Shane O’Neill arrived at Orlando City during the summer window last year to provide cover for the Lions’ oft-injured back line. While he did give the Lions more reinforcements at center back, he was unable to stem the absolute tidal wave of goals that Orlando conceded on a historically bad 2018 defense.
The off-season acquisition of Robin Jansson and several other defenders provided some clues as to what now ex-Lions coach James O’Connor had in mind for O’Neill, and the season played out according to those clues. O’Neill deputized when and where he was needed but did not play a significant part in the season.
O’Neill played in 12 matches this season, starting nine of those; with one game and one start coming in the U.S. Open Cup victory over Memphis 901 FC. He tallied 928 minutes overall and 838 minutes in MLS, and his game and minutes totals both dropped from his numbers last year. On the field he averaged 1.7 tackles, 0.7 interceptions, 0.5 blocks and 3.9 clearances per game. He passed at a 70.8% clip and averaged 2.9 aerials won per game —good for best on the team ahead of Alex De John, Tesho Akindele, and, rather unsurprisingly, Lamine Sané. He did not record any goals or assists. Lastly, he only committed seven fouls all year, but when he did commit a foul it was generally a bad one as he received two yellow cards.
O’Neill tended to have solid performances when he was on the pitch, receiving 6.5’s in The Mane Land’s player grades on a number of occasions. For me though, his best outing was at home during the 1-0 win over Sporting Kansas City. In that particular game, Kyle Smith was forced off merely eight minutes into the match after a nasty collision with Sporting goalkeeper Tim Melia. That meant that O’Neill entered the fray completely cold in the 12th minute, and at fullback no less, which is not his favored position. However, he had a very solid performance in a game that became an absolute pressure cooker in the second half.
Statistically he passed the ball at an 84% rate, made a team-high four tackles, and won a pair of aerials. While those statistics might not jump off the page, for large parts of the game O’Neill was tasked with stopping Johnny Russell — a tough task for even some of the league’s best fullbacks. Considering that Sporting ended the game with 14 shots and 58% of the ball, O’Neill did a fine job in helping anchor the back line in an especially difficult situation, and received a grade of 6.5 from TML’s Guilherme Torres.
2019 Final Grade
Unfortunately, 2019 as a whole was not as good for O’Neill as the Sporting game, with The Mane Land staff awarding him an overall grade of a 4. He’s more than capable of being a solid deputy when the squad needs to be rotated or injury strikes, but if he doesn’t have a solid center back next to him he struggles. That was perhaps no more evident than in the final game of the season when he replaced an injured Jansson. He partnered with Smith in the center of defense and the two looked uncomfortable all night long. However, he’s usually quite good in the air and is a capable tackler. He can be slow when it comes to closing players down, switches off on occasion — see the dying moments of the road game at Chicago back in March — and doesn’t add much in the way of things offensively.
Overall, this year is a regression from what he showed last year, with the biggest reason being that he contributed in fewer games over the course of a full season than he did after joining during the summer window last year.
There are a few factors on O’Neill’s side when it comes to being retained by the Lions. For one, he was originally signed to a four-year contract, although this should be an option year for him. Secondly, he’s cheap; he was an inexpensive acquisition and only had a base salary of $125,000 in 2019. He’s already shown that he’s capable of filling in wherever he’s needed and could very well be retained as a low-cost rotation player, perhaps even seeing a decent number of minutes if Orlando’s new head coach prefers to play a three man back line. If that doesn’t happen then he will in all likelihood find himself lower on the pecking order once again, but Orlando will certainly have a decision to make about his future.