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Three Things We Learned in Orlando City’s MLS is Back Group Stage Play

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Orlando went undefeated in the group stage and some things became clear about the Lions.

MLS: Orlando City SC at Philadelphia Union Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Orlando City finished the group stage in the MLS is Back Tournament undefeated. The Lions went 2-0-1 over the three games and won back-to-back games for the first time since Jason Kreis was the coach.

After finishing in first place in Group A, Orlando advanced to the knockout stage. Its next opponent is still unknown, but if the Lions carry on the momentum, things are looking bright for the “home” team.

Here are three things that we learned from Orlando during the group stage:

Nani is Worth the DP Tag

A Designated Player should be someone who completely changes the game. If they are in an attacking position, then a DP needs to create goals. He might not necessarily score or assist all the time, but he is at least playing a part in the buildup.

In its first handful of years in MLS, Orlando has struggled to have an effective DP aside from Kaka. Aside from the Brazilian, it has been rare that the Lions’ DPs have consistently provided quality in the attack. Nani has proven to be the exception.

At 33 years old, Nani is not old, but his best playing days are behind him. He is not involved in every buildup for Orlando, and at times in the group stage he was almost invisible. This is not always because he isn’t working, but sometimes the opposition strategically tried to mark him out of the game, which was the case against Miami, for example.

Still, while he may not directly impact the entire game, Nani is involved in almost every goal that Orlando scored. The winger assisted and scored against Miami. In the New York City FC game, he made a perfect cross to Benji Michel, which created the third goal. While he did not directly impact the second goal, his presence in the box forced Maxime Chanot and Gudmundur Thórarinsson to hesitate, which freed up Chris Mueller. Chanot didn’t notice Mueller in the box until it was too late because he was looking back at Nani. And then Nani provided another assist in Orlando’s third match.

Nani may not be the player he once was, but he still has plenty left in the tank and is an essential reason for Orlando’s success.

Orlando City’s Defense is Coming Together Nicely

The results may not have been favorable when James O’Connor was at the helm, but one thing that he did accomplish was to vastly improve Orlando’s defense. The Lions went from giving up 74 goals in 2018 to 52 last year. Allowing 52 goals in 37 games is still high, but allowing 22 fewer goals than the previous season is a remarkable feat.

The main reason for that success was O’Connor’s coaching and the center back pairing of Robin Jansson and Lamine Sane. Well, Orlando fired O’Connor and declined to pick up Sane’s option. Those moves were met with criticism from some fans, but they seem to have been the correct decisions based on the Lions’ performances in the MLS is Back Tournament. It’s a small sample size, but the defense looks better than it has since Orlando joined MLS.

Orlando allowed just three goals in the group stage and never allowed multiple goals in a game. Jansson looks even better than he did in 2019 and has been one of Orlando’s best and most consistent performers.

Antonio Carlos has looked shaky at times but has gotten better in each game. He had two interceptions and five clearances against Philly. He did well in possession – 90% accuracy on 40 passes — as Orlando attempted to play a short passing game for portions of the match.

The two are backed by one of the best goalkeepers in the league — Pedro Gallese. The New York City game was his best of the three, and he made saves that the previous Orlando keepers likely would not have.

Consistency is Key

While Orlando clearly has not been great the past few years, one thing that the Lions have lacked has been consistency. It has been rare to see the same starting XI appear in back-to-back games. Injuries, suspensions, and international call-ups have haunted the Lions.

Oscar Pareja has remained as consistent as possible through the group stage. The starting lineup was exactly the same in Orlando’s first two matches. Pareja was forced to make one precautionary change due to tightness in Dom Dwyer’s quad.

Even the substitutions have been similar. Pareja made the exact same subs in the first two matches, almost down to the same minute. Things changed slightly against the Union because of Dwyer being unavailable and Junior Urso’s injury. Still, the changes were as close as possible to keeping the same rotation.

This consistency has had a direct impact on the performances. It will be interesting to see how this approach remains the same as the tournament continues and if players start to get fatigued more.