Orlando City SC is yet to find its identity under Head Coach Jason Kreis. The team played most of last season with the 4-2-3-1 system established by former coach Adrian Heath, but seems poised to transition to Kreis’ favorite 4-4-2 diamond in 2017. However, what if the Lions tried to play with a three-man back line?
The 3-5-2 was a very popular system in the 1970s and 80s, but has been less and less adopted over the last couple of decades. However, some recent examples showed that a three-defender system can still be effective if you have the right pieces and have made managers around the world work on figuring it out with their teams.
On a regional level, Toronto FC is one of the teams that recently succeeded under this system. The Canadians advanced to the 2016 MLS Cup playing Greg Vanney’s 3-5-2. Similarly, overseas, Chelsea dominates the English Premier League under an innovative 3-4-3 adopted by Italian Antonio Conte.
As in any other system, you need some specific kinds of players to perform well when playing with three defenders. Let’s walk through Orlando City’s roster and understand whether it would be a good choice of not for the Lions to give it a try to this back-in-fashion system.
Defense has been one of the main weaknesses of Orlando City and, unfortunately, it is not likely to get any better if the Lions switched to some variation of the 3-5-2. In this system, center backs tend to be more exposed to 1 vs. 1 situations, especially when asked to cover the wings in counter-attacks. None of José Aja, David Mateos, Seb Hines, or Conor Donovan are known for their speed or athleticism and tend to struggle while defending faster players outside the box. Tommy Redding is a bit more pacy and athletic — and has even played right back in MLS — but is still very young. Defenders are also required to start plays from the back in this system and the Lions’ center backs are not the most comfortable with the ball on their feet as well.
Switching Orlando City’s system to the 3-5-2 would bring different feelings to the club’s full backs. While offensive-minded Rafael Ramos would play in a system that most rewards his skills, both Kevin Alston and Donny Toia would struggle as they are more effective defending than attacking. This system, though, would also be a positive to Brek Shea, who seems the most likely option to start in the left side in such a formation, although newcomer PC might also excel in a left wingback role.
With one less body in the center of the field, having a dynamic player as a defensive midfielder is vital. Enter Cristian Higuita, a no-brainer to start as a No. 6, shielding the defenders and covering the wings. Center midfielders should have good passing skills, as they will be frequently asked to connect the back line with the offensive players and the wing backs. Hopefully that should not be a problem for either Will Johnson or Antonio Nocerino. It is important to remember, as well, that both of them are familiar with the system, having played in front of a three-man back line in Toronto or in Italy before.
Cyle Larin is a lock as the lonely striker of this team regardless of the system. The other two offensive positions are up for dispute between Kaká, Kevin Molino, and Matías Pérez García. It is more likely that Kaká and Molino would start, but the three of them could be used interchangeably. The Trinidadian international could play as second forward, with freedom to move in the offensive end, and the ability to switch roles with the veteran Brazilian to give him some rest when necessary.
Even though it looks appealing to give it a try, the 3-5-2 is probably not the best system for Orlando City. Although some players could benefit from it, it is reasonable to assume that the Lions back line, clearly their main weakness now, would be ever more exposed and under more pressure.