at his old club turned sour. Also coming in is American defender Alex DeJohn, who moves to MLS for the first time after spending the first five years of his career in Finland, Norway and Sweden.
Full Orlando City roster entering 2018 season
Goalkeepers: Adam Grinwis, Greg Ranjitsingh, Mason Stajduhar
Defenders: Danilo Acosta, Caslos Ascues, Alex DeJohn, Joao Moutinho, Shane O'Neill, Ruan, Lamine Sane, Kyle Smith
Midfielders: Josue Colman, Pierre da Silva, Cristian Higuita, Will Johnson, Sacha Kljestan, Cam Lindley, Sebas Mendez, Nani, Dillon Powers, Oriol Rossell
Forwards: Tesho Akindele, Dom Dwyer, Benji Michel, Chris Muller, Santiago Patino
Orlando City's projected starting lineup
O'Conner has shown an affinity for three-at-the-back, and he has the pieces in place to make that work. Defenders Ascues, O'Neill and Sane can start centrally, with someone like DeJohn providing depth. The wing back battles are interesting with Acosta, Moutinho, Ruan and Johnson all options to play out wide.
In the midfield, the absence of Yotun will be a massive one, and it will be up to Mendez to help plug that gap. Rossell, Johnson and Higuita can also play that box-to-box role, but it will be vital for that midfield to step up as a group to replace Yotun. In recent years, MLS midfields have become more and more talented as teams have been able to throw big money at more than just attackers, and the Lions group will be tested right away by some dynamic units in the East.
Dwyer remains the centerpiece of the attack, with Nani and Kljestan tasked with providing creativity. Kljestan doesn't have the legs or defensive chops required to play in that two-man midfield while Nani probably doesn't have the ability to track back as one of the wing backs, which would also be a waste of his talent. Look for Kljestan to tuck in and provide that creativity, while Nani will look to beat players off the dribble and open gaps for Dwyer to find.
Orlando City's national TV coverage
- Orlando City vs. New York City FC - Saturday, March 2 at 2:30 p.m. on Univision Deportes
- Orlando City vs. D.C. United - Sunday, March 31 at 6:30 p.m. on FS1
- Atlanta United vs. Orlando City - Sunday, May 12 at 2:30 p.m. on Fox
- Orlando City vs. LA Galaxy - Friday, May 24 at 7 p.m. on Univision Deportes
- Portland Timbers vs. Orlando City - Thursday, July 18 at 10 p.m. on ESPN
- Orlando City vs. New York Red Bulls - Sunday, July 21, at 7:30 p.m. ET on FS1
- Orlando City vs. Atlanta United - Friday, August 23 at 8 p.m. on ESPN