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Orlando City 2020 MLS Preview

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Let’s take a look at the club’s off-season and 2020 outlook.

MLS: Chicago Fire at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 MLS season is just about upon us, and it’s time to wash those scarves, and dust off the tailgating supplies and drag them out of the garage. We’ll head back to the stadium to revisit our passion for the game and for our team this weekend as the league kicks off its 25th season and the Lions start their sixth in MLS.

As usual, a lot has happened since we last saw the Lions in a competitive match. What can we expect from Orlando City this season? Who’s going to play a major role? Which new faces will make the greatest impact? There are a lot of unknowns but as the season nears, the picture is becoming a bit clearer. Let’s take a look at what’s different in 2020.

How did Orlando City finish in 2019?

There was a bit of improvement for the Lions in 2019 over the nadir of 2018 but...

The Lions “rebounded” from their worst-ever MLS season in 2018 to finish 11th in the Eastern Conference and 22nd of the 24 teams that played in 2019. That sounds bad — and it is — but the club did manage to improve its point total over the previous season for the first time in its MLS history.

Orlando City finished 9-15-10 and on 37 points. That’s an improvement of nine points and 22 fewer goals conceded than in 2018. The Lions also posted their second-best goal differential in the league to date, albeit at just minus-eight.

James O’Connor was fired right after the season and even though it wasn’t quite the dumpster fire of 2018, you can’t call the 2019 season a success by any reasonable measure, even if some small steps forward were made.

What’s new in 2020?

The biggest addition was the hiring of Head Coach Oscar Pareja, formerly of FC Dallas and Liga MX side Club Tijuana. Pareja has had success in Major League Soccer, getting his teams to the playoffs regularly and winning the U.S. Open Cup and Supporters Shield. Pareja has the pedigree to turn the ship around, a history of working with Luiz Muzzi, and the respect of his players. Now he just needs to do what no coach has yet done — take the Lions to the postseason.

Who’s out?

With another rebuild comes more departures. Veteran midfielders Will Johnson, Sacha Kljestan, Carlos Ascues, and Cristian Higuita are all gone, along with the team’s best center back from 2019, Lamine Sané. All were costly players and their departures freed up quite a bit of cap room. Backup goalkeepers Adam Grinwis and Greg Ranjitsingh are elsewhere now, as are Shane O’Neill, Danilo Acosta, and Cam Lindley.

Who’s in?

Orlando added quite a bit of South American flavor to the roster in the off-season, with the additions of Peruvian international goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, Brazilians Antonio Carlos (center back) and Junior Urso (defensive midfielder), Colombian midfielder Andres Perea, and Argentinian center back Rodrigo Schlegel.

The team has also added youth to the system. In addition to the 19-year-old Perea, Orlando signed Jordan Bender and David Loera to Homegrown Player contracts, and drafted Generation Adidas striker Daryl Dike and midfielder Joey DeZart. The club still has a couple of 2020 MLS SuperDraft picks as of this writing.

What’s the new jersey?

Orlando City unveiled the new Heart and Sol away kits for 2020. Take a look:

What’s the big storyline to follow in 2020?

The storyline to watch is whether Dom Dwyer can find his scoring boots. He finished last year strong, which is a good sign, and he’s said all the right things during preseason. Unfortunately, he had a minor injury setback. If Dwyer can finish his opportunities in 2020, the team stands a much greater chance of taking the next step forward. Strikers (not named Carlos Vela) generally need support in the form of chance creation — as Dwyer does — but he’ll need to bury at least 13 to 15 goals if this team is going to go anywhere (and if he hopes to remain in Orlando beyond the end of his current contract).

Projected starting XI?

It’s difficult to say with certainty who the starting XI will be on opening day, but it will likely be something similar to the following (provided everyone is healthy):

4-3-3 formation:

Goalkeeper: Pedro Gallese

Defense: Ruan and Antonio Carlos look to be locks on the right, while the left is a bit more uncertain. Schlegel and Robin Jansson are battling for the center back spot opposite Carlos, while Joao Moutinho and Kamal Miller appear to have a battle going at left back. In the first open preseason game it was Ruan-Carlos-Schlegel-Miller, with Ruan pushed forward, leaving a bit of a three-man back line when in possession. I suspect Jansson will retain his starting spot and left back will depend on whether Pareja wants more attack (Moutinho) or defense (Miller).

