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A Deep Dive Into Orlando City’s Defensive Instability in 2018

Injuries and call-ups led to a staggering number of defensive combinations that unsurprisingly resulted in a record number of goals conceded.

MLS: Columbus Crew at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

We can wax poetic from after the match against the New York Red Bulls this coming weekend until the whistle blows in 2019 for the first regular season match about what went wrong in 2018. The laundry list is long and complex, and it may be difficult to pinpoint exactly one, or 10, exact reasons for a club that, at least on paper, had an off-season that seemed so promising. The 2018 season started off so well, but changed into one that fans will not soon forget, as they watched a club struggle in ways that many could not have imagined.

Stripping away as much of the emotional baggage as possible is difficult when writing about this club, but there is something that helps to remove most of it: data. Data is the universal level setter. It is neither good nor bad, it just is. It will only do one of three things: help to prove your point, help to disprove your point, or show you where to keep digging. In light of the latest milestone this club reached this season, setting the MLS record for most goals conceded, I wanted to take a deeper dive into what led to this dubious honor. It did not take long to find the reason, or at least the key contributor to the reason, and that is the rampant instability of the back line.

Before we try to walk you, the readers, through the seasonal insanity that has been the Lions’ back line, let me simply show you the data. Below, you will find a comprehensive list of every back line combination fielded by the Lions this season with the week number in parentheses, and weeks where points were garnered in bold. For clarity, this list only looks at the published formation at kickoff, and considers only the published back line at the time of kickoff as well.

Orlando City Back Line Combinations:

1. El-Munir, Tarek, Spector, Sutter (1,2)

2. El-Munir, Tarek, Spector, Allen (3)

3. El-Munir, Tarek, Sane, Sutter (4)

4. El-Munir, Sané, Spector, Sutter (5, 29)

5. El-Munir, Tarek, Sané, Allen (6)

6. El-Munir, Tarek, Sané, Johnson (7, 8, 10, 11)

7. El-Munir, Schuler, Sané, Johnson (9)

8. El-Munir, Rocha, Schuler, Allen (12)

9. Toia, Rocha, Allen, Johnson (13)

10. El-Munir, Tarek, Schuler, Johnson (14)

11. Rocha, Tarek, Spector, Allen (15)

12. Tarek, Sané, Spector (16, 17)

13. Toia, Tarek, Spector, Allen (18)

14. El-Munir, Tarek, Schuler, Allen (19)

15. Rocha, Schuler, O’Neill, Allen (20)

16. PC, Schuler, O’Neill, Allen (21)

17. PC, Tarek, Schuler, Sutter (22)

18. PC, Tarek, O’Neill, Sutter (23)

19. El-Munir, Tarek, O’Neill, Sutter, Mueller (24)

20. PC, O’Neill, Spector, Sutter (25)

21. Spector, Ascues, O’Neill, Sutter (26, 27, 28 (Spector and Ascues switched))

22. El-Munir, Sané, O’Neill, Sutter (30)

23. Allen, Ascues, Sané, O’Neill, Sutter (31)

24. Johnson, Sané, O’Neill, Sutter (32)

25. Ascues, Sané, O’Neill (33)

You are reading that final number correctly, folks. After 33 matches of a 34-match season, the Lions have used 25 different back line combinations, 26 if you look at the notes in line 21 as this same foursome was the back line for three weeks straight, but week 28 saw Jonathan Spector and Carlos Ascues switch spots in the week 28 match.

Taking a look at the season overview for the squad, you can quickly pick up on which of the players above were the more consistent starters, at least for a few of them. Here is a list of the top six listed defensive players in terms of starts and minutes:

  1. Mohamed El-Munir, with 22 starts and 2,000 minutes played.
  2. Amro Tarek, with 18 starts and 1,607 minutes played.
  3. Scott Sutter, with 17 starts and 1,477 minutes played.
  4. Lamine Sané, with 15 starts and 1,373 minutes played.
  5. Jonathan Spector, with 13 starts and 1,061 minutes played.

In case the math escapes you, in the 33 matches played so far, there were 3,060 minutes of regular time played. Doing some simple division, this means that El-Mo played in 65% of the Lions’ minutes this season, although he has started a few matches as a wing back, so not all of those minutes are in defense vs. Spector, who has only played 35% of available minutes. Spector was supposed to be Orlando City’s captain heading into the 2018 season, but early in the season was sidelined while working his was through concussion protocol, and then once cleared was in and out of the back line for the rest of the season, battling injuries, it seemed, the rest of the season. Looking back on the entirety of the defensive struggles, it became an unbelievably daunting task to try to find statistics and numbers on just how many minutes were missed by each player on the back line due to injury this season.

The data above speaks volumes about the effect that chaos can have on what should be a closed system. If there is anywhere on the pitch that you certainly want consistent players, it would be your center back pairing above all, followed by the left and right backs. Looking above, you have had at least 14 different center back pairings throughout the season. Take this chaotic situation, and then add international call-ups, three coaches this season, rotating goalkeepers, a midfield trying to find itself (and dealing with its own injuries, particularly to Uri Rosell and Cristian Higuita), and an offense that never really materialized.

A few bright spots do come from this:

  1. The most points taken this season have been when El-Munir and Tarek are paired on the left side of a four-man back line.
  2. Lamine Sané, when healthy, has been on the pitch for the second-most matches when points were taken.
  3. Scott Sutter, similarly to Sané, has been there on the back line for many of the matches, particularly the “cardiac cat” matches.
  4. Data is data, again, it doesn’t know how to lie. WhoScored.com says El-Mo and Sané are Orlando’s No 2 and 3 highest-rated players to date this season, with only Yoshimar Yotún above them in the No. 1 spot.

With everything that we are bound to discuss going into the off-season, the instability and chaos in fielding a consistent back line should be addressed immediately. Everyone realizes that players will need rest, international call-ups will happen, and solid substitutes are needed, but what is needed more than anything is a defensive line that has an identity week in and week out. Changes can be made everywhere else on the squad, but without a solid base to start from, a defensive foundation that the midfield and forwards can trust, possession and offense will never come.