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Orlando’s Improved Midfield Faces Its Biggest Challenge Yet

The Orlando City midfield has been one of the league’s best in 2020, but has its work cut out for it vs. NYCFC.

MLS: New York City FC at Orlando City SC Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019 MLS season was a rebuilding year for Orlando City. Following a hapless 2018 that saw coach Jason Kreis lose his job, Orlando City gutted the program and restarted basically from scratch.

While several key players remained, the roster was almost unrecognizable by season’s end. Despite the many vital additions, including Nani, Robin Jansson, and Ruan, the team still couldn’t put it all together and compete, missing the playoffs yet again. The biggest weakness was by far the team’s midfield. While the defense took a huge step forward thanks to Jansson and others, the team struggled to score and much of that had to do with the midfield’s inability to link with the forward line.

A 34-year-old Sacha Kljestan was no longer the playmaker the Lions needed and saw little playing time down the stretch, while a combination of young newcomer Sebas Mendez, Uri Rosell, and Will Johnson were incredibly limited going forward. Towards the end of the summer transfer window, however, the team’s fortunes began to change, thanks to the addition of Mauricio Pereyra on a free transfer.

While he didn’t play quite as well as a DP attacking midfielder is expected, he still finished as the team’s leading assister from midfield with three. Going into 2020, Luiz Muzzi and Co. were able to build upon 2019’s successes and construct one of Major League Soccer’s best midfield units.

The big signing was that of Junior Urso. The veteran Brazilian came with a good pedigree, arriving from one of Brazil’s biggest clubs, Corinthians. His physicality, technical ability, and leadership have been massive for a young Orlando City team, solidifying defensive midfield while being excellent in possession and transition. His signature performance against Atlanta United in late August was the best display of his talents, with his energy and fight dominating a mentally weak Atlanta team.

In addition to Urso providing the energy in the engine room of midfield, the play of a healthy Pereyra has been even better than anyone could’ve hoped. When he arrived from Krasnodar in the summer, he was nursing a bit of a knock and there wasn’t enough time to settle in and really contribute. He was just coming off a full season in Russia while also having to adjust to a new team, league, and country. With a full off-season to acclimate and rest, the Uruguayan has become one of the best players in all of MLS.

Despite battling a hamstring injury for a large chunk of the season, he still finished fifth in the league in assists with eight, though his influence is felt far beyond goal contributions. Pereyra’s incredible ability on the ball, combined with elite vision, makes him the single most important player on the entire team. His ability to pick up the ball deep and be a metronome in possession is vital to opening up space for everyone else. He was the missing link that has turned Orlando City from a frustrating side to an elite one.

While Urso and Pereyra are the main men in midfield, a rotating cast of Rosell, Mendez, Andres Perea, and even rookie Joey DeZart have also helped solidify the Lions in the center of the park. Early in the season and during the MLS is Back Tournament, it was Rosell who occupied the third starting spot amongst Pereyra and Urso, playing his best football in years and providing an excellent range of passing to complement solid defensive output.

However, an injury to Rosell challenged the depth of this team. Perea, a Tampa-born Colombian youth international on loan from Atletico Nacional in Colombia, has been supremely impressive as a role player, playing in every single match for Orlando City. When Rosell and later Pereyra were out with injuries, Perea became one of the most important players on the team, starting eight of nine matches since October. He hasn’t been particularly lethal, with only two assists and no goals, but he’s an incredibly solid player who’s improved every game. Similarly, Mendez has also been very solid in a rotational role. After starting 20 games in 2019, the young Ecuadorian has taken a backseat to the more experienced Urso but has still contributed in the minutes he’s played.

As a unit, the Orlando City midfield is the best it’s ever been. When healthy, the trio of Pereyra, Urso, and Rosell complement each other perfectly while providing a commanding veteran presence, with Perea, Mendez, and DeZart giving needed energy and cover off the bench. Not only has this been one of the most competent units in Orlando history, it’s been one of the best in the league. The Lions have been one of the best passing teams in MLS, ranking sixth in passing accuracy at 83.5% and they’ve held possession half the time (although that number is usually much better with Pereyra healthy). With a few weeks off and only one international absence (Mendez), this elite unit will be sitting pretty for Orlando’s first ever playoff appearance. But the competition ahead will be this midfield’s greatest challenge yet.

New York City FC has been a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference for a few years, and that’s largely on the back of the team’s own midfield excellence. Following a failed mix of aging superstars Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard early in their existence, the Pigeons have found immense success with the acquisition of Maxi Moralez and Alexander Ring. The pair of veteran midfielders made their MLS debuts against Orlando City three years ago and have been superstars ever since.

Moralez has been one of the premier playmakers in MLS with 34 regular-season assists with the Pigeons. The diminutive Argentine has been injured for much of the 2020 campaign but has gone the full 90 in the last four games for New York — the team’s best stretch of play of the season, including eight goals in the last two matches.

The return of Moralez leading the attacking charge has also allowed Ring to get back to his best. The Finnish international, who has served as club captain the past two years, is often regarded as one of the best defensive midfielders in the entire league, but is very good box to box. He loves a shot from distance and has shown elite playmaking from a deep position.

With Moralez injured, Ring was forced far higher up the pitch, but with NYCFC’s star playmaker back, it’s brought balance back to the midfield. The two veterans are complemented by an excellent youngster in Keaton Parks. The 23-year-old American midfielder arrived on loan in 2019 from Portuguese giants Benfica, and has been a huge acquisition. He’s proven to be an essential figure in the midfield, starting 20 games this season and bolstering what many consider the best midfield trio in MLS.

The match-up in the middle of the pitch Saturday will be an absolute masterclass. Assuming everyone is fit and ready, a fairly safe assumption by all reports (but this is 2020), this will be an absolute delight. Both units are incredibly fluid and competent going both ways. Ring and Parks will be a challenge to break through when the Lions have the ball, and Moralez will be the most important player to stop the other way.

For Orlando, it will be important to use pressure to disrupt the rhythm of the visitors’ passing and not let this unit assert its will. There will be times when both teams are in command and on the front foot, but the more Orlando is in control, the better. If Pereyra can do what he does best and find the linking balls and combine with Nani, Chris Mueller, and company, it will make things incredibly challenging for Ring and the New York defense.

However, it’s imperative to limit Moralez’s touches. Urso and one of Rosell or Perea will have to be very physical with Maxi before he’s able to create chances for New York’s red hot front three.

There are many match-ups to watch on Saturday, but the battle in the middle will be the most enjoyable. In many ways these are similar units both playing very well that want to assert themselves. It will be an absolute battle for control of this game, and it’s up to the new-look Orlando midfield to set the tone against an elite group. If the Lions want to find playoff glory for the first time in the team’s MLS history, it’s vital they find an edge in the midfield, but that’s much easier said than done.