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Is the 4-3-3 the Way Forward for Orlando City?

Servando Carrasco says the Lions used a new look against Real Salt Lake.

MLS: Orlando City SC at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Orlando City looked a little different in its 1-0 road victory over Real Salt Lake to end the month of June. And it wasn’t the added defensive effort or Cyle Larin’s extra energy leading the Lions’ line, it was the shape of the side.

The lineup graphic that the team came out with an hour before first kick showed the traditional 4-4-2 formation that Jason Kreis has employed most often during his time here in the City Beautiful. But ESPN’s version showed an uncharacteristic 4-3-3, and Servando Carrasco let slip that perhaps the team’s own graphic was wrong during his post-game interview:

Carrasco said about the team defense in Utah: “I think it was a bit of a tactical switch. You know, we were playing more of a 4-3-3, so the main thing for me was just to try and stay central.”

It was the first time we’ve seen the Lions line up in that formation and it did the dirty work en route to three points in Sandy, UT. The defense allowed only two shots on target even after holding only 39% of possession and surrendering 12 chances on goal. It was a scrappy performance, reminiscent of Orlando’s strong run to begin the year when the team relied on its defense to hold single-goal leads for long stretches of the game. And while the 4-3-3’s debut was a gritty performance against a team floundering at the bottom of the Supporters’ Shield table, don’t be surprised to see it in the future.

The 4-3-3 combines the central midfield base of Kreis’ vaunted diamond with a wider attack. On Friday, Kaká and Giles Barnes were the wide men flanking Larin with the more familiar midfield trio of Cristian Higuita, Antonio Nocerino, and Will Johnson. The change keeps Orlando’s strength — its depth in central midfield — front and center but also widens the formation from the narrow diamond, meaning Higuita and Johnson didn’t need to track down quite as much space from sideline to sideline. Barnes and even Kaká dropped deep at times, making defensive plays near the midfield line.

If you’re looking for a great breakdown on what the 4-3-3 potentially provides, check out this tactical explanation from our friends at 7500 to Holte. There’s little trade-off from the flat 4-4-2 Kreis has been utilizing with varied success recently, with Kaká wide left and away from his classic No. 10 role. The biggest change is swapping out a central striker for another central midfielder, relying on at least one of the central trio to fill that void and get more involved in the attack.

It was Johnson who stepped up against his old club, setting the team high for chances created and shots on target, including the only goal of the game (though that came off a set piece). The three central midfielders are responsible for keeping possession as well, something that the Lions did far better in the diamond than they ever did with flatter formations. Ideally, a swap to the 4-3-3 would keep the same midfield that saw success while also adding width to the attack.

Because of that, the biggest boost by switching formations could come for a player who was unavailable Friday night.

Carlos Rivas has already posted his best statistics in purple this year with three goals and five assists. Those are all coming from the central striker position, which has been both a blessing and a curse for the young Colombian. While Rivas could still set a team record in assists this year, he hasn’t been able to live up to the goal-scoring expectations of a striker. His best individual efforts have come from wide areas, whipping in pinpoint crosses to find Larin waiting in the box. Putting him wide again in the 4-3-3 would allow him to get back to that and hopefully wreak havoc down the left flank. Rivas has looked like a winger playing out of position this year and perhaps it’s time to end the more traditional striker experiment after 18 appearances.

Orlando has players that could fit in the wide areas or have done so over the past few years: Kaká, Rivas, Barnes, Luis Gil, and Hadji Barry are the most likely candidates for playing time wide. But with the loss of Matias Perez Garcia, the amount of quality depth in the wide areas has diminished. With the upcoming summer transfer window, Kreis could look to remedy that. Recently rumored midfielder Juan Fernando Quintero has played on the right wing at times, but there are questions about his commitment to defense.

There is also the question of who becomes the advanced midfielder should Johnson miss a game for one reason or another. None of City’s collection of central midfielders has shown the ability to get forward with any consistent quality. Johnson served as the link from midfield to the forwards and losing that could doom the 4-3-3.

There are also questions about just how committed Kaká and Barnes can be to the defensive side of the ball. While they made a handful of defensive stops each, can they do the same against the better attacks in the league? The issue is that while the club’s best 11 players fit well offensively into the 4-3-3, the team isn’t built to maintain that formation should rotation be necessary. At the very least, Kreis is adapting his tactics and utilizing the strengths of the team even if we don’t see much more of the 4-3-3 this year. But in the coming weeks, the pieces that Orlando bring in could define the shape of the roster going forward under Kreis.