For Orlando City, it seemed like the defense would remain a question mark with two weeks to go until the club’s 2018 season opener. Jonathan Spector and José Aja remained the holdovers from last season in central defense, augmented only by Amro Tarek, on loan from Egyptian side Wadi Degla. Former Real Salt Lake center back Chris Schuler, who played under Orlando City Head Coach Jason Kreis from 2010-2013, has been in camp for the last few weeks and is also being considered for a roster spot. With Kreis promising another defender was on the way, it seemed like Schuler was the likeliest candidate even though there were a few concerns with his health.
So it looked like Orlando’s center back options would again be the biggest concern on its roster, deciding between Aja — who had a tumultuous 2017, to say the least — the untested Tarek, and the dinged-up vet in Schuler to partner with Spector until the summer window.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Orlando City signed Senegalese international Lamine Sané and turned that narrative on its head. The addition of Sané effectively vaulted the Lions’ back line from being the team’s Achilles heel once again to one of its strongest position groups.
On paper, Sané should be one of the top defenders in MLS this year. His years of experience with FC Girondins Bordeaux in Ligue 1 included a UEFA Champions League campaign and various Europa League challenges. Moving to SV Werder Bremen in 2016 added the more competitive rigors of the Bundesliga to his resume.
Compared with Jonathan Spector — to date, the best central defender Orlando City has signed in the team’s short MLS history — Sané should be on another level. While Spector’s career included a lengthy Premier League stint with Manchester United and West Ham United, the defender developed his reputation in the English Championship with Birmingham City. Sané has been competing at a higher level for longer, including the African Cup of Nations with Senegal and the meat grinder that is World Cup qualifying in Africa. If he adapts as quickly as Spector did, all of a sudden the Lions have one of the best tandems in the league.
It’s not just the Senegalese defender’s pedigree that will likely turn around Orlando’s woeful defense. Sané’s height (6-foot-3) and aerial ability are things the Lions have lacked on a consistent basis since the departure of Aurélien Collin two years ago. Combined with his athleticism, he becomes a weapon in the air.
While Sané might not score at the rate of Seb Hines (he’s only scored 13 goals in nine years as a pro), his ability to win duels in the air should provide another level to City’s defensive efforts.
While Aja has been the go-to physical presence in the back since he joined the club in the middle of 2016, Lamine is on another level entirely. It will be a nice pairing with Spector, who, while successful in the air, didn’t quite have enough size to combat the bigger forwards in the league. The center backs who did, like Aja, weren’t capable of playing with the ball at their feet; Sane has racked up seven assists in his career and won’t be uncomfortable with the ball at his feet even if he isn’t a maestro on the back line.
Despite his athleticism, Sané isn’t a battering ram type of central defender. He will only dive into challenges when necessary, which means fewer fouls in dangerous areas. In fact, according to the Bundesliga, he only committed seven fouls in his 11 matches before the league’s winter break earlier this season. Lamine should provide a steady presence at the back and doesn’t have the tendency to make rash challenges like some of the center backs Orlando has employed previously. According to Opta, he also has a welcome habit of clearing the danger:
5.8 - Lamine Sané averaged 5.8 clearances per game since joining Werder Bremen prior to the 2016-17 season, the third most in the #Bundesliga over that span. Disrupt. #VamosOrlando pic.twitter.com/yUE3geKggp— OptaJack (@OptaJack) February 20, 2018
With Spector’s ability to direct others and bail things out when things go wrong, the two should be able to develop a decent partnership. The two veterans’ skills seem to mesh well while also both having the instinct to relieve the pressure when necessary or play out of the back whenever possible. That combination of veteran savvy is something the Lions haven’t really had since their inaugural season when Collin and Sean St. Ledger manned the back line together for part of the year before St. Ledger’s unceremonious exit.
With Sané and Spector in the fold as the starting pair, Orlando has two cornerstones to anchor the defense. But it also pushes Aja — last year’s starter in the beginning of the season — and newcomer Tarek to the bench, which changes the dynamic around the pair of young defenders. They no longer need to be viewed as weak links but rather players with upside, giving Kreis some options to work with for rotation. If Orlando goes into opening day with Sané, Spector, Aja, Tarek, and Schuler, it would be by far the largest lineup the Lions have ever had on offer with only Spector standing under 6-foot-3.
With Amro’s unique blend of pace with his size, Aja’s physicality, and Schuler’s veteran leadership, Kreis would theoretically be able to field a tandem to solve most problems opponents could throw at him. While the group might still miss Tommy Redding’s skill on the ball and ability in duels, the coaching staff has more than made up for his absence, building a solid foundation of talent, unique skill sets, and quality.
While it may take some time for partnerships to form and the defense to really start clicking, the groundwork has been laid for Orlando’s toughest defense yet.