Dispatches from Florida: Orlando City preaches simplicity ahead of complex year
Orlando City coach Adrian Heath repeatedly implored his players to keep things simple during the first training session of the season on Monday morning.
The reasonable message comes with a caveat: there is nothing straightforward about the task ahead in 2014.
Heath must guide his players through a thicket of competing collective and personal priorities over the next 12 months. Orlando City must satisfy its USL PRO commitments before jumping to MLS next season. The dual focus – building a team for the top flight and defending a title in the third division – and the tension between those objectives complicates the approach considerably.
“A lot of people have spoken about MLS and quite rightly so,” Heath said. “It's something we're looking forward to and we're excited to move on, but we have got another season to go in the USL. This league has been good to us. We want to make sure we give it the respect it deserves. It's the usual scenario: we want to win the league, we want to win the regular season, we want to win the playoffs. The expectations are very, very high. And the demands are going to be high.”
Orlando City enters its USL farewell tour with a target on its back and a squad desperate to impress ahead of the transition to MLS. Yordany Alvarez (acquired on loan from Real Salt Lake before a permanent switch in 2015) and Kevin Molino have claimed spots on next year's roster. The rest of the players – including potential loan arrivals from elsewhere – must state their cases to earn one of the few available openings heading into next season.
The temptation to focus on personal objectives leaves Orlando City exposed to the perils of a tricky league complete with exacting travel demands and a grueling schedule. Richmond finished atop the regular season table last year. Wilmington knocked Orlando City out in the semifinals two years ago. A berth in MLS and a larger budget than most of its competitors will not guarantee a second double on the way out the door.
“It's tough,” defender Rob Valentino said. “You see all of it happening. It can be a distraction, but, for myself, I know we have to stay focused on it. Being one of the leaders, I want to make sure that I can lead by example and show them, 'hey, let's not worry about that.' All we can worry about is what we can control. We can control how we play this year. After that? It's up to the powers that be.”
The core group of returning players – including goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo, defenders Luke Boden and Valentino and midfielders Molino, Anthony Pulis, James O'Connor and Jamie Watson – exerts some measure of control over the situation by establishing and maintaining the proper standards. Watson said he, Valentino and other players have already spoken about the need to keep the team grounded. The intensity of this opening session reflected the latent desire to fulfill that brief promptly.
“We have to make sure we don't look past this year and make sure everybody isn't playing for themselves,” Watson said. “If you have too many people think, 'well, I'll do it on my own and I'll go, see you guys later, I'm taken care of, don't worry about it,' then it's going to be a disaster.”
Outright chaos appears unlikely from the outside. The formidable structures within the club and the locker room essentially prevent it. But the prospect of falling short of the expressed goals still lingers as a genuine possibility given the track record of other teams in a similar position.
It won't be easy for Orlando City to avoid a similar fate, but Valentino said this group remains committed to heeding Heath's advice to strip away the complications as it mounts its usual push for silverware in 2014.
“I watched Portland and I watched Montréal when they went from USL to MLS,” Valentino said. “They struggled that last year. That isn't going to be us. Adrian won't settle for it. We're not going to settle for it.”