The 2020 season is all but over, with only MLS Cup to come. Orlando City got a lot closer to this weekend’s game than anyone expected at the start of the year, but came up a bit short.
With the season now in the rearview mirror, I reached out to the full staff of The Mane Land to find out what we’re all thinking ahead of the Lions’ sixth season in MLS. Not everyone responded but those who did are represented below in full. Since I usually cherry pick the best answers, this will be longer than the usual roundtable piece.
At the beginning of the season our staff was split between those who thought Orlando City would barely make the playoffs and those who thought the team would finish just below the playoff places. How surprised were you at how quickly Oscar Pareja was able to get complete buy-in from a team that brought a lot of pieces back?
David Rohe: As one of those who thought the Lions would just make it in over the playoff line, I was definitely surprised how far above the line the club was. I don’t believe anyone thought Pareja would be able to turn things around as quickly as he did, for exactly the reasons posed in the question. To bring as many players back and to then have such a night and day difference in not only results, but also in the positive attitude that this club has was nothing short of astonishing. To then deal with COVID-19, the loss of Dom Dwyer to injury, numerous other injuries, and PRO referees, is a testament to the job that Pareja did this season.
Sean Rollins: I was very surprised at the team’s improvement, though they had help. The fact that the MLS is Back Tournament was near home was helpful and they got to play home games in front of fans. Next year will be the true test to see if the team is in the right path.
Christopher Adams: Last season was rough, but I had a feeling that this team was better than its record indicated. Several players looked good, including Robin Jansson, Ruan, and Nani, and there were moments that led me to believe this team could be much better in 2020. So I’m not surprised that this team was a playoff contender, I am a little surprised just how much things changed with Pareja. There’s a whole different culture, a different feel to Orlando than ever before, and on the field they played their best soccer ever at points. When they were healthy and in a rhythm, especially during the MLS Is Back Tournament, this team wasn’t just successful but they looked every part an elite, championship-caliber team. I knew this team could compete, but I didn’t know they could compete at this level.
Ben Miller: I wasn’t necessarily surprised with the speed with which Pareja got everyone to buy in, but I definitely was surprised at just how good the team was once everyone was bought in and the team was playing at full strength. I credit a lot of that to Pareja’s system and the players’ belief in it. I thought the team would be improved but not to the extent that it was, and that’s what surprised me the most.
Daniel Finton: It was incredible to see just how quickly Pareja was able to transform the side, I was extremely surprised. After the first two matches resulted in a 0-0 stalemate to Real Salt Lake at home and a 2-1 loss to the Colorado Rapids away, it seemed like more of the same hardships were set to persist. However, the Lions have obviously been galvanized by his appointment and Pareja looks an absolute coup.
Guilherme Torres: Pareja did a great job this year. His contribution to the success of the team was arguably greater than any player on the roster. The most important thing the coach did was establishing a clear way for the team to play, which was always there regardless of the lineup. He also succeeded in getting more from players who had underperformed the years before. Hats off too to Orlando City’s front office and scouting department, which were extremely precise in identifying and bringing in the right players in 2020.
Joshua Taylor: I was very surprised how Oscar Pareja was able to get his team to buy in to believing that they can win no matter what. Despite their playoff run coming to an end, Pareja still accomplished a lot in his first year with the Lions. Changing the mentality of this team to play better, no matter the obstacle, was impressive to me. This team came close to winning the MLS is Back Tournament, had a shot at the Supporters’ Shield, and nearly finished with the most points in club history. I thought before the season the team would barely make the playoffs but this team clearly redefined expectations after its run in the MLS is Back Tournament. In what was a historic season for the Lions, you’d have to say Pareja got the best out of his team this year after making its first playoff appearance and now the Lions have hope and a bright future ahead of the 2021 season.
