Since making the jump to MLS, defense has never been a strong suit for Orlando City. In the USL days, the Lions had the best goal differential every year. While they made their name from the high-powered offense, Orlando also had the best defense in the league every year except for 2013.
Since 2015, when the Lions joined MLS, a different script has been written. Orlando has consistently had one of the worst defenses in the league. In 2018 the team broke the league record for most goals allowed in a season with 74. FC Cincinnati one-upped them in 2019 by allowing 75 goals.
But 2019 was a massive year for Orlando defensively. The Lions allowed their fewest goals since they were in the lower league. Goalkeeper Brian Rowe wasn’t spectacular in net but did what was needed. Lamine Sané and Robin Jansson were an imposing center back pairing who were forces in the air and in one-on-one situations. The fullbacks were not the greatest defensively but recovered well and were very good on the attacking side of the ball. Ruan’s speed was also a tremendous catalyst as he was able to get back and make countless recovery runs.
Following the season, then-head coach James O’Connor was fired, and another rebuild started. With that, many of the key defensive pieces were also gone. Many of these players’ contracts were presumably not exercised for budgetary reasons. The biggest defensive names who will not return in 2020 are Will Johnson, Cristian Higuita, Sané, Carlos Ascues, and Danilo Acosta.
When it was announced that these players will not be on the team in 2020, it looked as if the significant forward strides that Orlando made defensively in 2019 would be lost. Then, the team started making moves.
The team re-signed Alex De John and Ruan. The right back was crucial to Orlando in 2019 and looked to be the fastest player in the league. De John only made six starts, but provided ample depth and was key in the U.S. Open Cup. Orlando also re-signed Uri Rosell, who should play an important role as a defensive midfielder.
Youngsters Kamal Miller and João Moutinho made huge strides last season. Miller broke into the Canadian Men’s National Team, and Moutinho was a regular starter, when healthy. Both are under contract.
These are all reasons that make it seem that Orlando’s defense will continue to improve. However, the biggest reason to believe in Orlando’s defense is because of two new players who were signed — defender Antônio Carlos and goalkeeper Pedro Gallese.
Both players are expected to be starters this upcoming season. Carlos is a quick, agile center back. He can make sliding, recovery tackles and can read the game exceptionally well. Gallese has the potential to be the best goalkeeper in Orlando City history. The Octopus has that something special in him to pull out highlight-reel saves with his remarkable athleticism.
It looks like the back four will consist of Moutinho, Jansson, Carlos, and Ruan, with Gallese in net. Miller could also play outside back if needed, albeit he is much more effective in the center. New signing Rodrigo Schlegel, returning defender Kyle Smith, Miller, and De John fill in the back line with all-important depth.
Another vital piece of the defense will be Orlando’s newly rebuilt midfield. When teams allow goals, the defense typically gets the blame. However, more times than not, the first mistake happened in the midfield. The Lions brought in quality midfielders this off-season, which should also have a positive effect on the defense. Junior Urso and Andrés Perea bring experience and youthful energy, respectively, and will fill in the central midfield rotation nicely with Rosell and Sebas Mendez.
The magic number for Orlando is 45. Since 2011, only one Eastern Conference team has failed to make the playoffs after allowing fewer than 45 goals in a season. It is not an easy task, as no more than four teams have allowed 45 goals or fewer in the conference since 2013. In a 34-game season, that means Orlando will have to allow an average of 1.3 goals per game or fewer. The pieces are in place for Orlando to do that, but will they coalesce quickly, allowing the Lions to achieve it in another rebuild year?