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Will Orlando City’s Role Players Step Up In the Biggest Game of the Season?

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With Pedro Gallese and Ruan suspended for the conference semifinals, can the squad players make the needed plays to advance?

MLS: New York City FC at Orlando City SC Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

As we move further away from the lunacy that was Saturday, a harsh reality is beginning to set in. Heading into its first ever Eastern Conference semifinal match-up, Orlando City will be missing two vitally important players in Ruan and Pedro Gallese.

While the situation with Gallese is strange and Orlando City is allegedly appealing the red card, by the letter of the law it was the correct handling of the situation. Major League Soccer is currently operating under the 2019-2020 IFAB rules, which state that if a goalkeeper is off his line early on a penalty, it’s a yellow card. By law, it was correct for Gallese to receive the second yellow card, and the sending off will likely stand. However, it’s incredibly brutal to jeopardize a team’s entire season due to a rule that is now outdated everywhere else in the world.

There’s no need to discuss Ruan’s red card, it was an egregious decision that could see him suspended multiple games. Fair or not, Orlando City is without two of the best players on the team, putting a mountain of responsibility on a pair of role players: Brian Rowe and Kyle Smith.

Rowe is not a bad goalkeeper. He’s played more than 100 MLS games over the course of a 10-year career, he started for the LA Galaxy in the 2016 playoffs, and his first season in Orlando was fairly solid as well, with seven clean sheets in 32 starts for a struggling team. As far as second-choice shot stoppers go, you could do a whole lot worse.

For as good as Rowe is, he’s not Gallese. El Pulpo is undeniably one of the best goalkeepers in MLS. I’d go as far as to say that only Andre Blake and Eloy Room are as capable of saving games the way Gallese does. Seemingly every game, he makes a save that puts your jaw on the floor. Per Transfermarkt, he’s the most valuable keeper in MLS by some distance, and that’ll be hard to replace.

If Orlando continues to concede quality opportunities, the Lions will need their goalkeeper to be special. Can Rowe do that? Probably not. But if Orlando’s defense plays the way it did in the second half on Saturday and forces opponents to try something brilliant, Rowe is good enough to hold his own. He doesn’t have the reach or explosiveness of Gallese, but he can do enough to win this game if the defense keeps it reasonable.

Missing Ruan is just as big as Gallese, especially going forward. Ruan is one of the best offensive fullbacks in the league — that’s not a question. While he only registered three assists, his pace and ability on the ball make him a nightmare on the right flank. His connection with Chris Mueller is also vitally important as their interplay and overlapping runs have been massively effective throughout the season.

While he’s not as good defensively, Ruan’s speed and toughness have allowed him to recover and make countless big plays on the back end. Smith is not Ruan. Shocking I know, but having Smith at right back instead of Ruan changes everything. Smith has been a solid defensive player in his limited stint in MLS and has provided a lot of heart and versatility for this team. He’s the type of player I love having on a team because you know he’ll do whatever you need him to do. But he has nowhere near the pace or offensive prowess of his Brazillian counterpart.

When Smith is out there, even more of the burden will be placed on Mueller and Nani to create in wide areas. The good news for Orlando is that there’s a chance that left back Joao Moutinho could be back in the lineup after an extended absence, but even if he’s available, how much can be realistically expected right away? And if Moutinho doesn’t play, the offensive firepower will be almost nonexistent from the fullback position, with Smith and Kamal Miller both being defensively minded players with relatively limited offensive and technical capabilities.

I don’t want it to sound like Orlando is screwed without Ruan or that I don’t like Smith or Miller, because I think they’re both good players, and could even provide a spark going forward, but it is undeniable the drop-off in quality without Ruan and Moutinho.

If there’s one silver lining for Orlando and its forced rotation, it’s the experience. With the craziness that has been 2020, the Lions have rotated heavily throughout the year, meaning Smith and others have seen meaningful action this season.

Smith has been first choice fullback off the bench on either side, and has played over 1,000 minutes this season. As for Rowe, he’s mostly rode the bench behind Gallese but has made four starts, filling in for the Peruvian international. Oscar Pareja has full faith in his squad players to step in and succeed, and he’s shown it all season long. It’s time to see if these players can repay their skipper’s faith and deliver in the biggest game in club history.