Friday night was the first of a few “short weeks” for the Orlando City Lions. The thrilling come-from-behind victory at home against the Portland Timbers on Sunday led the way to what we all witnessed Friday night under the lights versus the Philadelphia Union, a 2-0 road win and clean sheet. The start was shaky, but that might still be something we should expect as this group of players continues to gel. April is going to be a very important month for Orlando City, not only in terms of wins, but in really defining itself, and hopefully a consistent stating XI and bench.
One particular thing we saw Friday was how deep this squad is. I have said this before, but never to this extent. Previous rosters had depth, holding depth, defensive depth. This iteration, built dramatically in the off-season, has depth the likes of which we have not seen, (and I dare say) ever. This opens up so many options for the team to rest players, handle short weeks, and keep everyone fresh. We bore witness to that Friday.
Reactions to the release of this starting XI were mixed. Some people were shocked to see Justin Meram on the bench, while others thought it was a good idea as they questioned his play last match. Many were wondering about Josué Colmán, a player with a Designated Player tag, who you would expect to be starting and contributing. Many responses postulated that Head Coach Jason Kreis was rewarding Stefano Pinho and Chris Mueller for their efforts during the Cardiac Cats’ comeback last week.
Scott Sutter suffered a knock and did not travel, so RJ Allen, who came on as a sub last match and notched a fantastic assist on the game-winning Dom Dwyer goal, started at right back. Oriol “Uri” Rosell found himself in the 18 for the first time and Jonathon Spector re-entered concussion protocol during the week so the center back pair of Lamine Sané and Amro Tarek were tagged to hold down the central defensive positions. You can get all the info you need on the match in our recap and see how everyone fared, including the Man of the Match, here.
The true depth of the roster could be seen from the very first substitution, when Allen finally gave in to his leg issue in the 26th minute and Cristian Higuita subbed on, moving into the no. 6 position, while Will Johnson moved to right back. I could debate all day and night about the difference in play and skill of each player, but that would muddy the field that this is trying to present.
Every player on the pitch and on the bench brings different qualities to the match at hand. The Higuita sub brought a more true number six onto the pitch, but also brought fear into some people’s hearts as Cristian seems to be a magnet for cards. We have seen Johnson switch back to the right back spot a couple of times, but this is certainly not his normal, and comfortable, position; however, did you see how he handled the transition in game?
Let us turn our attention to the other side of the pitch — the attacking side. The Lions certainly went with many considered to be a very aggressive front lineup, with Dom, Mueller, and Pinho. A seasoned veteran with USMNT caps, and goals, up top with a true rookie in Mueller and an MLS rookie in Pinho. What could possibly happen? Well, after the squad settled down, the attacking presence was felt through the television, and I know it was felt on the pitch.
Orlando certainly looked the more dangerous after settling into a nice rhythm, minus the ever-dangerous counter presence of the Union. Did you ever think, even for a second, that maintaining pressure while holding a 2-0 lead on the road, that you would be watching a club that would bring Justin Meram off of the bench? Did you ever think that you would watch a gentleman that is going to be our number 10 for years, come off the bench in the 89th minute to help burn a little time?
If and when the entire squad is healthy, I both envy and do not envy Kreis as he dials in the starting XI and bench for every match. The key to moving forward will certainly be keeping a healthy squad. A healthy squad is a dangerous squad both in the XI, and the individuals chosen to be those subs to make a difference, whether the club needs that heart attack comeback (please no more, my heart cannot take any more), that equalizer on the road to steal a point, the push to secure three points, or making sure a lead is not lost. Hopefully, as the season progresses, the decisions on who starts and who is available on the bench become more and more difficult. The harder it is to lock down the 18, the better we, as fans, should feel!