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View from the End Line: Orlando City’s Defensive Third

While the Lions’ attack looks dangerous, the one thing that could ultimately make or break the season is on the other end of the pitch.

MLS: Orlando City SC at New York City FC Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Shutouts are important to any team. Shutouts on the road are even more important. In a league that is one of the most difficult in the world to get points on the road, being able to do so is critical. How does a team do that?

The simple answer is always to score more goals than the opponents. The more complex answer is not allowing the other team to score more goals than you.

As the roster has gotten healthier up front — knock on wood — the offensive power of Orlando City is becoming unmistakable. Dom Dwyer certainly seems to be in form, the new powers of Chris Mueller and Stefano Pinho are making themselves known to MLS, and how could you forget Sacha Kljestan, Justin Meram, Yoshimar Yotun, and Josué Colmán? The real question comes from the positions behind the aforementioned players: Those defensive mids, the right and left backs, and the center backs. These are the positions that will help to define this season, and we are certainly beginning to see how.

One road shutout may not define a season, but in Week 7, for a team that stumbled out of the starting blocks, it speaks volumes of what could potentially lie ahead. The Lions had seven shutouts last season, five of which were wins and two of which came on the road. The other two were draws while playing at home. For comparison, Toronto FC had 12 shutouts last season.

This becomes all too important if you are on the unfortunate side of not controlling your own destiny and needing to rely on the goal differential tie breaker to keep you above the red line. Orlando has yet to finish an MLS season with a positive goal differential, finishing in 2015 at -10, 2016 at -5, and 2017 at -19. The 2017 season also happened to be the Lions’ worst year for goal production, netting well below the league average at 39 total goals. Looking back over the history of the Supporters’ Shield table for the brief amount of time that Orlando has been in MLS, it is rare to see a team crack the top 10 with a negative goal differential, and those that did had pretty amazing home records for the season.

Orlando addressed a lot of gaps this off-season, and we will continue to discuss those changes as this season progresses, including in the defensive third. Whether we look at the 4-4-2 diamond or the current choice of a 4-2-3-1, the new Lions are certainly making an impact and beginning to sync with the team veterans. The one thing that has been missing from the defensive third is consistent starters, especially in the center back pair, something everyone should agree is certainly needed. The dynamics and communication between the center backs and goalkeeper Joe Bendik are what drive the defense, and a lack of consistency here could spell disaster. The season started very roughly for the Lions, but they are certainly making every effort to claw their way back, and it is not only visible from the attack, but the defense is starting to gel as well, regardless of the rotating cast.

Having team captain Jonathan Spector back in MLS concussion protocol is not good. It is good for him, because the last thing anyone wants is to be battling the lingering side effects of a concussion for weeks on end, but it is bad for chemistry. Take a look around the world, throw a dart at a country with a world-class football league, and you will find good center back pairings. This is a foundation of defense, regardless of how many bodies you put across the back line (with the one fun exception of the 3-4-3 where you run three center backs across the back like Chelsea did in their title run last season in the English Premier League), as the two, or three, central defenders must almost have a psychic connection and know what each other is going to do and when.

It was certainly looking to like Orlando was going to be seeing Spector and Lamine Sané as the first-choice pair, but injuries and fitness have led to a rotation of central defenders including Amro Tarek. The three center backs have shared almost equal time on the pitch for the two starting spots, with Tarek surprisingly logging the most of the three.

The fullbacks are another area where multiple off-season changes were made. One of the additions, Mohamed El-Munir, has started and played in every minute of the 2018 season so far at the left back position. On the other side, Scott Sutter has started four matches, with RJ Allen starting the other two. Will Johnson even logged some hard-fought minutes at right back this past match with Sutter not traveling due to a knock, and Allen pulling up with an injury early in the match against the Philadelphia Union. Even with all of the rotation, the back line does appear to be getting better, as the number of goals allowed over the past three matches has declined, including the aforementioned shutout. In fact, the team has only allowed two goals in the run of play in the last three matches combined (the others came on two free kicks and a penalty). The back line is also doing its part in helping the attack, as defenders have contributed four assists so far this season.

Johnson dropping back to cover right back now leads us to the defensive midfield, a position I think is horribly misunderstood. For the first three matches, the 4-4-2 diamond was used, leaving room for one central defensive midfielder on the pitch. This position was filled by Cam Lindley for the first two matches and Cristian Higuita for the next. The fourth match started with a 4-4-2 diamond, but that changed to a 4-2-3-1 after halftime, and we know the results of that 4-3 win vs.the New York Red Bulls. The next two matches were the 4-2-3-1, with Yoshimar Yotún and Johnson as the defensive mids. As mentioned above, when Allen went down at Philadelphia, Johnson moved over to cover at right back and Higuita was substituted in to fill his defensive midfield spot. It may be hard to argue against the role he played in getting that 2-0 road shutout.

We all want to see the boys put the ball in the back of the net. That is what gets the purple smoke popped, the music pumping, and all of us on our feet. But we all need to remember just how important the boys on the other end of pitch are.

Watching back flips is awesome (although I wonder if there is a clause about things like that in a player’s contract), waiting for players to return from their epic knee slides is fantastic, and watching it all through purple smoke is even more fun. I just want to make sure the center backs, right and left backs, and defensive midfielders of the team do not get left out as we watch the progress this team is making. As much as they need to score in matches, there is equal need to make sure the opponent doesn’t, possibly even more so this season.

This may be the most dangerous attacking group the Lions have put on the pitch since joining MLS, so I would not expect there to be a lack of goals scored. It may come down to simply being one of those teams that just doesn’t let the opposition score that helps propel the Lions into the playoffs this year, and the boys playing in the defensive third certainly look to be up to the challenge.