The re-signing of Dom Dwyer and the acquisition of Justin Meram ensured that Orlando City would display a strike partnership that would frighten opposing defenses in 2018. The depth at that position, on the other hand, was much less certain with two additional forwards that had yet to make an MLS appearance. Saturday night gave much more clarity to the striker situation at the club, and a positive view going forward.
There’s no way around it, scoring was a problem for Orlando City last season. Its 39 goals tied the club for 20th out of the league’s 22 teams in goals scored. Cyle Larin, who was supposed to be the future star striker after a 2015 Rookie of the Year season, saw his goal tally progressively decrease, resulting in just 12 goals last season. The summer acquisition of Sporting Kansas City star striker, and former Orlando City loanee, Dom Dwyer, netted four goals in his 12 games in Orlando. But Dwyer only scored nine goals in 27 appearances for both teams. Colombian Carlos Rivas only scored five in 30 appearances and nearly 2,000 minutes, while Hadji Barry spent the majority of his season with OCB and only 11 minutes on the field for the first team.
Like most of the roster, Orlando City Head Coach Jason Kreis and General Manager Niki Budalic decided on a complete overhaul at the position, with only Dwyer returning this year. Larin was sent to Turkey in a very public dispute between the player, his new club, and his old club, while Rivas was traded to the New York Red Bulls and Barry was released, eventually winding up with Sporting Kansas City’s reserve side, Swope Park Rangers.
The Lions started their overhaul on Dec. 13 by signing Stéfano Pinho from Miami FC of the NASL. The NASL’s golden boot winner became well-known to Orlando City fans after scoring a hat trick against the club in the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. They continued their building of the forward position by re-signing Dwyer on Jan. 3 and drafting Chris Mueller out of Wisconsin with the sixth overall pick. The final and most impressive move by the club was the acquisition of Justin Meram in a trade with the Columbus Crew.
While Pinho got off to a slow start in 2018, only scoring one goal in the preseason, Mueller stole the headlines, netting five goals in four games. But that was just preseason. The real test came Saturday night. With Dwyer out due to a quadriceps injury suffered during preseason, both Mueller and Pinho would play a role in the club’s opening game against D.C. United.
The rookie Mueller got the start for the Lions and quickly made an impact, firing a team-leading three shots, with one on target. After a slow half for the team as a whole, Mueller came out with the intention of finding the equalizer for the 10-men hosts. While both teams looked to get a footing in the game, Mueller found multiple chances to get the home team on the board. Despite coming up empty, it allowed City to put pressure on the visitors.
It took Pinho a while to get into the game after entering, with Meram seeing most of the chances up top. However, the 27-year-old Brazilian made the biggest impact on the game three minutes into stoppage time. With time winding down, Pinho was able to lose his man by cutting back in the box, allowing Jonathan Spector to find him at the top of the six. He then slid the ball into the corner past United goalkeeper David Ousted, grabbing a last-second point for the Lions.
Dwyer and Meram are two of the better scorers in MLS and nobody would claim that Mueller or Pinho are currently at that level, especially after just one game. But the fact that they were able to produce opportunities — and eventually the equalizing goal — in Dwyer’s absence is a great sign for the position this season. This will not be the last time the team needs a late goal to secure a point or three, and Saturday night showed that these two MLS newcomers can handle the job when called upon. With them on the roster, Orlando City fans can expect far more than last year’s goal total.