Orlando City’s lethargic performance this past Sunday to New York City FC has left us all a bit contemplative. While some in the national media and a few fair weather fans have started hitting panic buttons, I’ve seen the past few weeks as part of the longer drama that is the Major League Soccer season. After a strong start, Orlando has struggled the past few weeks. While it could be easy to point fingers and spread blame, I think Orlando’s success could lie in two of the Lions’ key midfielders.
Despite seemingly having the right attitude and work ethic, something just isn’t working with Matías Pérez García and Giles Barnes in the midfield so far. Watching the games over the past few weeks, both players seemed integrated into the system and working hard to contribute, without finding many rewards for their efforts. At the same time, target striker Cyle Larin feels isolated at times, particularly when Carlos Rivas and Kaká aren’t on the field.
This season, Barnes has contributed one assist, with that coming in the first game of the year. He has averaged 11.5 passes per game, while only averaging a paltry 0.4 key passes per game. Pérez García has done slightly better with 22.3 passes per game, and an average of 1.7 key passes per game. Even with these slightly better stats, MPG has only one assist as well. While not the worst numbers, even for the team, they do show limited production from two critical players in the midfield. One assist each on a team with a striker with the ability to finish chances like Larin is just not enough.
While not assisting goals, they aren’t scoring them either. Neither player has scored this season. Barnes has taken 11 shots, with only four on target, while MPG has had seven shots, and only one of those has been on target. Barnes was a constant threat during his time in Houston, while MPG has never quite found his goal-scoring touch in MLS.
While the defense was the most highlighted Achilles heel the past few seasons, Orlando’s over-reliance on Larin to score goals has been the other. Kevin Molino and Júlio Baptista pitched in goals last season to help the cause, but their exits left a void — one that MPG and Barnes had been expected to fill. Put simply, Orlando won’t compete if only Larin and Kaká are threatening the goal.
I don’t think Barnes and MPG are the only issues in the midfield. The season is still young and both players seem totally engaged in the effort, it just hasn’t been effective yet. Both players have been in and out of the lineup, as starters and substitutes. Kaká hasn’t fully reintegrated into the team after his early season injury, Rivas is still a diamond in the rough, even if he looks more polished this season, and the past few weeks of travel have been a huge ask for any team.
Instead of suggesting Barnes and MPG are any sort of problem in the midfield, I’m suggesting they are the solution. Both players seem to be happy about finding a new home and a new opportunity to prove themselves. Barnes never found his way in Vancouver, while MPG was successful in San Jose without being a standout. Both players have fantastic playing experience, both in MLS and abroad.
It is difficult, as an outsider, to speculate on the core issue. It could be a tactical tweak or simply increased chemistry and confidence. Both players have had flashes this season that show each is due a breakout game. Both players are too talented and in the peak of their careers, so I feel like it is only a matter of time before one or both of them takes this team on their shoulders one night and begins to contribute significantly to the cause.
Orlando, and dreams of trophies in a competitive Eastern Conference may just rely on that as well.