New York City FC and Orlando City SC look for kinder second season in MLS
With rare exceptions, the inaugural campaign for an MLS expansion team is like having orthodontia. It's painful at times, it's not pretty, and the payoff usually doesn't come until years later, but it's worth it.
Since the MLS expansion boom began in 2005, the league has seen 11 new teams come on board. Only the Seattle Sounders managed to reach the playoffs in their first season (2009). But the second year has tended to be a bit kinder to new entries. Excluding Seattle, four teams -- the Philadelphia Union, Montreal Impact, Vancouver Whitecaps and now-defunct Chivas USA -- reached the postseason in their second year. The San Jose Earthquakes and the Portland Timbers went on to make the playoffs in Year 3.
With the 2016 MLS season set to kick off Sunday, that kind of history will warm the hearts of Orlando City SC and New York City FC fans. Both teams filled the stands in their debut campaigns but failed to make the playoffs; they also learned some hard lessons, including some that carried straight into the offseason.
At the conclusion of the 2015 regular season, Orlando looked the more stable of the two. Adrian Heath's side had narrowly missed the playoffs while fielding a team containing plenty of young players, including MLS Rookie of the Year Cyle Larin. New York struggled to integrate high-priced stars Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo, fired manager Jason Kreis and then made the eyebrow-raising move of looking outside the league to find his replacement in Patrick Vieira.
Soon, however, the respective readings on the chaos-meter were reversed.
NYCFC ran silent and ran deep as it set about finding reinforcements and getting Vieira acclimated. Orlando, meanwhile, witnessed a Shakespearean level of palace intrigue: A battle for the club's soul seemed to take place between owner Flavio da Silva and founder Phil Rawlins, with Heath's position as coach looking tenuous. In a two-month period starting on Nov. 3, the Lions hired former Benfica executive Armando Carneiro as its chief soccer officer, saw snubbed general manager Paul McDonough announce his departure and then sign on with 2017 expansion side Atlanta United, only for the club to announce on Dec. 28 that Carneiro was leaving Orlando for "personal reasons," with Rawlins taking over.
"We had a turbulent couple of months," Heath admitted in a phone interview. "We had a situation where we had one or two people come into the club and it was going to be five or six and obviously you never know how that's going to end. Fortunately for me -- and it was a brave decision from Flavio, the owner -- he decided that maybe it wasn't the right time to make a huge overhaul of the club. I think common sense prevailed."
Rawlins insisted that the club came out well in the end, despite the turmoil. He lauded the additions of Bobby Murphy and Stewart Kerr to the coaching staff. His eight-year relationship with Heath, dating to the early days of the team, means they should be like-minded in terms of player acquisitions. The fact that Da Silva cast his lot with Rawlins and Heath means that at least for the moment, there is support from the owner's box as well.
"There's nothing in [the current structure] that should suggest that there is any disruption or conflict," Rawlins said. "Everybody is on the same page."
It also improves the odds that the institutional memory from last year won't be erased. For Heath, the biggest lessons from 2015 boil down to health, discipline and depth.
The loss of midfielder Kevin Molino to a torn ACL cut deep, but Heath also bemoaned the number of soft-tissue injuries the team suffered, and has tweaked the workload of players as a result. A league-high 10 red cards were also significant, as Orlando earned just three points in those games in which it had a player sent off. Heath is also looking for players like Bryan Rochez and Carlos Rivas to take some of the scoring burden off Larin, while new arrival Antonio Nocerino should add some veteran savvy to help Orlando close out some of the games that it let get away in 2015.
"I just think a lot of our players will be a lot better for having had a year in the league, and being exposed to what comes your way," Heath said. "Little things, like people spoke to us about the travel. I raised my eyebrows at that, but it probably does take more out of people than we imagined. Maybe we can rotate certain players a little more at certain times. We have the games in the extreme heat here. It could be 90 to 100 degrees. Can we manage the minutes better for certain players? I think it's the accumulation of a lot of little things that if we can get incrementally better in a few areas, it will have a big impact on us overall."
For NYCFC sporting director Claudio Reyna, the differences heading into 2016 are immense. Reyna believes that this year, there is more focus on the on-field product, as opposed to announcing the team's presence to the New York market. He's also in the position of being more selective and strategic in how he augments his squad. He admitted that in retrospect, the task of building a team from scratch proved daunting.
"I think it was probably a time where we were reacting versus being proactive in your search for players," he said via telephone. "When you don't have a team, you're maybe quick to sign players just because we didn't have anybody. Probably in hindsight we could have waited a bit more on certain decisions, but it's certainly easier said than done. I think when you have seven or eight players on your team and you're two months away from preseason, we felt we had to get guys through the door, so to speak, and get guys signed and just fill out a team."
The ensuing 12 months have given Reyna and the club a chance to collect some hard data on the team's performance instead of thinking of how players would fit together in the abstract. Some numbers are brutal, especially the 58 goals conceded, which tied for the worst mark in the league.
"I think now we're able to look at the squad and there's more of a succession plan because you have something to evaluate," he said. "There's always players that are coming in, players that are going out. But it was unique when you didn't have a team at all and you were just looking to fill the squad up. I think everyone feels more settled with that, and the place of our squad, and we're looking forward to start the season."
To that end, Reyna's aim has been to get younger and have more youthful energy on the roster, the better to complement the presence of Lampard, Pirlo and David Villa in the lineup. Reyna has brought in, among others, 21-year-old full-back Ronald Matarrita, defender Diego Martinez (24) and midfielders Jack Harrison (19) and Federico Bravo (22). Conspicuously absent are any imports from parent club Manchester City.
"It's always an option for us to look at players there and it will continue to be because there will be more talent coming through the Man City pipeline in the years ahead," Reyna said. "So it wasn't a different strategy, but one where we wanted to get some youth into the team, younger players.
"We're really pleased with the additions we had, but also excited that the team will be together and more settled from the beginning of the year with the likes of Andrea and Frank being with the team from day one. That will help to have the camaraderie of everyone being together."
That goes for Vieira as well, who, according to Reyna, has settled in quickly.
"The detailed information he provides to the players, the confidence he gives them, the way he pushes them and is commanding is fantastic," he said. "The training sessions have been good, the guys have worked hard. It's great to see."
So can Orlando or NYCFC make a playoff breakthrough this year? Both teams will clearly be better, but any conversation about the postseason also involves teams that fall off, and that is difficult to picture at the moment. All five of last year's Eastern Conference playoff teams have improved to varying degrees. It's not like climbing Everest, but it will be difficult nonetheless.
In the meantime, fans of the two clubs will be hoping the right kind of history repeats itself.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.