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Orlando City 2019 MLS Preview

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Let’s take a look at the club’s off-season and 2019 outlook.

MLS: Orlando City Invitational-New England Revolution at Orlando City SC Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019 MLS season is at hand, and this weekend we’ll be donning our scarves, getting our tailgating supplies out of the garage, and heading to the stadium to revisit our passion for the game and for our team.

But a lot has happened since we last saw the Lions in a competitive match. What can we expect from Orlando City this season? Who’s going to play a major role? Who will even start? There are a lot of unknowns but as the season nears, the picture is becoming a bit clearer. Let’s take a look at the team’s metamorphosis from 2018 to 2019.

How did Orlando City finish in 2018?

The 2018 MLS season was the club’s worst yet since joining Major League Soccer. The Lions managed only 28 points, finishing dead last in the Eastern Conference with a record of 8-22-4. Only the San Jose Earthquakes were worse in MLS, at 4-21-9 (21 points). Orlando conceded the most goals in a season in MLS history (74) and scored only 43, which was the league’s second lowest mark (Colorado — 36). The team went from July 18 to Oct. 17 of last year without winning a single game, going 0-11-3 in that span. Jason Kreis was fired as head coach and Nike Budalic was fired as general manager after the season.

In short, 2018 was an upended port-o-potty inside a giant dumpster fire. Let’s move on.

What’s new in 2019?

The club hired Luiz Muzzi to be the new executive vice president of soccer operations on Dec. 18 and so far he’s sent a clear message that Orlando City is going to be a team that develops talent from the ground up. OCB has returned as a developmental side in USL League One, the club is trying to attach a Homegrown Player tag to virtually anyone even close to qualifying as such, and City is prioritizing the local talent and the development academy.

As for the MLS side itself, James O’Connor has had his first preseason to install his own fitness and training program as well as his preferred tactical style. On the pitch, the Lions got younger, faster, and (presumably) fitter. A lot of new faces have been brought in, which we’ll get to in a moment.

Who’s out?

As you’d expect after such a dismal season, there were a lot of departures from the squad, including some big names: goalkeepers Joe Bendik and Earl Edwards, Jr.; defenders Scott Sutter, Jonathan Spector, Mohamed El-Munir, Donny Toia, Victor “PC” Giro, RJ Allen, Amro Tarek, and Chris Schuler; midfielders Yoshimar Yotún, Tony Rocha, Richie Laryea, and Jose Villarreal; and forward Stefano Pinho all departed between the end of the 2018 season and now.

Who’s in?

A lot of departures always means numerous arrivals as well. Orlando City added goalkeepers Greg Ranjitsingh and Brian Rowe; defenders Danilo Acosta, Joao Moutinho, Kamal Miller (a 2019 SuperDraft pick who has not officially been signed yet), Alex De John, Ruan Teixeira, and Kyle Smith; midfielders Jhegson Sebastian “Sebas” Mendez, and Nani; and forwards Benji Michel (a Homegrown Player), No. 3 overall MLS SuperDraft selection Santiago Patino, and Tesho Akindele. Of those brought in, Nani is by far the most well-known and accomplished player. The Designated Player signed a three-year deal and should provide more bite in the attack as well as leadership on the field.

What’s the new jersey?

Orlando City unveiled a new purple home kit for 2019. Take a look:

Image courtesy of Orlando City SC
Projected starting XI?

Here’s where things get tricky. Because only two games were open to the media and the public this preseason, we don’t have a lot of information to go on. The Lions used two different formations in those open games and neither featured striker Dom Dwyer (quad injury) or Nani (awaiting international paperwork). And the addition of Nani suggests perhaps a different formation than either one we saw. If I were to make a best (somewhat educated) guess on what James O’Connor’s club might look like in 2019, these are the two main possibilities (assuming everyone is available):

Using a 3-5-2 formation:

GK: Brian Rowe

CB: Carlos Ascues

CB: Lamine Sané

CB: Alex De John

LWB: Danny Acosta or Joao Moutinho

DM: Sebas Mendez

AM: Sacha Kljestan

DM: Uri Rosell

RWB: Ruan

F: Nani

F: Dom Dwyer

Using a 3-4-3 formation:

GK: Brian Rowe

CB: Carlos Ascues

CB: Lamine Sané

CB: Alex De John

LWB: Danny Acosta or Joao Moutinho

DM: Sebas Mendez

AM: Sacha Kljestan

RWB: Ruan

LW: Nani

F: Dom Dwyer

RW: Chris Mueller or Tesho Akindele

These are, of course, subject to change for any number of reasons, including performance, as many of these spots seem to be an ongoing open competition under O’Connor.

