The early portion of the 2015 Major League Soccer season represents a period of acclimation for Orlando City, as the Lions are a team full of new pieces still learning to play together effectively, while also adapting to the level of play in the top tier of American soccer. Two of those new pieces, fullbacks Brek Shea and Rafael Ramos, are paired together on OCSC’s back line and have been an interesting case study through two games.
Ramos, who arrived in Orlando from partner club Benfica at the end of last summer, was able to play valuable minutes down the stretch of OCSC’s final season in USL Pro. That time, both on and off the pitch, helped Ramos adapt to life as a Lion and life in America in general.
Shea, having previously established himself as a star in MLS, joined the squad following the U.S. Men’s National Team camp in January, not only as a new member of the team after two years in England, but also playing a new position, having made the transition from an attacking role on the left wing to left back under the watchful eye of Jürgen Klinsmann.
Together, the duo bookends an Orlando defense that has gotten off to an impressive start this campaign, allowing only one shot on goal in the first two games of the season. Although a two-game sample size is admittedly small, both players have shown the pace to defend speedy players on the wing; Ramos has been steadfast on the right side of Adrian Heath’s 4-2-3-1 formation thus far, while Shea appears to be adjusting well to his new role on the left, albeit with a learning curve.
In addition to their contributions at the back end, both of OCSC’s fullbacks provide Heath’s side with potentially dangerous options going forward in attack. Fullbacks advancing forward oftentimes find themselves in space, which means an offensively inclined back can provide great value by adding width in attack to stretch a defense. In turn, this width creates more space in the middle of the pitch for attacking teammates to exploit, which is a dangerous prospect for opposition defenses, especially when your midfield is predicated around a player the caliber of Ricardo Kaká.
Shea is naturally inclined to make marauding runs forward on the left flank, having played for years in an attacking midfield role. The 6-foot-3 Texan is physically imposing, which helps his game at both ends of the pitch, and he’s well suited to cover long distances with his powerful running ability and pace.
Shea’s days on the left wing have made him a well-rounded player, as he possesses technical skill and a proven ability to score and create goals from his years at FC Dallas. The 25-year-old’s combination of size, athleticism and technical proficiency makes him a truly unique player. His defensive positioning still needs work, mostly due to his inexperience at the back, but once he finds the ideal balance between the defensive and attacking aspects of the position, his potential could be electrifying.
Ramos may not have the same physical gifts as his counterpart, but he has shown that he is calm on the ball and has the speed to get forward on the right side, while also covering ground on defense, as he did relentlessly against Houston Dynamo last week. Shea and Ramos have taken turns getting forward in Orlando City’s first two fixtures, with the former putting his stamp on the NYCFC match and the latter doing work in Houston.
Against New York City, Shea proved to be a nice complement to Kaká and Carlos Rivas, linking up with each at times, while targeting 23 passes into the final third -- per Who Scored -- in a match that Orlando controlled for much of the 90 minutes before an eventual 1-1 draw.
In Orlando’s 1-0 win at Houston last week, Shea only made six such passes, while Ramos played the more aggressive role by dishing 16 passes in the final third. While Ramos advanced, Shea mostly hung back to prevent the Lions from being caught on the counter. The two will continue to learn to play off one another, but having defensive midfielders like Amobi Okugo and Cristian Higuita – or Darwin Cerén, as was the case in Houston – in the double pivot to cover in the event of a counter attack is a decent safety net.
It hasn’t been perfect, of course, as we saw in the early minutes of the second half against Houston, when Shea lost the ball around midfield and was unable to recover, ultimately leading to a yellow card for Okugo, as he hurried to cover the vacated space on the edge of the box. Shea made up for it shortly thereafter, showing exceptional power on a 30-yard sprint less than 20 minutes later to catch an advancing orange jersey and impede a Houston counter, illustrating the up-and-down process we can probably expect as he continues to settle in as a defender.
While they will continue to develop with more game experience, each player has already received plaudits for their play in the early season, as Ramos was named to the MLS Team of the Week and Shea was publicly commended for his improvement by both Klinsmann and Heath. With Ramos officially on the scene and Shea in the early stages of what could be a career renaissance, it appears that Orlando has a solid pair of wide defenders on its hands.
The fact that both are capable of lending a hand in attack on the flanks with pace, power and crosses also doesn’t hurt as Orlando City continues to work out its situation at center forward.