Marcus Mitchell: The time off between the team’s first two matches of the season and the MLS is Back Tournament definitely helped Pareja instill the kind of mentality he wanted the players to have, as well as get the players up to the fitness level needed to run his style of play. Still, the Lions became a cohesive unit much more quickly than I expected and Pareja deserves plenty of praise for managing that in the midst of a pandemic. There weren’t too many new Lions on the roster, yet they looked like a new and exciting team under Pareja.
My Take: The staff covered this pretty well. Papi not only got the team to buy in to what he wanted them to do, but he did it more quickly than I thought possible. This team had a bond you don’t often see. They genuinely loved and supported one another like brothers and they held themselves as accountable as their teammates, so even if fans were freaking out if a starter wasn’t available, the players simply expected the same level of quality — and usually got it. Great job by Pareja.
Who was the team’s most valuable player in 2020 and why?
Dave: As much as I want to give this accolade to Mauricio Pereyra, I have to give the nod to Nani. I know that there are those still upset with his PK misses, and how he sometimes seems to ask for calls that just aren’t coming, but he was without a doubt the leader of this club. To a man, the rest of the players point to him as the example, and the inspiration for a lot of what happened this year. Despite his age and faults (we all deal with those), he often stepped up in the important moments and delivered. He also did a lot of instruction during matches, helping the players develop over the course of the season. It may well be I’ll have a different answer next season, but the captain wins it this year.
Sean: Despite being sent off against New England, my MVP was Pereyra. He came in midsession last year but showed his quality this season and how he can affect the team. He draws attention in the final third and sets up opportunities for Mueller and Daryl Dike.
Topher: It’s easy to say Nani given how talented he is and how important he is from a leadership perspective, but I’m actually going with Pereyra. My biggest gripe with this team for years has been the inability to connect the defense to the offense. But with Pereyra, this team flows so much better. He’s had a Nico Lodeiro-esque influence on this team, picking up the ball deep and spurring counter-attacks while also being a calming presence in the final third. His vision is impeccable and his class with the ball is elite. Not since Kaká has this team had a legitimate number 10 and it has completely changed this team.
Ben: Pereyra. He brings so much creativity to the table on the offensive side of the ball, and Orlando is a completely different team when he isn’t on the field. It wasn’t a coincidence that the Lions struggled to score in the stretch of games that he was unavailable, and he was perhaps the worst person who could have been sent off in the Eastern Conference semifinals as it totally blunted the team’s attack (in addition to obviously going down a man). My second choice here would be Pedro Gallese, but Pereyra makes such a difference in the attack that I have to go with him. His ability to pick a pass like his game-winning assist to Dike against Montreal is something that no other player on the team is capable of doing, and that’s hugely important.
Daniel: I would have to say Nani. The captain led from the front and helped bring the side to new heights. Additionally, he instilled an air of confidence with his presence into the side — one that I’ve not yet seen in the team before.
Guilherme: It has to be Mueller. Nani and Pereyra had great seasons too, but Cash had fantastic production with 10 goals and seven assists and his energy level helped him fulfill defensive duties the veterans weren’t required to.
Joshua: Mueller really improved this season in his third year with the club. After fluctuating between starter and super sub the first two seasons, he earned Pareja’s trust and finished the year leading the team with 10 goals. He only had eight goals in his first two seasons, so having a breakout year in 2020 and getting a call-up to the U.S. Men’s National Team is worthy of being the team MVP this season.
Marcus Mitchell: It’s weird not having a clear and obvious choice for this like past seasons. The team was well rounded from top to bottom and plenty of players stepped up when others were injured or playing internationally. That being said, I have to go with Nani. As proven in the MLS is Back Tournament, he has the ability to completely change the course of a game and make magic happen. Chris Mueller has made great strides, I’m just not sure if the team relies on him as much as it does on Nani.
My Take: I don’t think one needs to look any further than Orlando City’s record when Pereyra started to see who the team’s MVP was. The Uruguayan is vital to possession and turning nothing into a suddenly dangerous opportunity. Games without him were much more of a slog offensively.
