It’s been a rough few weeks for Orlando City’s defense without Jonathan Spector. Head Coach Jason Kreis has relied on youngsters Tommy Redding and Leo Pereira to shoulder the defensive load for the Lions in the absence of the veteran and, to be frank, it’s just not working out. City has allowed six goals during those three matches on just 21 shots, only nine of which were on target.
The most obvious examples came on Saturday against the Vancouver Whitecaps, when glaring errors by the two young central defenders directly led to the visitors’ goals in a 2-1 defeat. Redding once again made a critical mistake early in the match when he mistimed a header and put the ball into the back of his own net. Pereira put the nail in the coffin when his languid pass went well wide of Cristian Higuita and set the Caps on the break for Brek Shea’s game-winner. It isn’t the first time we’ve seen these two combine to allow goals over this short stretch without Spector. It has been a theme this season with all of City’s young central defenders.
Young players make mistakes. And that’s OK. Young players are going to make errors and for central defenders, those errors have a much higher chance of resulting in goals for the other team. For a team fighting for its playoff life and needing results every week, unfortunate is an understatement.
All three of Redding, Pereira, and José Aja have made mistakes that have cost Orlando points this summer. After a resounding start to the year, the fall has been dramatic and it’s frustrating to see inexperienced mistakes doom solid outings by the team. But for the trio to improve, they need to see the field in live action in some form or another; like a fair few of Orlando’s brightest prospects, they’ve been stuck in purgatory so far in MLS.
There’s a catch-22 with these talented young players: They’re good enough to make the bench and be a legitimate option on match day, but when it comes down to crunch time, they aren’t called upon. Because they’re held in reserve, they aren’t seeing the field with Orlando City B in USL and improving there and it’s having a rippling affect on their development.
Hadji Barry and Richie Laryea are prime examples. The Guinean forward and UCF product has been good enough to be in consideration for the first team and the roster has been thin enough at forward that he’s been caught in limbo between OCB and the bench. The result was 10 matches with OCB and a few cameos toward the end of the MLS season once the Lions’ playoff hopes were all but dashed. Barry notched four goals and three assists in 2016 in 18 MLS and USL games, but never found a consistent role on either team.
His Canadian counterpart, Laryea, on the other hand was a staple in the OCB lineup during his rookie season. Twenty-three appearances, all in the USL, with just two assists. He was on the team sheet as often as possible and logged nearly 1,600 minutes while Barry didn’t even reach 1,000.
Their roles are almost reversed this year. Laryea has raised his game to the next level, proving that he was a step above the competition in the USL and not only becoming one of the first players off the bench in MLS, but having a marked impact. With the arrival of Dom Dwyer and Giles Barnes, Barry is no longer kept around the first team as a potential substitute and is free to play consistently with OCB. He’s hit the ground running since he became a fixture in Anthony Pulis’ side, scoring eight goals in just 13 appearances. With continuity, perhaps he can follow Laryea’s footsteps and take the next step from potential sub to legitimate option off the bench.
It’s a blueprint that also applies to Orlando’s youngest center-back tandem. Due to injury, rest, and performance, Redding and Pereira have been kept in a state of limbo between the first and second teams. Both are good enough to start and play consistently for the USL side but have been kept in reserve. Both have seen action in only 14 league games this year for the reserve side. 29-year-old Seb Hines, who has become the de facto starter for the younger Lions after missing five games to start the year due to knee surgery, has played in 15.
It’s possible that as Orlando City’s playoff hopes dwindle, the youngsters will get more minutes to prove their worth at the highest level. But for development’s sake, in the seasons to come, it’s paramount that they get to play consistently at any level. They will continue to make mistakes; it’s best to learn from them early. And that may cost Orlando points, but in the long run they Lions will be better for it.