In Sunday’s loss, all of Houston’s goals originated from wing play. Nevertheless, Donny Toia and Scott Sutter did not suddenly become bad players within the last week. They simply could not keep up with the freshness of Houston’s wingers.
In spite of this reality, Orlando’s tactics relied on them to have the same energy that they have on a full week’s rest. It is clear that the team cannot call on the fullbacks to run their socks off in back-to-back games as they did in Toronto and Houston. Orlando City’s coaching staff will need to be flexible in what they ask of the fullbacks when the schedule calls for less than a week’s rest.
At the beginning of the season, Orlando did not rely heavily on the work of Toia and Sutter to cover ground in the attacking third. The fullbacks were conservative and rarely made forward runs. Remember, Will Johnson started the season at right back for the Lions because of injuries, so priority one was being disciplined and getting a clean sheet, playing a flat 4-4-2. Since the opening game, the fullbacks have progressively become more aggressive getting forward each game and Jason Kreis switched to a diamond midfield.
Toia and Sutter are now regularly seen joining the attack, spending energy getting forward and tracking back when Orlando loses possession. In addition, Sutter’s and Toia’s involvement in the attack has paid off in goals, as Sutter has two assists and Toia has one. The increase in attacking runs was noticeable in Sutter’s first start for Orlando against the Red Bulls. Sutter had a good game that day, supplying a few dangerous crosses. (After that game, I was impressed with Sutter’s contributions to Orlando’s attack, and I still think he and Toia are valuable attacking assets when fresh).
The results started out good, but fatigue has caught up with both players. Orlando is stretched very thin at the fullback position by injuries and a lack of MLS-ready personnel. Kreis has rotated players in almost every position except the fullbacks. Toia has played every game, and Sutter has not missed a minute since debuting as a substitute against Columbus. The current model is unsustainable: either Orlando rotates and rests its fullbacks, or the team needs to change tactics.
Without suitable replacements available, the best option is to rest the fullbacks while they are on the field. Switching to a flat four across the midfield is one way the team can ease some of the work for the fullbacks. Outside midfielders are then responsible for filling in the wide, forward areas. Orlando does have the luxury of midfield depth now; multiple midfielders can be trusted to start and finish a game while defensive reserves are limited outside of the starting four, with Tommy Redding away on international duty.
Orlando can also switch back to its earlier strategy of looking for opportunities to counterattack, releasing Carlos Rivas in space for example. With Kaká, Rivas, Cyle Larin, and Giles Barnes all capable of creating and scoring goals on the counterattack, it is an easy transition to take some of the responsibility off the shoulders of the fullbacks.
Orlando City is getting away from its winning formula in recent matches — retaining a lot of possession and subsequently neutering its lethal counterattack. Orlando won plenty of games with those tactics. The possession and slow build-up style the team settled into on the road requires a lot of work for the fullbacks, especially if the midfield continues to play in a narrow diamond formation. Add the shift to more possession to the busy schedule, and it is easy to understand why the fullbacks have looked tired in recent games.