Who was the team’s newcomer of the year?
Dave: This has to be Daryl Dike. He was utterly robbed of the now defunct Rookie of the Year award when MLS changed it to Young Player of the Year to make sure Dike didn’t win it (he still came in Top 3). The goals, the hold-up play, the improvement he showed from start to finish, and the excellent celebrations made this one surprisingly easy for me in a year with a lot of great performances.
Sean: I would have to have two players share Newcomer of the Year. Gallese was fantastic in goal this season. They wouldn’t have been the four seed in the East or advanced past New York City FC without him. Antonio Carlos is my other Newcomer of the Year. Orlando City has had trouble finding the right center back pairing but Carlos was fantastic alongside Jansson. Together, they turned a weakness into a strength.
Topher: Credit to Dike, who deserves a shout for this, but it has to be Carlos. The big Brazilian has improved this defense and has been a stable presence in the back. When Orlando gets expansive and pushes the fullbacks high and gets bodies forward, Carlos has been instrumental in stopping opposition counter attacks. In settled situations, his size and strength have been helpful in defending aerial balls into the box. Perhaps equally valuable is his ability on the ball. His passing and deceptive skill played an important role in Orlando being able to play out from the back and holding onto possession. He’s been one of the best center backs in all of MLS and I’m so excited to see him grow with this core in the foreseeable future.
Ben: There are several good choices here, and while I’m tempted to say Junior Urso or Gallese, I’m going to go with Dike. While he was the fifth overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft, I don’t think anyone expected him to have the kind of year he did. After Dwyer was lost for the season due to surgery it was anyone’s guess as to where goals and consistent striker play would come from, but Dike answered that question emphatically. With Gallese being Peru’s starting keeper I sort of expected him to have a great year, but Dike’s performance caught me off guard which is why I have to go with him.
Daniel: It has to be Dike. The big man has been tremendous since abruptly bursting onto the scene.
Guilherme: Gallese. Orlando City got it right with a lot of the signings the team made this year, but nothing beats the Peruvian. Gallese is a starter for the Peruvian national team and brought a great amount of international experience to the team, besides solving what seemed to be a never-ending problem for the Lions between the sticks.
Joshua: Urso made a big improvement to the midfield since he transferred from Corinthians back in January. He was able to bring leadership to a young squad, solidifying the midfield with Pereyra, and bringing that energy and passion on the field. Urso scored a few clutch goals for the Lions this year and helping the team beat rival Atlanta United has to make this season feel much better.
Marcus: While Gallese was impressive, I’m going with Carlos. He started 18 games in the regular season and formed a strong bond with Jansson to anchor the defense. Carlos was a force in the air and displayed skill when it came to timing tackles in dangerous areas. He had a goal and an assist as well and gave a glimpse of what’s to come in the future.
My Take: There were lots of good choices here. I thought about this for a while and what it came down to for me was this: which of the new players’ absences scared me the most? It was Gallese. It felt less risky when El Pulpo was between the sticks than when any of the other new players were missing. Dike was a close second, followed by Carlos. I thought Schlegel was a great fill-in for either center back, so Carlos being out didn’t scare me as much.
Which player surprised you the most in 2020?
Dave: Kyle Smith does not get enough credit in my opinion. He was Pareja’s Swiss Army tool. Left back, right back, or midfield, it didn’t matter. Sometimes it was more than one position within a match! He gave as much effort as anyone on the pitch, and at times he had to replace either Ruan or Joao Moutinho. That is not an easy thing to do since he’s not as fast as either of them, and yet there wasn’t a giant drop-off with him there. He had several key defensive plays through the year and even got Man of the Match honors in Orlando City’s 3-1 win over the New York Red Bulls from The Mane Land, and both Michael and I on The Mane Land PawedCast.
Sean: I was most surprised this season by Dike. He was very good at Virginia but I didn’t think he’d be this good this early in his career. He knows how to use his big frame and does so very well. It usually takes time for players to learn that skill but he picked it up right away.
