Hopefully, the Lions can figure a few things out and build on a big win. With both expansion teams struggling -- they’ve won a combined four games out of 22 -- NYCFC can look forward to the arrival of Frank Lampard to boost fortunes in midseason. NYCFC also has an open Designated Player spot.
The Lions don’t that much wiggle room. While Kaka has been as good as advertised -- his play on the field has ranged from good to exceptional and off the field he’s popular and engaging -- the other two slots occupied by Carlos Rivas and Bryan Rochez have yielded little. Rivas, 21, has played nine games (two starts) and is pointless in 245 minutes of play. Like several Lions, he’s been bothered by hamstring injuries. Rochez, 20, has played 80 minutes in six substitute appearances without notching a goal or an assist and is now off with Honduras for the U-20 World Cup.
Both players are very young and can’t be expected to shoulder a major burden, but they are occupying DP slots that many other teams have filled with stronger, more experienced attacking players. Youth hasn’t been a deterrent for Rafael Ramos, a 20-year-old Portuguese defender who has played in nine of OCSC’s 11 games. He’s already shown he can get up and down the flank and hit a good cross, as he did to set up the first goal last weekend. His defensive work needs improvement but he’s keeping a spot in the lineup, so he’s impressing the right people.
A hamstring injury suffered by Pedro Ribeiro on April 3 further depleted the front line, but the solid play of rookie forward Cyle Larin has offset his absence. Ribeiro hasn’t played in the six games since suffering his injury.
In the last three games, Luke Boden has shown that he’s a good alternative at left back to Brek Shea, who set up OCSC's first goal with a header that bounced nicely for Eric Avila to stab into the net. Larin contributed to the goal off the ball; he darted to the near post as the right-wing cross from Ramos soared over his head to Shea.
If Larin is making that kind of progress just a dozen games into his MLS career, that’s a clear sign that head coach Adrian Heath and his staff are sending the right messages. The timing of Larin’s run was that of a veteran, similar to what Red Bull midfielder Sacha Kljestan did when the Red Bulls scored their first goal in the 2-1 derby defeat of New York City FC.
Both runs drew a pair of defenders though Larin darted aggressively to pull his markers with him and Kljestan just drifts into the space after releasing the ball. Larin has scored a goal in each of his last three games and has four on the season. Continued success will draw increased attention from opponents, so Orlando City needs a few attacking alternatives to take pressure off the rookie as well as Kaka, who also has four goals as well as two assists.
Unfortunately, the Lions can’t count on Kevin Molino, a two-time USL MVP and budding MLS star who suffered an ACL injury in a friendly May 3 and is probably out for the season. His injury prompted Heath to move Avila to right mid for the past three games against New England, D.C. United and the Galaxy, with Shea moving up into midfield and Boden joining the back line.
Amobi Okogu, 24, is regarded as one of the league’s better young players, yet against the Galaxy Cristian Higuita, 21, replaced him in the starting lineup and played a very solid 75 minute alongside Darwin Ceren, who rounded off the rout by hitting a shot that deflected past Galaxy keeper Jaime Penedo.
On the field, the Lions are still sorting out many things, but in the community and at the gate they are well ahead of most teams. They are averaging 37,446 fans per game at the Citrus Bowl and by trampling the defending champion the Lions gave their colorful, boisterous supporters a reward for suffering through several last-minute heartbreaks.
After two and half months, MLS’s return to Florida after a 14-year absence is pushing the right buttons despite the growing pains experienced by most expansion teams. The Lions are rocking their city.