Orlando City is in a familiar position going into its first double game week of the 2016 season. The Lions will be missing three starters due to injury for the match tonight against the Philadelphia Union as Seb Hines, Rafael Ramos, and Darwin Cerén will be sidelined. Pedro Ribeiro's back injury has ruled him out for the majority of the season. That's not including any players that could be rested tonight; Kaká especially was held out of some midweek contests last season. Kevin Molino was left out of the starting lineup for Saturday's contest against Montreal, most likely to rest, which could spell a Kaká scratch at some point this week.
It's a troubling sight for a team that relied on reserves for most of 2015. The number of injuries and suspensions killed Orlando's chances at the postseason because the reserves just weren't good enough.
It doesn't make it any easier that this week's opponents, Philadelphia and New York City FC, are sitting first and second in the Eastern Conference as of this morning. Both clubs have, somewhat surprisingly, surged to the front of the pack and will pose a threat to the Lions in a short week. NYCFC are playing well behind David Villa and Tommy McNamara and Philadelphia looks like it could be a legitimate playoff team. As far as double game weeks go, this won't be an easy one.
But this is the point in the year when the off-season moves pay off. "The depth of the squad has improved significantly," Adrian Heath said ahead of the team's first match with Philadelphia this season. This is where it will be tested. The Lions have had a light schedule so far -- they have at least one game in hand over New York City, Toronto, Montreal, D.C. United, and New England before tonight's match -- but with their decision not to play during FIFA international windows, these double game weeks will begin to pile up, especially if they plan on making a deep run in the U.S. Open Cup.
So just how deep are the Lions after all of their transfer moves? With veterans coming and going, is there actually a noticeable difference?
For a time last season, Cyle Larin was really the only available striker on the roster. Ribeiro, who really hasn't nailed down a position during his time in MLS, was the only backup. This position group has been the most affected by acquisitions, with Júlio Baptista and Hadji Barry joining the squad. Baptista has proven that he has the veteran savvy and work ethic to be a more than serviceable option off the bench and Barry provides a pacy option when he's not honing his craft with OCB. Bryan Róchez may not see MLS action this season, but with his fitness and passport issues last year it's hard to count him among last season's available options.
It's nice to know that if Larin is unavailable or needs rest, a striker who is consistently a threat to score can step in. While Baptista and Barry haven't gotten on the score sheet yet, they have impacted the game in some manner when they've come onto the pitch. That is invaluable for substitutes, especially when there were times last year when the Lions' offense lacked teeth without Larin.
On the other side of the coin, not too much has changed in the midfield for the Lions. They brought in Antonio Nocerino, but his selection on match days has caused a commotion among the fans. He was dropped to the bench against the Impact, but for how long? The time will probably come at some point this season when Nocerino is needed as a starter due to rest or injury, but is he an improvement over Lewis Neal and Eric Avila? Unlike Baptista, he has not impacted matches for the better.
Richie Laryea was the other midfielder brought in, but Molino really has been the cliche'd "new signing." Kevin's experience playing as a traditional number 10 will likely allow him to spell Kaká at times (perhaps even this week) and he's already scoring goals. Even though he's been starting for the Lions, he has helped improve the team's depth by relegating at least one of Adrian Winter or Carlos Rivas to the bench. Laryea has been described as Molino-esque and he has had some decent showings for OCB so far this season. He's likely behind Baptista in the attacking midfield pecking order, but more bodies can't hurt. This season, at least the Lions won't have to worry about not being able to fill the bench.
The biggest question for Orlando would be regarding the sale of Cristian Higuita. If the Colombian were to leave this summer, and he's been linked to A.C. Milan recently, the Lions would have a bit of a drop-off in talent from Higuita to any of Servando Carrasco, Nocerino, or Harrison Heath. While Carrasco was the go-to last weekend with Cerén out due to injury, he has yet to prove he is an MLS-quality starter. The central midfield positions behind Higuita and Cerén are not nearly at the same level and when either defensive midfielder is out, there is a noticeable difference in the Lions' possession and defensive bite. Luckily, any move for Higuita is at minimum a little more than a month or so away.
The defense is Orlando City's weakest position group and it's also the one that needs the most help. With Aurélien Collin's departure, the team is thinner in the center of the pitch than last season. Against Sporting Kansas City, with Seb Hines sidelined due to injury, the only player on the bench with any center back experience was Luke Boden. Conor Donovan is the team's fourth choice at the moment, but he's no substitute for an experienced player like Collin.
Kevin Alston has allowed Tyler Turner to ply his trade with OCB full-time, and the fans will get a good, hard look at what he brings to the table while Ramos is injured. Alston's ability to play on either flank is helpful, but he's not likely to see much time behind both Brek Shea and Boden on the left. He had a decent showing in his first outing against New England, but whether or not he can sustain that over multiple games is a question mark. Devron Garcia, the Honduran defender/midfielder brought in during the winter window, isn't likely to see time with the MLS side this season barring any changes in international status. Even if he could, he projects as the team's fifth-choice center back and that would drop with any acquisitions.
For the goalkeepers, Joe Bendik has been a more than adequate replacement for Tally Hall, but the Lions aren't as deep at goalkeeper this season. Mason Stajduhar is technically the third keeper on the MLS roster, but he's also the third keeper for OCB behind Mark Ridgers and Jake Fenlason. If something happens to Bendik, Earl Edwards, Jr. is capable between the sticks but there's no solid third choice there.
All in all, there have been some definite improvements by the front office staff to create a more experienced lineup but whether those new pieces can perform to the level desired remains to be seen. The depth has yet to be really tested like it was last season. The players off the bench during the rigorous MLS season are the ones who can make or break playoff chances. This week will be an interesting look at whether or not the Lions have the personnel to get above the red line at the end of the year.