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Sebas Mendez a Reliable Replacement for Junior Urso

The defensive midfielder has been able to find space in a more box-to-box role.

MLS: Orlando City SC vs Montreal Impact Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Junior Urso was playing his best soccer since joining Orlando City when he went down with his injury against the Philadelphia Union. Sure, it was only a 15-minute performance, but at the time, Urso was dominating the game.

The Union had no answer for his late runs into the box, as the Bear fired two early shots — one on target — and nearly got onto another cross. Meanwhile, he was also winning the ball in midfield, was a perfect five-for-five in passing accuracy and had a recovery and an interception. It was the game we’ve been waiting for from Urso and it was unfortunately cut short far too early.

Sebas Mendez stepped in to replace him and had some inconsistencies in that contest. Despite missing a quarter of an hour, Mendez finished with the team’s third-most touches, an 86% passing rate, two shots (one on goal), four tackles, three clearances, and a blocked shot. However, he also turned the ball over four times in his defensive half.

But Mendez stepped up against Montreal in his first start of the tournament. His ability to find space and make attacking runs created issues for the Impact, who committed to closing down Nani, Mauricio Pereyra, Tesho Akindele, and Chris Mueller. This role in Oscar Pareja’s system is valuable, as it creates confusion among the defenders, which can give Orlando a numbers advantage in the attack, and provides an outlet for the team’s best attacking players.

Against Montreal, Mendez led the Lions with four shot attempts out of 10 total for the team. He only got one on target, and should have finished at least one of the others, but scoring isn’t his forte. He did score a goal that appeared to have been incorrectly ruled offside by the assistant referee — on Akindele in the buildup, not on Mendez — and his run in behind Nani led to the error by Rod Fanni that allowed Akindele to score. He looked more comfortable in his defensive third and cut down on his dangerous turnovers.

The rest of Mendez’s play improved as well against the Impact. He passed at a 92.4% rate, touched the ball 79 times, and registered a tackle. His heat map shows he covered the entire width of the field from sideline to sideline and worked his way from box to box, venturing inside at the offensive end.

As he gains time and experience in Pareja’s system, the 23-year-old Ecuadorian will only get better and more confident.

“I believe that it’s important to understand the way that Oscar wants us to play,” Mendez said after Saturday’s game against Montreal. “In this case he has asked me to be more of a player who goes from box to box for the team when we attack and defend as well. When I play this role, Mauricio [Pereyra] is extremely important because he would open up spaces and visibility for me, Tesho [Akindele] and Chris Mueller. This is very important because his movements on the field give me the freedom to attack and come back to help my teammate Uri [Rosell] in defending. We are focused, this game is over and we are already thinking about the next one so we can get prepared.”

Mendez will need to be prepared for Friday because LAFC likes to pressure high in the attacking end with four to five players and those behind are good at reading the play and available passing lanes, leading to turnovers and transition opportunities. LAFC rattled the Seattle Sounders Monday night with its relentless pressure, spending most of the game’s opening 20 minutes in Seattle’s third. The pressure took the Sounders out of their game plan and players became timid about getting forward in the attack for fear of getting caught up the field on the counter.

Orlando has thus far shown a desire to play out of the back rather than to attack more directly. This plays into what LAFC does well, but the Lions can’t just not be who they are — or who Pareja wants them to be. The key is to move the ball quickly, decisively, and accurately to break through the first two lines of LAFC’s pressure. If Orlando can do that, it can create mismatches in its attacking third and generate scoring chances — particularly if Mendez can get forward and join the attack. His presence — like Urso’s early in the Philadelphia game — puts defenders under pressure to make a decision and even if they make the right one, they might hesitate just long enough for guys like Nani, Pereyra, and Mueller to pick out the right pass or combination to create a scoring chance.

Urso could be available for Friday, but even if he isn’t, it’s nice to see Mendez adapting to that role in Pareja’s system.