There have been many struggles for Orlando City through its first three years in MLS, but no position has been more problematic than center back. Each year has seen a new crop of central defenders enter the mix in an attempt to sure up the most troubled position at the club, and 2018 is no different.
Following the 2017 season, Jason Kreis stated there would be significant changes in the team, and soon enough there were. So it’s no surprise to see an almost entirely new group of central defenders as well. But the difference between this position and others is the amount of turnover from year-to-year, which displays the troubles of the position.
In each of the first three MLS seasons for the club, there have been six first-team central defenders. Only three of those players have been with the club all three seasons, and only one played regularly with the first team throughout those three years. The club has gone through 10 defenders in the past three years, with only one returning from last season.
Paul McDonough and Adrian Heath attempted to build the club’s inaugural MLS roster with a mixture of experience and youth, and the defense was no different. One of the early acquisitions for the club included MLS veteran Aurélien Collin, who had experienced a great deal of success with Sporting Kansas City. European veterans Seb Hines and Sean St. Ledger were also brought in, adding to the experience. On the other end of the spectrum, teenager Tommy Redding, a Homegrown signing from 2014, and Generation Adidas SuperDraft pick Conor Donovan were also on the team.
After struggling through the 2015 season, the club made some significant changes with the departure of St. Ledger and Collin. David Mateos, who had come through the Real Madrid academy, was added midway through the 2015 season and the club signed José Aja from Uruguay Primera Division giants Nacional.
The addition of OCB in 2016 provided the club with a developmental team for the younger players. A torn ACL in his first appearance sidelined Donovan, who spent the next two seasons solely with OCB. After two seasons with the first team, Hines spent the majority of last season with the reserve side, only coming into the first team late in the season.
The only player to see significant minutes in the last three seasons was local product Tommy Redding. A carryover from the club’s final season in the USL, the U.S. youth international improved each season in purple, becoming a starter in 2016 and much of 2017. Redding’s run with his local club came to an end earlier this off-season when he was involved, along with Carlos Rivas, in a trade that sent the pair to the New York Red Bulls.
While the center back pairing has been a problem in each of the last three seasons for the Lions, it was most apparent last year. The club brought in former U.S. international Jonathan Spector from Birmingham City in an attempt to improve the struggling position. Spector performed admirably, even being included in a national team provisional roster, but finding his partner was another story. Aja, Redding, and new signing Léo Pereira all had their chances, but all were obvious liabilities in the back, resulting in the departure of all three following last season.
The struggles of the middle defensive pairing have been evident by the stats. The positions with the biggest impact on the number of goals conceded are the goalkeeper and central defenders, and Orlando City has been near the bottom of the league in each of the last three seasons. In 2015, the team gave up 56 goals, placing the Lions 17th in the 20-team league. A year later, it conceded a league-worst 60 goals. That was followed up by conceding 58 goals last season, tied for 16th in the 22-team league.
The trade of Aja to Vancouver Saturday afternoon left Orlando City with just one center back from 2017, declaring 2018 another nearly complete rebuild at the position. The club brought in American-born Egyptian international Amro Tarek on loan from Egyptian Premier League side Wade Degla, and Senegal international Ludovic Lamine Sané, who had departed Bundesliga side Werder Bremen amid personal conflicts. With only three center backs currently on the roster, it’s expected the club will make at least one additional signing.
No position has been more troublesome for Orlando City than center back. The last three seasons have seen the club attempt to solve the problem with nearly an entirely new group of players at the position. For the Lions to break the barrier and finally reach the postseason, this weakness will need to turn into a strength, something the club is attempting to do with the addition of Sané. Soon enough we’ll see how that plan works out.