There are 12 days in between this weekend’s match at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the palatial home of the Atlanta Falcons, and the Friday night visit of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s LA Galaxy on May 24. In between, the Lions will also face a trip out to Cascadia for a midweek match-up against the Sounders and play host to MLS new boys FC Cincinnati in Orlando.
It’s a brutal schedule that comes as standard in MLS. It’s something that James O’Connor and his staff will already have planned for in terms of lineups and playing time. Not least after he admitted his team “lacked energy” in the second half against Toronto and “there’s a couple of days maybe we pushed a little bit too hard.” In a season that has seen the Irishman carefully manage the minutes of several key players, there’s a strong probability that the next series of games will see something similar to prevent burnout. As a result, the next few weeks are huge for the future of several Orlando City players.
Goalkeeper Brian Rowe has played all 900 minutes the Lions have played this year. I wouldn’t expect that to change. Through 10 games he has been modestly solid so there is no reason for form to push him out, the position doesn’t exert the same level of intensity as outfield positions so he doesn’t need a rest, and, perhaps most importantly, the stability and familiarity of having the same starting goalkeeper is conducive to better defensive performances. There’s hope that Adam Grinwis or Greg Ranjitsingh will get their chance in the U.S. Open Cup but for now they must wait. That’s just the life of a goalkeeper.
The next most used players are Ruan, Nani, and Sebas Méndez. They are the only outfield players to have already reached 700 minutes in Orlando’s 10 MLS games this year and also the only players to have started eight games in 2019. Yet, despite their current form, all that might change.
Ruan hit the deck late in this past weekend’s game against Toronto, seemingly with a cramp, and understandably so. Since the right back’s debut substitute appearance in Week 2 against the Chicago Fire, he has played every minute and has given his everything in them, but now his attacking fullback duties seem to be taking a physical toll. Ruan’s direct replacement would be Kyle Smith, an off-season acquisition from O’Connor’s former USL team, Louisville City.
Smith started the first two games of the season, but after a couple of poor performances he has been resigned to the bench behind the Brazilian, seeing 15 minutes total playing time in three appearances — all as a late defensive sub to shut up shop in City’s three victories. Expect Smith to get a second bite at the cherry and prove he can cope in MLS in the upcoming run of games, more out of necessity than merit. The same to a lesser extent can be said for Danilo Acosta, although I don’t see the gap between he and Joao Moutinho as much of a step down as Ruan to Smith.
Latest Designated Player signing Nani has been Orlando’s star man in the opening 10 weeks of the season, leading the team in goals with five. He has played in all 10 matches, starting eight of them. His substitute appearances came in the season opener with O’Connor not deciding to throw his new arrival in from the start, and under more controversial circumstances away at Real Salt Lake. But having also played 2,232 minutes in Portugal this season with no break, I’d be surprised to see O’Connor let Nani go the full 90 in all of the next four matches. However, it may be to the detriment of the team to not start the Portuguese international. The problem the team must therefore negotiate is balancing the short term with long term. For example, does Nani play 60 minutes in each or does he alternate a full 90 with a 30-minute substitute appearance? There’s no real direct replacement in the wide areas, especially not at his level, but forward is probably the one spot Orlando did the most work to improve in the off-season — more on that later.
Finally, Méndez, who has formed a strong midfield trio with Uri Rosell and Will Johnson, having started three consecutive games together since the switch to a 4–3–3 formation. Méndez and Rosell have performed especially well and now lead the team in passes, averaging 52 and 53 per game, respectively. To me, Méndez looks the least likely out of him, Ruan, and Nani to have his playing time curtailed with no signs of fatigue from the 22-year-old Ecuadorian international. That being said, the Lions roster is arguably deepest at central midfield so it may also seem strange that it’s the area that has so far seen the least rotation.
So, while there are some players in danger of being overworked in the upcoming stretch, the flip side is that four Orlando City outfield players are yet to earn their first start in MLS this season and five have not yet amassed 90 minutes total playing time. Dillon Powers is cutting much the figure of the forgotten man at the moment. The 2013 MLS Rookie of the Year has yet to be named in a match day squad this year after only managing 68 minutes last season. He’s a useful depth option but not one we’re likely to see bar an injury crisis.
