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View From the End Line: The Wingbacks Are the Difference

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What speed and precision on the wings means for Orlando City.

MLS: D.C. United at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Lions have completed 17.6471% of the 2019 season — that would be six matches out of the season’s 34 — and are sitting in sixth position in the Eastern Conference with eight points. What is also fairly impressive is that the Lions are currently undefeated on the road, having notched a win against New York Red Bulls and a draw against the Chicago Fire. This week, the club travels west to face Real Salt Lake, a team that the Lions have not lost to. One standout area for the 2019 Lions has to be the wingbacks, and just how dangerous they are becoming with every match played.

Orlando City has seen its share of impact backs, although the level of impact is easily debatable. Remember the Brek Shea experiment? Or how about Scott Sutter and Mohamed El-Munir? Does the name PC Giro ring any bells? Well, just in case you need a reminder, let me give you an extremely brief history on some of the players that have been Lion backs (this is not meant to be a full list, but picked some of the more known examples):

  • Brek Shea: 2 seasons, 46 appearances, ~2,400 minutes, 3 goals and 6 assists
  • Rafael Ramos: 3 seasons, 39 appearances, ~3,100 minutes, 0 goals and 5 assists
  • Scott Sutter: 2 seasons, 48 appearances, ~4,300 minutes, 4 goals and 6 assists
  • Mohamed El-Munir: 26 appearances, ~2,100 minutes, 0 goals and 2 assists

Let’s fast-forward to 2019, and take a quick look at just what the Lions have today:

  • Danilo Acosta: 1st season, 3 appearances, 254 minutes, 0 goals and 0 assists
  • Kyle Smith: 1st season, 4 appearances, 141 minutes, 0 goals and 0 assists
  • Joao Moutinho: 1st season, 3 appearances, 270 minutes, 0 goals and 2 assists
  • Ruan: 1st season, 5 appearances, 392 minutes, 0 goals and 0 assists

Don’t look to closely at the 2019 numbers and panic just yet. In fact, I would dare say that the numbers should begin to give you hope. The current roster of Lions playing as left/right backs and wingbacks is notching an assist every combined 528 minutes, versus the crew above, which honestly were picked for their offensive record versus defensive record, and notched an assist every combined 626 minutes. It is a bit of an odd way to show the math, but simply helps to show the combined output of the current players being better than big names from past rosters.

Two of the current Lions, Moutinho and Ruan, are finding their feet quickly and making waves on the pitch that are not only being noticed by the fans, but by a larger audience as well. Although the Lions’ current record may not lend itself to having players make weekly honors, Ruan was once again picked for the MLS Team of the Week. It could have something to do with plays like this on the buildup that led to Tesho Akindele’s goal:

Also, the first three camera angles in this weekly clip are pure class from Ruan:

Ruan’s speed and touch are dangerous, and the Lions’ ability to get the ball to him in wide spaces is going to be key to opening up teams in the defensive third. Add to this Moutinho on the left, with vision and crosses like this:

Also, it was Joao’s vision to see Nani open on the throw in that eventually led to Chris Mueller’s goal. If you need more evidence, simply replay the match against the Red Bulls and note that it was Moutinho’s pass back across the box to Sacha Kljestan for the winning goal.

I would be extremely remiss if I did not mention that it is a shame that Ruan did not get an assist in the last match against the Colorado Rapids. His crossing into the box and runs down the right were dangerous all match long, and it was his play down the right that started the run of play leading to three of the four City goals. Don’t believe me? Just read up on the match recap and search for Ruan, and you will see just how large of an impact he had along with his counterpart on the left.

City certainly seems to have found a very dangerous combination of wingbacks in Ruan and Moutinho. This adds another dimension to the Lions’ on-pitch arsenal, leading to leveraging the current favorite 3-5-2 formation into a deadly counter attack strategy. The speed and deftness on the wings will also open up the central third of the pitch as teams will have to find a way to pressure Ruan and Joao and not give them open looks at crosses or give them the space needed to attack the box. It seemed like every version of the Lions tried to have some form of wingback, or at least asked the right/left back to push up on offense as often as possible. This current roster, with Ruan and Moutinho leading the way, are certainly capable, and are definitely showing just how dangerous this squad is about to be when the wings are manned by the backs, allowing the rest of the offensive threats of Nani, Dom Dwyer, Akindele, Mueller, and others to stay central and get bodies in the box.

It also doesn’t hurt that the boys are pretty good on the defensive side as well. What are your thoughts on the current crop of backs?