It’s been no surprise that Orlando City Head Coach James O’Connor has deployed his favored three-man back line in the majority of his club’s matches in this young Major League Soccer season. Speaking as someone who personally expected him to stick by that approach game in and game out, no matter the circumstances, it has been shocking when the lineup featured a more traditional four-man defensive line. The successes and failures of each setup are actually pretty comparable, though only allowing one goal in the last two matches with the four-man defense seems to say more than perhaps the statistics do.
A quick glance at the numbers alone makes it look like the men in purple are just as effective, or ineffective, playing three or four at the back. Earlier in the season, a 4-3-3 start and a shift to that formation after an injury led to numerous opportunities for Orlando City’s opponents and had Sacha Kljestan openly saying he felt the club played its best with three at the back.
But that seems to have changed recently.
Taking a deeper look paints a slightly different — and dare I say more optimistic — picture of the 4-3-3. Orlando City has kicked off the last two matches — the home victory against Vancouver Whitecaps and the draw at New York City FC — in the 4-3-3 with one attacking change as the sole variance. The Whitecaps came into Orlando City Stadium hoping for a point on the road and thus parked the bus defensively the entire match, looking to catch a break on the counter attack.
Not only did the Lions’ back line, consisting of newcomers Joao Moutinho, Robin Jansson, and Ruan, with sophomore Lamine Sane, deal with any possible counters, they held Vancouver to six total shots with only two on goal. Ruan in particular put on an excellent performance, receiving a grade of 8.5 from The Mane Land’s Andrew Sharp who had the following to say about the potential Man of the Match.
“Ruan was everywhere today. He made a couple of early mistakes, but did well to quickly clean both of them up himself before impressing with a very well-timed slide tackle, making a joint-high two to go along with two interceptions and one clearance. The change in shape should have meant Ruan had slightly more defensive duties than normal but that didn’t stop him bombing forward — he was ever-present on the overlap, was second on the team for touches with 91, and attempted nine crosses — fewer only than Nani.”
Traveling to play NYCFC in the ridiculous attempt at a soccer pitch of Yankee Stadium presented an entirely new set of challenges for the same four defenders at the back, a quadruplet with a total of 4,360 MLS minutes between them. The home team did manage 15 shots, with five on goal and the one that really mattered, although the back line held nearly as solidly as could be expected. Moutinho had a bit of an off match, providing a 57% passing accuracy on his 60 touches, and Sane gave the Orlando City faithful a couple of mini heart attacks, including a bad touch that almost ended in the back of goalkeeper Brian Rowe’s net.
Conversely, Ruan had another great match, especially when you consider how exhausted he looked at points (both during the NYCFC and Whitecaps games) and the amount of minutes he’s seen recently without a break during the same period that he’s trying to adjust to life as an MLS player. Likewise, Jansson put in a solid shift, something that I believe we should all get used to seeing, dispensing a tackle, interception, blocked shot, and six clearances on the Pigeons offense. He did pick up a strange yellow card as well, one that our JGlash described as a shock that came “as we saw referee Drew Fischer lose control of the match.”
Two matches isn’t the biggest sample size, of course, but I’d say one goal conceded over the 180 minutes by the team that broke the MLS record for goals allowed last season shows that O’Connor might finally be on the right track with his defense. Now let’s all pray to the soccer gods that he continues the consistency in the starting lineup.