Topher: Smith has blown me away this season. He wasn’t an elite player by any stretch of the imagination, but he was way better than I ever expected. Last season, Smith was one of my least favorite players on the entire team. Everything about him screamed minor leaguer and I didn’t think he should’ve been playing at this level. However, he has completely changed my mind. This guy was an absolute team player, doing anything and everything asked of him, playing on both flanks, playing heavy minutes when Moutinho got injured, and he was a vital piece down the stretch. He’s still not a great MLS player, but he has 100% deserved a spot in this team. He’s more of a defensive option than Moutinho or Ruan, but his offensive ability has improved even if it’s still not that great. Every team in MLS needs a few players who are tough and versatile, and Smith is that guy for Orlando.
Ben: Andres Perea surprised me the most. Sure he had logged 14 appearances with Atletico Nacional before joining the Lions, but with Pereyra, Uri Rosell, Sebas Mendez, and Urso all ahead of him in midfield I didn’t see how he fit into the picture. Well, he logged 1,190 minutes across 23 regular season games, notched two assists, and played in both playoff games so he fit in pretty damn nicely. He usually displayed a large amount of poise on the ball and more often than not was a calming presence in the midfield. I didn’t see this coming at all, and I’m glad that he was brought in on a permanent basis.
Daniel: Definitely Pereyra. The way the Uruguayan established himself as a potent creative threat so quickly was incredible and surprised me greatly. It’s good news that the club signed the DP to a contract extension. Let’s hope he can continue this seasons success next time around.
Guilherme: Dike. Anyone saying they expected the rookie striker to bag eight goals in his first professional season and make Dwyer completely expendable would be lying. Dike’s physical and technical tools were there for anyone to see, but between having the tools and using them properly in a rookie season there’s a considerable difference. Perea was a close second. I didn’t expect to see him having such a prominent role with the team this season.
Joshua: Dike really surprised me this season. Even though we only saw him in limited action in the MLS is Back Tournament during the round of 16 match against the Montreal Impact in July, a month later he made two goal contributions for the Lions against Inter Miami CF, and days later against Nashville SC, he scored his first brace for the team. Dike became the first Orlando City rookie to score in each of his first two professional starts. I figured being his first year in the league it would take him time to develop but to end the year with eight goals, be a finalist for the MLS Young Player of the Year Award, and getting a call-up to the USMNT definitely shows how quickly Dike has developed in his first year with the Lions.
Marcus: It has to be Mueller, who broke through what I thought was his ceiling and kept going. He obviously benefits from great attacking players around him, but the team wasn’t too different from last season and he managed career highs in goals and assists during a shortened season. Center back Rodrigo Schlegel also deserves some recognition here, and not just for those heroics in goal. Schlegel did well in 10 regular season appearances and gave the Lions needed depth on defense when required.
My Take: I have to agree with Marcus about Mueller. I thought Cash was fairly close to his ceiling but he found a new gear in 2020. However, for me, an even bigger surprise was Perea. That felt like a depth signing to me and yet he played in every regular season and playoff game for Orlando City this season. Part of that was due to other players’ absences, but it was mainly due to his versatility. He played the 6, the 8, and even some attacking midfield. Now, if he can just figure out where the net is...
What is the position group that needs the most improvement heading into 2021?
Dave: The forwards are the position of need. Daryl Dike came on strong and I anticipate he will continue to grow — skill-wise, obviously, because if he gets any bigger physically, MLS defenders will be in a lot of trouble. I look for the front office to bring in a more veteran striker to replace Dwyer, in addition to integrating Matheus Aias and Alexader Alvarado. With Nani, Pereyra, Mueller, Ruan, and Moutinho all able to deliver balls into the box, the Lions need some strikers to put the ball into the net.
