When Orlando City and LAFC executed a trade in December of 2018 that sent Joao Moutinho to Orlando and Mohamed El-Munir to Los Angeles its fair to say that there were mixed feelings about the deal among Orlando fans. During his lone season with the Lions ElMo had a soft spot in the hearts of many fans, primarily for his blazing fast recovery speed.
During his debut against D.C. United the speedster chased down Darren Mattocks on a breakaway after the attacker had a roughly 15-yard head start, and made a potentially goal-saving block to keep Orlando in the game. His wheels would be on display time and again the rest of the season and plenty of people wondered why he was being shipped out in favor of a left back with one professional season under his belt who didn’t seem to have made much of an impression on one of the league’s best teams.
Since his arrival however, Moutinho has made it pretty clear why he was brought in. While he struggled with some injuries during 2019, he had little problem cementing his position as the first-choice left back. Even though he sometimes struggled in physical battles and 1-v-1 situations, it was a largely successful season for him, with the biggest knocks against him being fitness issues and a lack of consistent play. However, he was awarded a grade of 6/10 in his Season in Review piece, with our leader Michael Citro noting that the youngster possessed “tremendous upside.” Suffice it to say, that he was right.
Joao has begun to fulfill quite a bit of that upside during the 2020 season. During Orlando’s five regular-season games this year he has an assist, three interceptions, and has simply been one of Orlando’s best players. Taking the knockout games into account, he also has a goal, converted his penalty kick in the shootout win against LAFC, and has again been one of Orlando’s best players. In fact, he was deemed one of the tournament’s best players, along with his counterpart on the right side of Orlando’s back line, Ruan.
Moutinho’s defending has been solid, he’s gotten forward and stretched the field to excellent effect, and like the rest of the Orlando back line (and basically the whole team), he’s mostly done a great job at playing out from the back under pressure. He still loses physical battles here and there (see Portland’s first goal in the final) but building a stronger physique doesn’t happen overnight and he’s still made undeniable improvements in that area.
Moutinho’s ability on the ball helps provide another dimension to the Orlando attack. Oscar Pareja has been pushing Moutinho and Ruan forward at will, and while that’s something that was done last year too, it’s a strategy that was less effective when Moutinho was sidelined. A lot of Orlando’s struggles at the end of 2019 were partly due to his absence through injury. Now that he’s been able to stay healthy, it’s pretty plain how important he can be to this team when he’s on the field.
He wasn’t named to the Best XI of the MLS is Back Tournament by accident, he had an excellent seven-game run and played every minute of the tournament. Maybe more than anything else though he just looks more confident than he did — even at his best — last year. Perhaps he’s just a great fit for Pareja’s system. Maybe he’s less tentative now that he’s put some more muscle on. Hell, maybe he’s just gotten better. Whatever the reason is, he’s making a lot of people sit up and take notice not just in Orlando, but around the league as well.
Perhaps best of all the things relating to Moutinho’s play this year is the fact that he’s only 22 years old. As stated before, a stronger physique will come with time, and after watching some of the workouts that the Lions’ strength and conditioning team have been putting the players through, I’m not worried about whether or not he’ll get stronger. If his game continues to improve at the rate it has so far, and he can put his struggles with injury in the rearview mirror, then he’s going to make anyone who wondered why he was acquired regret ever doubting him, all while he just gets better and better.