Orlando City players better be in the best shape of their lives, because they’re going to need every bit of fitness for the Lions’ upcoming stretch of matches. The regular season resumes Saturday night in Miami with Orlando facing a run of five games in a 15-day span.
The Schedule Setup
The Lions will face Inter Miami on the road Saturday night, then will play every third day, on average, for the next two weeks. Three of the five games are on the road, and MLS has new pandemic protocols in place that have teams arriving in market on match day, rather than the traditional day before the game. Additionally, travel out of road markets will happen after the match. This is going to affect recovery.
The shortest period between games is two days. Orlando City will have just two days rest between games twice in the upcoming 15-day window — both times facing Atlanta on the back end. I’m not saying there’s a conspiracy to screw the Lions and prevent them from finally getting their first win against Atlanta United. I’m also not not saying it.
You can draw your own conclusions, but Orlando previously had three days off between the trip to Nashville on Sept. 2 and a Sept. 6 home game against Atlanta. That interval recently shrunk to two days when the game was moved up to Sept. 5. If you don’t believe in conspiracy theories, blame it on FOX for rearranging the schedule for a national broadcast. If you do believe in conspiracy theories well...it’s not like MLS hasn’t fed into those pretty heavily over the last five-plus years — but bear in mind that Atlanta also has two days rest between its previous matches and the games against Orlando. So, from a rest standpoint it’s a level playing field.
The longest duration between matches during the upcoming stretch is three days. This will happen twice. The first will be between Saturday’s game at Miami and next Wednesday’s home game against Nashville. The second will be between the road trips to Atlanta and Nashville.
For comparison, the Lions’ shortest layoff between matches during the MLS is Back Tournament was four days. This happened twice — between the final group match against Philadelphia and the first knockout game against Montreal, and between the semifinal against Minnesota and the final vs. Portland. That’s a pretty good recovery time frame for a tournament setting. But things are about to get real.
Squad Rotation, Positional Breakdown, and Shape
Orlando City’s deep run in the MLS is Back Tournament was facilitated by basically the same starting XI. The only exceptions were when an injury to Junior Urso elevated Sebas Mendez to the starting role and when Dom Dwyer went out for the tournament — and, ultimately, for all of 2020 — with muscle tightness, followed by a torn meniscus.
Oscar Pareja rolled through most of the tournament with Pedro Gallese in goal; a back line of Joao Moutinho, Robin Jansson, Antonio Carlos, and Ruan; a central midfield duo of Mendez and Uri Rosell; an attacking midfield line of Nani, Mauricio Pereyra, and Chris Mueller; and Tesho Akindele up top. There is virtually no way Pareja can get away with that during the upcoming 15-day stretch. Squad rotation is about to become a huge factor for the Lions and we will get to see rather quickly how Papi’s strategy will play out and which games he’ll prioritize.
Gallese may very well be able to handle playing every night in goal, but if he needs a day or two off, backup Brian Rowe has proven to be a reliable option. No real worries there.
The biggest concern is striker. It’s a position that has yet to bear much fruit in 2020, and it’s already thin with Dwyer out for the year. Akindele performed well in relief last season, scoring 10 goals in a season for the first time in his career and adding two assists. Tesho already has two goals this season, but only one that counts on his official scoring record because stats from knockout stage matches don’t count toward the regular season.
When Akindele is rested, where will Pareja turn? Tesho can absorb minutes as well as anyone, but there will have to be rotation for the Atlanta matches, because that’s simply not enough recovery time between game days to throw Akindele out there for 70 minutes every night. That means second-year pro Santiago Patino and rookie Daryl Dike will need to supply some important minutes. The duo have a combined three starts in Major League Soccer.
Both got some mop-up duty during MLS is Back but it was apparent that neither player was polished enough to count on as a first-team starter just yet. Patino has a little more experience and has actually scored goals in this league — two of them, with an assist, last year in 11 total appearances and three starts. Dike has officially played zero minutes of MLS soccer because his appearances came in the knockout stage of MLS is Back.
Benji Michel is a viable option up top and has shown a bit more consistency; however, he’s not a pure striker and he’ll most likely be needed to spell Chris Mueller on the wing, anyway. Robinho could also play that wing spot, but he has pretty much disappeared deep at the bottom of the team’s pecking order. That brings up the next visible problem with squad rotation — the attacking midfield.