Expectations for 2019?

This is a tough question to answer because it really depends on how optimistic or pessimistic you are. I’ll try to play a realist here and give an honest answer. With so many new faces, and with some of those not yet integrating into the group due to arriving late or being injured in preseason, it’s a big ask for this team to come together and create a special season. While I believe significant progress was made in rebuilding a roster that makes sense for MLS 3.0, I don’t think the club was quite able to complete the job. This kind of overhaul is difficult to fit into one off-season or even one year. It usually takes two or three transfer windows due to contract situations, availability of the right players, and other factors.

I expect this team to make some significant steps in the right direction. If everything goes well, the Lions could contend for one of the last few playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. But that’s assuming key players stay healthy, because Orlando City is thin in multiple areas. If Nani doesn’t produce as expected — a la Justin Meram last season — or misses time through injury, it significantly impacts the offense. The team is a bit thin at center back if it wants to play a three-back system, so, again, that position group must avoid the trainer’s table. The goalkeeping corps must perform well. Rowe is a veteran but he’s been inconsistent in the past and everyone else at the position is either completely untested at the MLS level (Ranjitsingh, Mason Stajduhar) or has only a few starts (Adam Grinwis). And there must be someone other than Dwyer who can find the net consistently. That’s a lot of ifs, but if that all happens, the team can contend for a postseason spot. Otherwise, it could be another long, frustrating season for City fans.

Manage your expectations. Hope for the best, but be cautious in your emotional investment in the 2019 season.

Who is the player to watch on your team, and why?

The easy answer here is Nani, because he can bring so much to the team — accurate passing, good hold-up play, timely runs, and the occasional golazo. The Portuguese veteran still moves well and he’s still productive. Hopefully he’ll adjust to MLS and his new teammates quickly.

The player I’ll suggest is Sebas Mendez. The young Ecuadorian has a high motor both on the defensive end and in the attacking third. He pressures the ball well and can be a nuisance for the other team when they’re in possession. In the one chance we got to see him this preseason he seemed adept at moving the ball quickly and accurately, and at immediately finding space for a return pass. He also made a big defensive play in his own half to spark a goal-scoring counter attack. It’s a very small sample size but if this is how Mendez always plays, he’s going to be a lot of fun to watch in 2019.

Who’s the player fans will learn to love?

If he plays like he did in the Orlando City Invitational, it’ll be Sacha Kljestan. Sacha took a lot of stick from fans in 2018 for a drop in production, but honestly, which Lion actually performed well last year? If we’re being honest, the answer is no one. Nope, not even Yoshi. He may have been the most consistently good, but he had his stinkers just like everyone else.

In the OCI, Kljestan looked like he did with the Red Bulls, spraying inch-perfect passes between defenders for his teammates to run onto in stride. A couple of good Sean Johnson saves kept him from registering some nifty assists in the game. Kljestan worked well with Mendez and Will Johnson in the middle of the pitch that night, and with the wingbacks on either side. He was decisive and accurate and that’s a sign of a guy who understands what the other players around them are going to do. If the Lions can play like that in the midfield in 2019, a lot of people will turn around on Kljestan. If it was just a preseason mirage, however…not so much.

How much will this roster change after the season starts?

Roster changes are always difficult in season, but I suspect we’ll see some moves in the summer. I don’t believe that O’Connor and Muzzi are done reconstructing the roster, but there’s only so much you can do in one window. If the right pieces become available in the middle of the season, there will be moves in the summer window. The club had reportedly been shopping Kljestan in the off-season. If he performs like I mentioned above, the Lions may rethink moving the crafty veteran assist king. However, if the right deal is offered, and if the other players on the roster continue to develop — I’m thinking of how Cam Lindley and Josué Colmán played against New England here — the club might try to get a return on their investment in Sacha. The summer window might also be an opportunity to upgrade the goalkeeper position if performances warrant it, and potentially to add some depth on the wings or at center back. It might also provide the opportunity to get something in return for one of the team’s defensive midfielders. It’s too late to make a long story short, but I’ll summarize by saying that some player movement after the season starts seems likely this season.

There you have it — nearly 2,000 words spent on our 2019 MLS season preview for Orlando City. As always, your comments or your answers to the questions above are encouraged in our forum below.