Welcome to the fourth 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 defensive midfield.
Orlando City entered the 2020 season having to rebuild what had been a deep group of defensive midfield players, but one that ate up a lot of salary and didn’t necessarily fit the style of play the Lions were looking to put on the field. Between the end of the 2019 season and the start of camp in 2020, the club parted ways with Cristian Higuita, Will Johnson, Carlos Ascues, and Dillon Powers. Only Sebas Mendez and Uri Rosell survived the central midfield purge.
The club rebuilt the position group in a variety of ways. The Lions acquired young Colombian-American Andres Perea on loan from Atletico Nacional on Dec. 9, 2019, and signed veteran Junior Urso from Brazilian giants Corinthians on Jan. 13. Orlando also drafted Joey DeZart in the second round of the 2020 MLS SuperDraft and signed him Feb. 21 after an impressive preseason training camp, including a solid performance in a friendly against KR Reykjavik. The club added overall depth to the midfield by signing Homegrown midfielders David Loera and Jordan Bender on Dec. 9 and Dec. 12 of 2019, respectively. Loera’s energy in the press was especially useful late in a few games off the bench. Both Loera and Bender have played attacking roles in lower leagues and have some versatility to their game, so they’re not necessarily defensive midfielders, but we’ll discuss them a little here and also in our upcoming piece on attacking midfielders and wingers because they add depth just about anywhere in the midfield except the No. 6 role.
The Lions turned out to need every one of those players in 2020. Rosell and Urso picked up injuries during the year and fixture congestion was an issue due to the pandemic. But it seemed that whoever Oscar Pareja plugged in, they did the job.
Rosell was playing his best soccer as a Lion in the No. 6 role when he went down with a mid-season injury, returning just in time for the playoffs. Urso was solid all season as the No. 8 and helped in the attack with three goals and an assist. Mendez maintained his 2019 form of being a solid ball winner with the occasional scary turnover in his own end or the odd silly foul to give the other team a free kick in a dangerous area. Perea was a revelation, playing every game of the season and plugging into whichever spot in the lineup Pareja needed him.
While it would be nice if Mendez and Perea could locate the net when they get forward, the entire starting group did well to shield the back line, play the ball out of the back through pressure, and connect the defense to the attack.
The two Homegrowns saw mostly spot duty in late-game situations where they weren’t asked to contribute offensively, although Bender did get one start as a left-side attacker in the season finale.
Orlando City’s Current Defensive Midfield Situation
The Lions are in excellent position this off-season when it comes to the central midfield because nobody left after the season. Rosell, Urso, Mendez, Bender, and Loera were already under contract for 2021 when the 2020 season ended. The club also picked up DeZart’s option and made Perea’s loan permanent.
Because everyone is back, the position is not an area of concern for Orlando City this off-season and Luiz Muzzi and Ricardo Moreira can concentrate on adding pieces elsewhere.
Orlando City’s Defensive Midfield Outlook for 2021
I would expect to see the same kind of rotation from Orlando City in 2021. Rosell and Urso are the presumed starters in the No. 6 and No. 8 roles, respectively. However, they aren’t getting any younger. Rosell will turn 29 in July, while Urso will be 32 in March. The duo provides a lot of experience for the younger players to learn from.
Mendez will spell Rosell, while Perea can fill in anywhere and is the likely first man up for Urso. Both Mendez and Perea will play a lot of minutes, even if they don’t start. DeZart provides depth, while Loera and Bender can play some minutes late to see games out as part of the midfield without necessarily concentrating on the attack, although (as previously mentioned) I will also discuss both of them in our upcoming piece on the attacking midfielders and wingers.
Perea has the most potential for growth. With some work on his weaker foot and improvement around the attacking penalty area, the 20-year-old could become an outstanding player. Gregg Berhalter has noticed his upside and has called him up for national team camps in December and January. Perea has recently switched his FIFA international association from Colombia to the U.S. and that became official yesterday.
The Lions were obviously happy with the central midfield as illustrated by bringing everyone back. While that area of the team is solidified for 2021 and it should remain a position of strength, there is room for improvement, particularly with regard to Mendez’s ball security and tendency to telegraph some of his passes. Everyone but Urso must improve on their shooting skills, particularly Perea and Mendez, who are able and willing to get forward more often than Rosell. And whoever plays the No. 6 must limit their temptation to get stuck in from behind to avoid conceding free kicks just outside the area.
Overall, this is a solid position group for Orlando City in 2021 and the most settled on the team at the moment.