Orlando City, so often changing the narrative in 2020, put another entry into the club history books with Wednesday night’s 2-1 victory in Kansas City, their seventh consecutive game without a loss. It’s a new record for the Lions, topping their six-game run in the spring of 2018. Impressively, five of the seven results have been victories, including each of the last three.
But how have they done it? I’ll leave the tactics to my man Miguel Gallardo on the broadcast on Sunday night, and Hannah Drosdick has a great breakdown of the team’s reaction to it, but let’s take an analytical dive into just how Orlando City has achieved their record-breaking run.
It’s a bit counterintuitive, especially if you’re a hockey fan, but goalkeepers are arguably valued least among positions in global soccer. The most expensive goalkeeper transfer of all time, Kepa Arrizabalaga from Athletic Bilbao to Chelsea in 2018, went for $93 million. A staggering sum to be sure, but less than the top transfers for a forward (Neymar, Barcelona to PSG in 2017, $258 million), an attacking midfielder (Philippe Coutinho, Liverpool to Barcelona in 2018, $169 million), a defensive midfielder (Paul Pogba, Juventus to Manchester United in 2016, $122 million), or even a center back (Harry Maguire, Leicester City to Manchester United in 2019, $101 million).
Orlando City clearly did not believe in this paradigm. Despite having a clearly capable starter returning from 2019 in Brian Rowe, Orlando City EVP of Soccer Operations Luiz Muzzi went out and invested in Pedro Gallese, the Peruvian No. 1 with three Copa Americas and a World Cup on his resume.
Gallese, nicknamed “El Pulpo,” or “The Octopus,” has more than lived up to expectations. Over the course of the seven-game streak, Gallese has made a crucial save to keep a result on multiple occasions. In Atlanta, Gallese bent to stop a point-blank header from Brooks Lennon in the opening ten minutes to keep the Five Stripes off the board, which led to Orlando opening up the game shortly after for their first-ever win against their Georgia rivals. In Kansas City on Wednesday night, Gallese gave up his body to stop a Gerso golazo that would have tied the game.
Most spectacularly, El Pulpo robbed Chicago Fire FC blind last Saturday night in the rain at Exploria Stadium, saving Álvaro Medrán’s penalty kick to keep Orlando ahead 2-0 in the first half. But his second save was even better, and more important, as he denied Gastón Giménez with an absurdly quick reaction to maintain a 2-1 edge for his team:
Just ridiculous stuff. The numbers back it up, too. According to American Soccer Analysis’ publicly-available model, Orlando City have allowed 10.91 expected goals over the seven-game run, meaning on average opponents would have scored 11 goals in the stretch. In reality, they have scored just seven. You can chalk some of that up to poor finishing, but it’s hard to see the volume of game-changing saves he’s made and not believe Pulpo is the primary man–octopod?–responsible.
Strength in depth
At the MLS is Back Tournament, Oscar Pareja established a first-choice XI and mostly stuck with it all the way to the final. He lost Dom Dwyer and Júnior Urso to injury, but otherwise the team mostly picked itself. Orlando City had at least five days of rest in between every game in the tournament, with the exception of the final against Portland, when they had four.
That has not been the case since the regular season restarted, and Pareja has had to rotate his squad to keep them fresh for this unique and taxing sprint of a season. Hannah pointed out in her piece that Orlando City have started 19 different players over the course of their seven-game run. Add in the players who have appeared but not started (Alex De John, Joey DeZart), and you’re up to 21. Pareja has made at least two changes to his starting XI in every game since the restart, including five on Wednesday night in Kansas City.
You wouldn’t know it from the results. Players across each line have stepped up to ensure the quality stays high.
Benji Michel, third-choice at the winger position behind stars Nani and Chris Mueller, has clearly taken a leap forward in 2020 and has scored four goals in five games. Michel has started every away game during the streak, notching 2 G/1 A in the three games as Orlando have taken seven points.
Urso, a marquee signing from the offseason who fell out of the starting lineup after that aforementioned injury at Walt Disney World, has been a menace since the restart. “The Bear” has started five of the past six games, scoring in wins over Atlanta and Chicago while performing brilliantly as the box-to-box midfielder in Pareja’s 4-2-3-1. Urso has led the team in tackles in each of his past two starts, putting together perhaps his most complete performance of the year Wednesday night in Kansas City:
In the back, a groin injury to Joao Moutinho on August 29 in Atlanta threatened to cripple Orlando City, as the Lions don’t have another natural left back on the roster. But Kyle Smith and Kamal Miller, who both played left back for the first time just last year, have combined to give Orlando City solidity on that side, allowing Ruan to bomb forward and do what he does best on the right. Smith’s run has been particularly impressive, as he’s also seen time at right back for Ruan and in both wingback and center back roles when Pareja moves to a 3-5-2 at the end of games.
All in all, the defense, combined with Gallese’s brilliance, has been rock solid, allowing exactly one goal in each of the seven games. Orlando are 9-0-5 in all competitions this season when allowing one goal or fewer.
Can they keep it up?
Expected goals doesn’t love Orlando City this season, and ASA’s expected points model actually has Orlando at about 19 points rather than their actual 25. But expected goals can miss game state fluctuations, and Orlando have held the lead early in most of their matches during the streak–the Lions have led at halftime in each of their past six games, leading opponents to throw numbers forward and generate higher-quality chances as they seek an equalizer.
Orlando City certainly don’t have to remain unbeaten for the rest of the year to make the playoffs either, or even to finish in the East’s top 4–the Lions have a greater than 99% chance of qualifying for the postseason and a 73% chance to clinch a home quarterfinal game, according to FiveThirtyEight. Between Gallese and their incredible depth, Orlando City should be able to keep pace with the East’s other elite teams and secure a strong playoff position.
Orlando has been spooked by streaks that have dissipated in the past. But what Oscar Pareja’s team is doing is real, and fans should be very excited about what lies ahead.