Sean: The position group needing the most work is up top. Most of Orlando City’s attack comes from the midfield. It was a tough year for Tesho Akindele and Dom Dwyer (due to injury), putting most of the responsibility on a rookie. The team needs better production up there so that Mueller and Nani can create out of the midfield.
Topher: I’ve written about how good this midfield is, but after the last few games of the season, I think they need a little more. Pereyra has been great when healthy and Urso is an excellent player, but outside of that I’m not completely convinced. Rosell had great moments when he was healthy, but after coming back he was no longer that guy. If this team is to have sustained success, they need that third midfield option to be consistently good. A lot of that could be solved if Perea and Mendez continue to develop into the stars they’re capable of becoming. Joey DeZart could be an option there, and it’s possible that Rosell gets back to his MLS is Back form. It’s also important to note that both Perea and Mendez could miss significant time next season due to international duty, with Olympic qualifying potentially affecting Perea, either for Colombia or the U.S., while Mendez will likely miss time for the Copa America. It’ll be important for the Lions to sure up their depth, either from within or in the transfer market, to make sure their trio is able to control the game all season.
Ben: Striker. Dike’s emergence was welcome, but there doesn’t seem to be a reliable goal-scoring threat at that position aside from him. Maybe Mueller has another 10-goal year and helps lighten the load, but that isn’t necessarily a guarantee. Benji Michel usually seems to have a goal in him, but like Mueller and Nani he seems to do a lot of his best work when deployed in wide areas. I like Akindele but his 10-goal season last year looks to have been the exception rather than the rule. The Lions probably need to bring in a striker who’s capable of getting seven to eight goals if they want to improve on this season.
Daniel: I would probably say up front. I personally believe the side could use a new striker, especially with Dwyer entering free agency. The midfield and defense are solid enough as of now, so I’d say the forward area could use some beefing up and improvement. It’s not fair to rely on such a young player like Dike week in and out and could actually negatively impact him in the long run.
Guilherme: I think Orlando enters this off-season in a good position — at least much better than the years before. The Lions don’t have a clear and obvious need, but could certainly use some depth in certain areas of the field. Bringing in a veteran, established striker to compete with Dike up top is a no-brainer, but outside of that, I’d say another winger and a defender, who could be either a center back or a left back due to Kamal Miller’s versatility.
Joshua: The forward position. One area of concern for the Lions this past season was shots on target where the team had 118 total shots on target for the season and averaged 4.1 per game which ranked 18th in MLS. There were times where Orlando dominated possession but was not able to apply the finishing blow in crucial matches. Nani, Mueller, and Dike carried the bulk of goals this year but the team may be one more striker away to put it over the top and bring the MLS Cup to Orlando.
Marcus: I’m not worried about the attack, especially once Matheus Aias fits in. The fullbacks have me a little concerned, but that hinges more on Moutinho’s health more than anything and Smith really proved his worth this year. If I had to pick a group, it would be the defensive midfielders. Urso had the second most minutes on the team and was great in his first year in Orlando, but the team looked understandably weaker when Mendez was in Ecuador and Rosell was nursing an injury. Rookie DeZart did well but some added depth or consistency on that part of the roster would be nice.
My Take: Surprisingly, I’m not going to say forward. I do think it would be a good idea to add either a veteran willing to take a reduced bench/spot start role or a DP type a la Carlos Vela, Diego Valeri, Josef Martinez, etc. I don’t agree with Marcus about the defensive midfield. I think the team is set in that area but it would be helpful if the pieces all stay healthy. That area was hit hard at times in 2020. I’m going with attacking midfield/wing. The Lions played guys like Robinho and Perea in those roles this year when having to rotate the squad and the drop in attacking quality was noticeable. A serviceable backup for Pereyra is especially important because he’s not getting any younger and he’s already dealt with some injury issues in his season and a half in Orlando.
Which players do you expect to see the most improvement from in 2021?
