Welcome to the third in a series of stories in which we’ll explore how Orlando City is situated entering the MLS SuperDraft later this month and the 2021 season as a whole. We’ll look at each position group and determine the relative strength of the team as we look ahead to the upcoming season. Today we’ll take a look at the center backs.
Orlando City entered 2020 with some uncertainty at center back. The Lions had tried many players in central defense over the years with results that were mixed, but mostly poor. Some of the individual players were fine — Jonathan Spector comes to mind — but no tandem seemed cohesive and injuries and a lack of continuity at the position prevented any kind of chemistry from forming. As a result, individual center backs played inconsistently and the team played as though it was afraid of making a single mistake.
The Lions finally found a good pairing in Robin Jansson and Lamine Sané in 2019, helping the club cut its goals conceded from a then-MLS record 74 from the previous 2018 season by 22. Even though 52 goals against was middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference, that was still a vast improvement. But Sané was an expensive player who had struggled with injuries in recent years and it was obvious that Orlando would seek to replace him after 2019. Enter Antonio Carlos.
The Brazilian came to Orlando from Palmeiras on a one-year loan deal with an option to buy on Dec. 30, 2019. After taking a few games to find his footing alongside Jansson, Carlos turned into a solid defender who plays the ball well with his feet and fits perfectly into what Oscar Pareja wants his team to do, which is to play out of the back and calmly find ways to break through opposing teams’ high press — something that has caused the Lions major problems in the past.
Jansson and Carlos combined to become one of the best center back pairings in MLS in 2020. The duo helped Orlando City’s defense become stingier than ever, as the Lions conceded 25 times this past season, which tied for fourth fewest in the Eastern Conference and seventh fewest in all of MLS.
Perhaps the biggest key to the success of the Carlos-Jansson pairing was that the duo played a lot of games together. Jansson missed just one game in 2020 and Carlos missed three. There wasn’t a single game without at least one of the starters — a nice change from some previous Orlando City seasons.
Making the situation even better was the signing of Argentinian defender Rodrigo Schlegel on a one-year loan deal on Dec. 23 of last year. Schlegel slotted into the starting lineup for Jansson or Carlos and the defense scarcely missed a beat, regardless of which side he played. He also allowed Pareja to play a three-man/five-man back line late in games to see out narrow victories.
The trio of Orlando’s main center backs played so well and stayed healthy enough in 2020 to limit returning center back Alex De John to just 54 minutes across six appearances. Kamal Miller saw a few minutes at center back in the three-man back line but was ultimately relegated to left back.
Orlando City’s Current Center Back Situation
The Lions currently have three center backs on the roster, although Kyle Smith can play there in an emergency. (Let’s face it, Smith can play almost anywhere in an emergency.) The club made Carlos’ loan permanent last month and showed a commitment to his future in Orlando by signing him to a three-year contract with an option for a fourth year. The 27-year-old Brazilian therefore becomes the key piece in the Lions’ back line for the next several years. Jansson, 29, had his option exercised by Orlando City after the season, keeping the club’s central defense nucleus together for 2021.
Schlegel, 23, had his loan deal made permanent like Carlos. The young Argentinian was impressive in his first season in purple, playing 645 minutes. He showed he can play on the left or right side, works well in a three-man back line, and can even play fullback when needed.
De John, the team’s other true full-time center back in 2020, had his option declined after the season. As Luiz Muzzi told us on The Mane Land PawedCast in December, the club would have liked to have kept De John, who had been a great teammate and had played well in his few minutes, but he deserved the opportunity to go find playing time somewhere else rather than be a backup seeing little playing time in Orlando.
The club’s other option, Miller, was selected by Austin FC in the MLS Expansion Draft and then traded to Montreal.
Orlando City’s Center Back Outlook for 2021
The Lions’ starting central defense pairing is set for the upcoming season with Carlos and Jansson, and if Pareja opts to go three at the back, Orlando City is well positioned with Schlegel on the roster. But Orlando will need to add some depth at the position. This could come via the SuperDraft — although relying on that route is risky — or the Lions could find another way to plug the hole.
The Lions haven’t yet been able to develop an MLS-ready center back through the academy. Tommy Redding was the club’s only Homegrown center back and he left the team following the 2017 season after injuries and mixed results derailed his career as a Lion. It is doubtful anyone currently in the system could step into that fourth center back spot on the MLS side right now.
Orlando likes going the loan-with-an-option-to-buy route and that could be the way Muzzi fills the spot, although if the club looks again to South America, then international slots come into play. Another option is to bring in a domestic veteran who has been successful in the USL Championship or an experienced MLS backup — potentially even a former starter who is getting on in years.
With Carlos, Jansson, and Schlegel returning, Orlando simply needs to find the right piece to slot into that fourth spot. It has to be someone who can get the job done if needed, but not someone who would demand a starter’s minutes. Expect Orlando City to make that depth center back spot a priority for the off-season.