You may have heard some rumblings among the Orlando City fan base in recent weeks. After three winless matches, including a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of the Houston Dynamo and a late draw against Sporting Kansas City, fans were left with an acrid taste in their mouths after so many weeks of winning.
The scapegoat of these perceived dropped points has largely been Donny Toia, who was consistently beaten for pace by Alberth Elis and Gerso Fernandes. There’s no shame in not being quick enough to keep up with the quickest in MLS, but with the prospects of the pacier Victor “PC” Giro waiting in the wings, questions were raised.
They were answered Wednesday night when Jason Kreis opted to rotate in some fresh faces for the team’s midweek trip across the continent to San Jose. PC got his first MLS start in a squad largely comprised of role players, lining up next to his countryman Leo Pereira. No one would have complained if that side hadn’t been able to earn a point when the lineup was released, but instead, sparked by PC and Matias Perez Garcia, the Lions matched the Earthquakes stride for stride.
PC was the polar opposite of Donny Toia this season. The Brazilian roamed up and down the touchline, adding some flair to Orlando’s wide attack and making his fair share of defensive plays. That’s not to say Toia is incapable of offensive work. Donny has been active in the final third and has even recorded two assists this year. But PC passed the eye test, dribbling with the ball seemingly glued to his feet and overlapping with Luis Gil and Kaka to create problems for San Jose’s defenders. He was inches away from a beautiful goal outside the penalty area and sent a knifing ball into the box that teed up a trailing Carlos Rivas perfectly for the Lions’ only goal.
The defensive statistics backed up the eye test. The fullback had a busy night, notching three tackles, four interceptions, and two recoveries. For a winger still transitioning to defense, it was more than a respectable performance. There were definitely questions about his ability on the defensive end; through his three appearances with Orlando City B, there were few signs that he could cope defensively at the next level. Kreis leaving him on the bench even with Toia playing three full matches in a week seemed to confirm those doubts.
But he proved even Kreis wrong, keeping the Quakes attackers silent and holding his own. It was a great debut, but it wasn’t anything far better than what we’ve seen from Toia.
The main thing holding the Brazilian back is that it wasn’t a perfect night, though it certainly wasn’t damning by the Lions’ normal standards for left backs. His passing, while sloppy, was just a hair below Toia’s average for the season (PC finished with a paltry 71.4% passing completion rate while Toia has managed 72.3% on the year). And while his pace was on display, his recovery speed might have been too necessary. He was able to make up for poor positioning by tracking back in time, but against the quicker wingers in the league that may not be enough. He’s a converted midfielder, after all, and will need time and training to fix those mistakes. Positioning like that would have been costly against Elis or Gerso, even with the added speed.
The question for Jason Kreis is whether or not the positives from Wednesday night outweigh those negatives. The young Brazilian obviously made an impression and likely earned more time after proving his worth in league play. Referring to PC and Pereira after the match, Kreis said:
“We didn’t know for sure whether they would be able to contribute at this level and I think they both proved tonight that they’re quite capable of it.”
So expect to see both Brazilians a little more often as the season rolls on. Just how much time, though, is up in the air.
The reality is that PC’s performance needs to be considered a flash in the pan until proven otherwise. Simon Dawkins and Nick Lima are decent or above-average MLS players, but they aren’t setting the league on fire. It would be a disservice to Toia to say that one good game against a subpar attack should dethrone him after the American fullback has quieted Jack Harrison, Romain Alessandrini, Ethan Finlay, Daniel Royer, and others all season long. There are too many qualifiers attached to his failures — predominantly among them that Gerso Fernandes and Alberth Elis are among the best and quickest wingers in the league — to cast him aside.
PC has earned more playing time with his stellar performance in San Jose, but it’s not time to throw Toia to the wolves. With both of them manning the left flank for the foreseeable future, Orlando City’s left back prospects could be settled for the long haul. With a defensive stalwart like Toia and PC’s attacking flair, the Lions should be capable to handle anything their opposition can throw at them.