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Fullback Likely A Key Position Once Again Under Oscar Pareja

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The outside of defense figures to remain an important area of the field during 2020.

SOCCER: SEP 07 MLS - LAFC at Orlando City SC Photo by Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In case you missed it, Orlando City confirmed what many of us at The Mane Land had been projecting for awhile, and hired Oscar Pareja as its new head coach. Now that the team has a man in the driver’s seat for 2020, the attention can turn to one of the more entertaining parts of the off-season: speculating on what the team will look like next year. We already have a little assistance in this particular area, as our Commander in Chief Michael Citro spoke with Big D Soccer in order to get an idea of what to expect out of Orlando City under its new boss.

The first sentence of Ben Lyon’s opening answer in the Intelligence Report immediately caught my eye:

In an ideal world, Oscar Pareja is a 4-3-3 guy who enjoys bombing down the wings with overlapping backs.

Lyon goes on to say that in his opinion he doesn’t believe Pareja has ever had a team that’s allowed him to live in that aforementioned ideal world. Allow me to be the first to say that I do not believe he will find that to be the case when he takes charge of his Orlando City team for the first time.

Both of the team’s current starting fullbacks, Joao Moutinho and Ruan, are — to put it simply — no strangers when it comes to attacking. Much has been written on this site already about what Ruan brings to the table so I won’t harp about him for too long other than to say that he can outrun a cheetah, often beats his man off the dribble, and tends to have a good final ball, totaling five assists last year. Moutinho is no slouch either, and while he might not be an out and out burner like his Brazilian counterpart, he’s still quick, happy to get forward, and is one of the better crossers of the ball on the team. He got three assists himself last year and probably would have had more if not for injury struggles that limited him to 16 appearances.

If Pareja does indeed plan on having his fullbacks tear up and down the field, he’ll have a pair that are already used to doing so. Both Moutinho and Ruan frequently got up-field and involved in the offense in 2019, and a lot of what the team did well was started in wide areas when one or both of them had made their way into the final third. The biggest barrier to successfully implementing that tactic is when a team lacks players with the ability and desire to cover for the fullbacks when they do overlap and get forward, and that’s likely what will make or break things in that regard for Orlando next season.

Whether Pareja plays a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, the responsibility will fall on the midfielders to track back and cover. In either formation Sebas Mendez is likely one of the players who would be asked to provide that cover, but with a lot of roster building still needing to take place before the start of the season, its unclear if Orlando will have the personnel required to fully execute the tactic.

Outside of Mendez, the only two players currently on the Lions roster capable of playing defensive midfield are Oriol Rosell and Mauricio Pereyra. Both of those two are more suited to playing a deeper lying facilitator role rather than shielding the back line, and while they can still perform in that role, it probably isn’t the best place for either one of them. Obviously the state of the roster will change between now and the beginning of the season but it’s probably safe to say that if anything is going to prevent the Lions’ fullbacks from getting forward it’ll be the players surrounding the fullbacks, rather than the fullbacks themselves.

Even if Orlando isn’t built to push the fullbacks forward at will, it’s still a safe bet to say that the pair will be an important part of the offense. The front office took notice of what Ruan and Moutinho were able to do last year, and went out and signed Ruan to a new two-year deal. It’s also worth noting that the Lions’ rough months during the summer of 2019 also coincided with a period when one or both of Ruan and Moutinho were unavailable through injury. While their absences weren’t the only problems, they also didn’t help matters.

Suffice it to say that things will become a lot clearer once the roster is filled out and the team is in preseason, but one way or another expect there to be plenty of focus on the fullback position once again this year.