The more intriguing names are rookies Benji Michel and Santiago Patiño, who have helped bolster O’Connor’s attacking options after the head coach lamented his thin striker group last year. But they have so far only combined for 88 minutes in three appearances. Stuck behind Dom Dwyer and Tesho Akindele in that center forward role, I think one if not both will likely see their playing time increase over the next few weeks — even if Dwyer and Akindele stay fit.
Dwyer has only started in half of his 10 appearances this year while Akindele has had his season briefly disrupted by injury. An off-form Dwyer has had his finishing questioned and Akindele’s early season effectiveness has already tailed off, so some fresh talent will be no bad thing, especially under the current Luiz Muzzi regime and his emphasis on developing Homegrown talent. They’d also have to find their place in a system that has more recently switched from a front two to a wider front three accommodating Nani and Chris Mueller. In effect, there are three places up for grabs between six — a backup in each spot should O’Connor chose to rotate.
Finally, and most surprisingly, both Cristian Higuita and Josué Colmán make up the final two names on the list of least playing time. Despite four appearances, Colmán has seen the third fewest amount of minutes behind Powers and Michel. For an asset with a Designated Player tag, albeit the Young DP variety, that cost the club a record fee, it seems wholly counterproductive to stunt his development to such an extreme. Since O’Connor arrived in July 2018, the Paraguayan youth international has only played 490 of a possible 2,430 minutes in MLS — a rate of 20%.
There are plenty of parallels to Ezequiel Barco. They are both 20 years old and struggled to adapt in their first year outside of South America after departing for record fees. With several high profile analysts writing Barco off as a bust at the end of last year, he now has four goals in eight appearances in 2019 despite Atlanta’s continued struggles under Frank De Boer and will miss the clash with Orlando to compete at the U-20 World Cup with Argentina.
Meanwhile, Colmán remains subjected to the occasional brief cameo at the expense of the likes of 33-year-old Sacha Kljestan, who increasingly appears to have run his course, with O’Connor deciding to bench his trusty midfield general the last three games after having only done so once in the previous 22 games Kljestan was available.
Higuita, meanwhile, has only been afforded the dignity of one appearance this season, despite seeing his contract option picked up at the end of last year and honored as the team’s leading appearance maker in preseason. It is clear that the midfielder, who was on the bubble of the Colombian national team not too long ago and is still highly rated by some around the club, including former goalkeeper-turned-analyst Miguel Gallardo, is not favored by O’Connor, who has dropped him completely from the match day squad on four occasions in 2019.
The team put itself in a tricky position before Tuesday’s window shut: by completely sidelining Higuita, the Lions have driven his trade value so far into the ground that they were unlikely to find a buyer within MLS for his $582,000 salary hit, not least at a price they liked. Despite this, MLS’ own Matt Doyle thinks enough of him to have recommended Sporting Kansas City move for him last week. Now knowing he’s staying for a little while longer, Higuita is a player that could easily slot into either one of the Méndez or Johnson roles, a true box-to-box midfielder never shy of impacting a game.
The next four games will be extremely revealing for both players as O’Connor will look to maximize the impact of his squad during the biggest test of his schedule management so far. It’s the most likely chance for them to get their opportunity to stake a claim in this side and win themselves bigger roles. If not, I doubt we see much of either of them this year. It already appears as though Higuita will leave for free at the end of his contract anyway while Colmán could be stuck in limbo, shackled to his five-year deal under an administration that refuses to develop him.
In the middle of the pack lies the central defenders, proof of just how tumultuous the back line rebuild has been. It was an area of huge inconsistency last year with the most common partnership, Amro Tarek and Lamine Sané, only appearing together six times. The same had started to occur in the beginning of 2019 but things have finally started to settle. Despite arriving last, Robin Jansson has already played the most minutes at the position, with 630, and has now played three consecutive games in tandem with Sané, who has 474 minutes under his belt. The least used is Alex DeJohn, who has seen a hamstring injury limit him to 246 minutes.
With Shane O’Neill, Kamal Miller, and Carlos Ascues also waiting in reserve, there’s plenty O’Connor could turn to but it feels like for the first time in a long while, Orlando City is building a center back partnership and I can’t see a benefit for moving away from the incumbent duo down the upcoming stretch save for another untimely injury.