As we count down to the new year of 2019 – which will be Orlando City SC’s fifth in MLS and Orlando Pride’s fourth in the NWSL – and say goodbye to 2018, it’s time to look back at the club’s 10 best moments of the year.
One of Orlando City’s biggest issues in the club’s MLS era has been a dreadful back line. The Lions have had a revolving door on the defense since entering the top flight in 2015. The front office overestimated the talent it brought in to play on the back line in the team’s inaugural season and then failed to make significant upgrades for 2016. The Lions attempted to address it in a bigger way in 2017, bringing in the likes of Jonathan Spector and Scott Sutter, spending a bit more than it had in the past.
It finally seemed that the issues were put to rest in 2018 with the additions of Lamine Sané, Amro Tarek, and Mohamed El-Munir, with added depth provided by former starter Donny Toia and veterans Chris Schuler and RJ Allen. But all of that defensive rebuild was undone when nobody could stay on the field for more than a game or two. Injuries decimated what appeared to be a deep position group, with the likes of Tony Rocha and Allen pressed into service as center backs and Will Johnson returning to fullback, as Orlando City used an incredible 26 different back line combinations in 2018.
With all the bleeding that was going on in the back — and let’s face it, much of the midfield was just as culpable — it was inevitable that something had to be done in the summer window. The Lions addressed those needs by making two seemingly minor moves with the signing of center back Shane O’Neill and the acquisition on loan of defender/midfielder Carlos Ascues.
Although the two newbies could not control the continuing rash of injuries and absences, both brought a calmness and excellent speed and footwork to the Orlando back line. The Lions were better able to play out of the back and helped to stabilize the revolving door a bit. The duo received two of our better Season in Review grades for 2018, with O’Neill notching a 6.5 rating and Ascues matching him with the same score.
Ascues played nine matches (all starts) for the Lions for a total of 755 minutes. In those nine appearances, he played four at center back, four as a defensive midfielder, and one as a left back in the 4-0 drubbing against the Chicago Fire on the road. He didn’t score a goal or assist on one, finishing with an 87.3% passer rating. He committed eight fouls, drawing four, and picked up two yellow cards. Ascues averaged 1.9 tackles per match, 2.1 interceptions, 2.9 clearances, and one block. Add this on top of his play moving forward and overlapping on the attack with four total shots (one on goal), 0.6 key passes per match, and 3.7 long balls.
O’Neill appeared in 13 regular season matches (all starts) for a total of 1,118 minutes. He was only left out of three matches that he was available for after joining the team. His passing was consistent as well, averaging an 85.5% completion rate with 39.2 passes per game, seventh-best on the team. He didn’t score or assist on a goal, attempting six shots (one on target). O’Neill’s 1.8 tackles per match was the best among Orlando City’s center backs, though his 1.5 interceptions, 3.8 clearances, and 0.5 blocks all lagged behind at least two of Sané, Spector, and Tarek. O’Neill was also decently effective in the air, winning 1.6 aerial duels per match, and he was disciplined, landing middle of the pack on the team for fouls committed with 0.7 fouls per match. He received zero yellow cards, though he was sent off after 83 minutes in Orlando’s 2-0 loss to New York City FC.
In a more successful year, the two defensive signings might not have made this year’s list of top moments. Heck, it wouldn’t have been more than a blip last year with the much bigger splashes of signing Dom Dwyer and Yoshimar Yotún. But these two players were solid enough to hope they can become part of a more consistent and effective back line as the team rolls into 2019 and, as such, we feel this pair of summer signings warrants inclusion as our No. 9 “moment” of 2018.
Come back through New Year’s Eve as we count down the remainder of Orlando City’s top 10 moments of 2018.
Previous Top 10 Moments of 2018
10. OCSC hires Oguchi Onyewu as OCB’s new technical director.