Midfield: Junior Urso seems a sure thing, along with Mauricio Pereyra. The third spot could go a couple of ways, but it looks at this point like a two-man race between Uri Rosell and Sebas Mendez.

Forward: Nani and Dwyer are starters whenever healthy and available. The third position up top could belong to Benji Michel or Tesho Akindele. Michel played a more deep-lying role in the preseason match vs. the Montreal Impact, with Pereyra pushed into the attack more.

Expectations for 2020?

Last year, I warned that the roster didn’t appear to be an MLS 3.0 squad and that played out over the course of 2019. I said that I expected the team to make some significant steps in the right direction and I think that happened, although the Lions’ 0-4-4 finish made it look worse than it really was for the bulk of the season.

I still don’t see this overhaul as being complete. The Lions missed out on a dynamic wing player when Alex Castro went to Cruz Azul (for boatloads more money). I think the team is still deficient in that area and if Dwyer doesn’t return to scoring between 13-15 goals this season it will be a problem for Orlando. This is a team that should compete for a playoff position but I don’t see them finishing higher than sixth or seventh in the Eastern Conference unless things really come together well under Pareja. Eighth or ninth might be more realistic but progress must be made.

As I said last year, manage your expectations. Hope for the best, but be cautious in your emotional investment in the season to come.

Who is the player to watch on your team, and why?

The easy answer here is once again Nani. He showed why last year and with a better understanding of the league, the travel, his teammates, etc., he should be able to at least duplicate his 2019 numbers. Honorable mention here goes to Pereyra and Gallese.

Who’s the player fans will learn to love?

I should put Gallese in this spot because he has the potential to easily become the best goalkeeper in Orlando City’s MLS history. But that might be too easy, so I’ll look elsewhere. I’m only basing this on the preseason but I think it will be Urso. The Bear looked good in the Montreal preseason match and when he and Rosell were paired together they largely controlled the midfield and won the ball back all over the place.

How much will this roster change after the season starts?

I don’t expect much change early unless the front office can find an affordable wing player to help the offense. There doesn’t seem to be much traction on that front and some of the players involved in recent internet rumors were not seriously pursued by the club. There might be one more addition but then we’ll have to wait for the summer window, which I think will feature a higher profile move. I wouldn’t be shocked if the club pursued Fabian Castillo, who formerly played for Pareja. Castillo is reportedly under contract until mid-summer, and the Lions should have the necessary assets to move up from the No. 5 spot in the allocation ranking to acquire Castillo through the league’s allocation process.

How will summer tournaments affect Orlando City in 2020?

There’s a good chance Miller will be with the Canadian Men’s National Team at the Olympics this summer. He’ll certainly be on international duty in the second half of March during Olympic qualifying. If Canada can advance to the Concacaf final, he’ll most likely be off to Japan in July. Akindele could also be with Canada for its run toward the Olympics.

As for the month of June, Orlando could lose both Gallese (Peru) and Mendez (Ecuador) for the 2020 Copa America. Both would likely leave the Lions in early June and not return until mid-to-late July, depending on how far their countries advance. The final group stage games for Peru and Ecuador are July 1, with the knockouts starting July 4 and running up to the final on July 12. The stupid, but fun, thing about this year’s Copa America is that Australia and Qatar will compete this year because... reasons.

What is the team’s biggest area of concern this season?

Scoring goals was a difficult task last year for the Lions and has been in four of the team’s five MLS seasons, so that will be the biggest concern. Aside from the 2016 season, when Orlando scored 55 times, the club has been at or under 46 every season. The Lions scored 44 times in 2019, which was just one more goal than in 2018. Akindele’s offense was a pleasant surprise in 2019 but Dwyer’s drop-off more than offset that. Dwyer must regain his form in front of goal, Chris Mueller and Michel must continue to develop, and Akindele must maintain the new level he found last year — or even build on it. But the midfield must also create more good opportunities for shots for everyone. (Don’t take my word for it, Pareja himself said as much at Media Day.) Even if the Lions can cut 10 more goals against off last year’s total through a better collective defense, Orlando won’t likely be in a playoff position unless the team can top 50 goals.


Thus ends our 2020 Orlando City preview. Feel free to share your thoughts, agreements, and disagreements in our comments section below.