Pareja may have no choice but to change shape or play his players out of position. There simply aren’t enough attacking pieces to make a full, like-for-like squad change. He’ll need to protect Nani and Pereyra and their older legs. So, what does that look like? Well, Michel and Robinho are options on the wings, as mentioned. There might be an opportunity here for extremely young and unproven players like David Loera or Jordan Bender to get on the field, or Pareja can shift to a more traditional-looking 4-3-3.
If he uses a 4-3-3, he’ll only need two attacking midfielders who can play on the wing. However, that impacts the defensive midfield, and it means when he rotates out Rosell and Mendez, he’ll have to find someone else to play with Urso and, presumably, Andres Perea. That could be rookie Joey DeZart, who has shown great maturity and growth already.
Defensively, there is little chance to use one of the team’s greatest strengths more than every other game during the upcoming crowded fixture schedule. Orlando City’s fullbacks help drive this team’s attack and both Ruan and Moutinho recover well when they get caught up field on turnovers. The backups give the team a very different look and simply aren’t as dynamic. The likelihood is that Kyle Smith will slot in for Ruan and Rodrigo Schlegel or Kamal Miller can play in place of Moutinho. However, Schlegel may be needed to spell a center back. He and Alex De John are the center back replacements, although Miller can also play there.
Could young fullback Michael Halliday — a recent Homegrown Player signing — be recalled from OCB? The 17-year-old has looked pretty good for the Young Lions but jumping up two divisions would be a lot to ask.
One way to mitigate the unproven midfield and attacking depth is to mix in a little 3-5-2. In this case, the team can use its strength — a strong group of back line players — and remove a midfielder. By alternating this lineup, Pareja can either protect his backup fullbacks by negating some of the space they have to defend, or play Ruan and Moutinho and rest one of Nani or Pereyra, to save them for the next match.
When you consider the backups, it’s natural to be a bit nervous. This team has an excellent starting XI and a lot of question marks on the bench. But it’s more likely that Pareja doesn’t go with a full change from game to game to keep legs fresh. It is more probable that he’ll go with a mixture of starters and backups so that it’s not a complete second-team look against any of the upcoming opponents.
Orlando has been able to press high in 2020 and win the ball back so as not to allow the opposition time on the ball to build up a dangerous attack. The Lions will need to pick their spots to press a bit more carefully during the upcoming stretch of matches. However, Orlando doesn’t play at breakneck speed. The Lions patiently build up from the back and often reset by sending the ball backwards, which can slow the game a bit and eliminate some of the running that the midfielders and attacking players have to do. This can somewhat add to the fullbacks’ workload at times, but there is some natural recovery time built into how Orlando has played so far this season.
Possession will be a premium, because players generally use up more energy defending than attacking. The Lions have done well in possession so far this season, and if that trend continues they may be able to wear down opponents late in games during this stretch.
The good news is that the Lions’ opposition is in the same boat in terms of fixture congestion. Atlanta United’s matches are on the exact same days as Orlando City’s. Miami will have not played a game in more than a month when the two teams meet this Saturday, and both will be on a more normal rest schedule when they face each other again at the end of this first phase of the restart. Nashville will be on the same amount of rest for the Aug. 26 meeting and on one fewer day of rest than Orlando for the Sept. 2 match-up. The Lions play on Aug. 29 before that second game against Nashville, while the first-year MLS side will face Inter Miami on Aug. 30.
If Pareja goes with a “best XI” approach, he could get his first choice lineup (minus Dwyer) for up to (most likely) three of the upcoming five games. This would give him his best chance to get three wins, but the most likely way to do that would be to play his starters Saturday at Miami, then again next Wednesday vs. Nashville, which means rotating to backups at Atlanta. Then he could use the starters in either the second Nashville or Atlanta match, but not both. With a normal week off after the second Atlanta game, he can use his starters for as many as four of the six games in phase one. Any dropped points in the games the starters play would be magnified because of the difficulty of playing such a young and unproven squad in the other two matches.
A split approach would be perhaps less problematic, but also might be more unpredictable. The starters are fairly familiar with each other by now under game conditions. Any mistake by a new cog in the machine could be a fatal one for a team that doesn’t score a lot of goals.
All I know is that I’m glad I don’t have to make these kinds of decisions and that Orlando City has someone trustworthy in charge of making them. It’s also good that the teams will have five substitutions available, because they’ll be needed.
In a few days, we’ll start seeing how this will all play out.