Orlando City drew with the San Jose Earthquakes Saturday night, 2-2 at Camping World Stadium. The game felt like two points lost rather than a point gained for a team that held two different leads late. The game also showed how much the Lions miss defensive midfielder Darwin Ceren.
Ceren joined Orlando City for the 2014 season, the club's last in USL, from his native El Salvador. A relatively celebrated signing, considering he was one of the first MLS signings, Ceren had a decent first season. But his best was still yet to come.
Last season was the breakout year for the 25-year-old midfielder. Orlando City fans saw Ceren play at a different level than he did a year before as he garnered praise from around the league. As the 2016 season started, Ceren was able to maintain that level, continuing as a key player for the Lions. He also has taken up a leadership role being named vice captain.
Ceren is your prototypical defensive midfielder. He's strong and aggressive, serving as protection for the back line in the mold of Gennaro Gattuso, only cleaner. For a team that loves to go forward, this has made Ceren extremely important.
While Ceren can go forward joining in the attack, perhaps Ceren's greatest asset is breaking up the counter. While Orlando City's style of pushing forward is exciting, it can leave the team susceptible to the counter attack. That's where Ceren comes in. Playing between the back line and attacking players, Ceren's ability and willingness to commit "professional fouls" allow the Lions to get numbers back.
Ceren's strong second MLS season was temporarily halted on May 15 in Kansas City. The midfielder suffered a sprained ankle in that game against Orlando City's former USL affiliate Sporting Kansas City, putting him out of action for five to six weeks. While the club says he's recovering quicker than expected, he's still not back to full training, which shows he's still got a way to go before he's seen back on the Camping World Stadium field.
After Seb Hines put the Lions ahead in the 66th minute Saturday night, the Earthquakes equalized in the 85th minute on a goal by Chad Barrett. Turning back to pushing forward, the Lions netted the seeming winner on a nice turn by Julio Baptista. However, the Quakes once again equalized through a goal by Shea Salinas on the last kick of the game.
Prior to San Jose's first equalizer, and again after Baptista's goal, the Lions moved to a more defensive formation, bringing in Antonio Nocerino in an attempt to maintain their lead. But when going forward, they still sent numbers forward in an attempt to seal the game. That's where Ceren's absence was most noticeable.
With the Earthquakes desperate for an equalizer, the game opened up, which was not what he home side wanted to see. The inexperience of 20-year-old Cristian Higuita showed and, while a solid player, Servando Carrasco isn't Ceren. Had Ceren been on the field Saturday night, he likely would have slowed down the Earthquakes' attack.
Does that mean Ceren's presence would have guaranteed the Lions three points? Of course not. But it's undeniable that his experience and skill set would have made it much more difficult for the opposition.
But Ceren's absence wasn't just missing on the opposition's counter. He was also missed on the attacking end. Having dominated the second half, the Lions were looking to put the Quakes away late by taking a two-goal lead.
With several players in the box, the ball popped out to the top of the box in a clearance attempt by San Jose. Unfortunately for the Lions, more often than not, there were no purple shirts there and the ball was cleared. When healthy, the top of the box is where you'll find Ceren ready to fire a shot. And more often than not, he at least forces the goalkeeper into a save.
That doesn't mean that the Lions would've scored had Ceren been in his usual spot but it would've served the same purpose as his aggressive play in the middle of the field. Even if he missed the target, a goal kick would have given the Lions a chance to get numbers back and not allowed a potential counter by the opposition.
Darwin Ceren has proven his importance to Orlando City over and over again over the past two seasons. His importance was shown again Saturday night through his absence. While his presence doesn't necessarily mean the Lions would've claimed all three points against San Jose, his missing skill set and tendencies were noticeable.