Injuries can really kill a team’s season. They can make or break a campaign. They’ll test a coach’s ability to work around them. They’ll test a roster’s depth and the players themselves. For Orlando City, that challenge spent no time waiting around to attack.
The club lost three fullbacks in the preseason alone to injuries, and, 11 minutes into its 2017 campaign, lost its star and captain, Kaká. José Aja joined the list after hurting his hamstring against the Columbus Crew over a week ago, and on Sunday, Antonio Nocerino became the latest to get hit with the dreaded injury bug, leaving Orlando City’s 1-0 win over the New York Red Bulls with a calf strain.
The extent of Nocerino’s injury isn’t yet known (although it reportedly isn’t thought to be too serious), but it certainly puts his availability in doubt for the Lions’ next match, vs. the LA Galaxy at Orlando City Stadium on Saturday.
In any sense, it would have been easy for the Lions to fall back and wait for the reinforcements to come back. But they haven’t, and they’ve responded in a fierce way, grabbing nine points out of their first four games, including three wins from their first three home matches.
The same team that let in the most goals in 2016 has conceded just three in four games — with two shutouts to its credit — with Will Johnson starting at right back in the first three games, and Tommy Redding stepping in for the injured Aja against the Red Bulls.
Up and down the roster, the depth of the club has shown to be a valuable strength this far into the season.
In Kaká’s absence, Giles Barnes provided a spark off the bench in the season-opener, contributing to the result with an assist and outstanding defensive effort. Johnson is a midfielder by trade, but has played well at the right back spot. Redding was a stud for the Lions against New York, especially in the second half, as Orlando tried to hold down the Red Bulls’ relentless attack. And then Servando Carrasco came off the bench on Sunday — he did start the first three games while Johnson played right back, however — and scored the lone goal of the match to help the Lions grab all three points.
“It shows guys are ready. It is no surprise to me that Tommy [Redding] came in and had a fantastic game,” Carrasco said after the match. “Tommy shows that every day in practice. We have a fantastic squad; I think we have a very deep squad. I think tonight you saw that.”
And this season’s squad is very different in that it’s arguably much better than what the Lions fielded in 2016, which was also much better than what the Lions fielded in 2015. And that’s expected with the club now in its third season in MLS. It takes time to build a quality club in this league, that much we’ve known. It’s taken time — and two head coaches — to get the roster where it is today, and by no means is this team a finished product just yet — as evidenced by Luis Gil signing with the club last week.
In the meantime, while the Lions will need their stars to eventually come back at some point and return the team to full strength, they’ll need their bench players to keep giving them good outings each time they step on the field.
So far, they’ve proven they can do that.