Dave: Aias and Alexander Alvarado are the easy choices, as they haven’t really had enough time to integrate into the club. I think we will continue to see improvement from Perea and Kamal Miller as well. Honestly, I think we’ll see improvement from nearly all the players in that the cohesion we saw this year will be even better in 2021.
Sean: The most improvement in 2021 will hopefully come from Dike. Dwyer is gone and Akindele doesn’t seem to be the answer. Dike is young and has the ability to improve. If his finishing is better next year, he could become an unstoppable force in the league.
Topher: I expect to see several young players to make big strides in 2021. Pareja has a track record from Dallas and even Colorado developing young talent, and I expect that to continue taking shape over the course of next season. Dike had a strong start to his career, but with another offseason and more experience, he’s going to get even better. Michel is another player who grew a lot in 2020, but he might take another big step forward. Who I’m really excited to see and think will make serious strides are the academy players. Jordan Bender, David Loera, and Michael Halliday are all relatively unknown commodities, but with an off-season spent training in the first team, and more experience as professionals, they could start to really break into the team and make serious contributions. Of that three, I’d expect Bender to really make some noise. He started against Nashville in the final game of the regular season, and showed promise. The odds of him starting regularly over Nani or Mueller are unlikely, but he’s got a real shot to become a valuable bench option who can give needed rest to an aging Nani or for Mueller if he’s on international duty.
Ben: I fully expect Dike to improve quite a lot on what we saw this year. He seemed to wear down a bit after earning the right to start consistently, and that’s understandable in his first year as a professional. He now has a better idea of what it takes to consistently succeed in MLS from a physical standpoint, and he’ll have a whole off-season to work on developing both his body and his skills. If he’s able to continue to improve in terms of his first touch, decision-making, and finishing ability, then I think he’ll have a great year in 2021 and I fully expect those things to happen. I also think Perea will be better and play a bigger part next year after having time to put some muscle on a frame that leans toward being a little slight. Both he and Dike are so young that I think they have a lot of room to grow, and I think they’ll do just that.
Daniel: Mueller. He just seems to get better and better every season. The 24-year-old deserved the national team call-up he received and it seems like the sky is the limit for him. Mueller has all of the physical attributes to be a top-class player in the future. He just has to work on his decision-making and end product, which may come with age.
Guilherme: I hope we some improvement from Dike. Orlando could certainly benefit from that. He can do a lot better from a technical standpoint and if he can add that to his athleticism, it would be huge. I believe Alvarado is a good bet too. He played in only 50 minutes this season and with a preseason under his belt, he should be in position to live up to the expectations the club has for him.
Joshua: Michel is a player I could see improving for next season. Like Mueller in his third season this year, I can see Michel having a breakout year next season and he could get double digit goals. Michel scored his penalty kick in round one in the 2020 MLS Cup playoffs, scored a game-winning goal against the Columbus Crew to clinch a home playoff game, and has already scored 12 goals in all competitions since joining the club in 2019.
Marcus: It’s a toss up between Akindele and Michel for me. Both seem to fit in well with how Pareja wants the team to play. More teams will have their eyes on Mueller and Dike next season, which may open the door for Akindele and Michel to find some openings. Although they are in different stages of their careers, both are fighting for minutes as forwards in a lucrative Orlando offense.
My Take: Perea is a guy I’d most expect to see get even better in 2021. At just 20 years old, I think he’s still got a ton of upside. Alvarado is a guy I find intriguing and his brief appearances at the end of the season left me wanting to see more. As for Dike, I am always cognizant of the sophomore slump and teams getting a better handle on how to defend him. If the big fella can avoid that and improve on his game, it will be huge for Orlando next season.
And there you have it. Our staff — most of it, anyway — sums up the 2020 season that was. It was a better one than we expected and yet it still somehow left us wanting more. As I always say, only one team’s fans get to be happy at the end of the year. And now there is at least some hope that Orlando’s fans could be those lucky ones in the near future.
Feel free to weigh in on these questions below in the comments section.