Welcome to the fifth 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 attacking midfield / winger group.
Entering the season, it was understandable to think the Lions needed more help in the attacking midfield/wing group. Team captain Nani had obviously locked down the left wing spot and fellow Designated Player Mauricio Pereyra’s name was written in ink at central attacking midfield. Apart from that, there were questions.
Chris Mueller had shown two seasons of promise and was certainly an outstanding option off the bench the way he changed the energy of the game. Benji Michel wasn’t strictly a wing player but showed promise in the position. Behind them, there was only the unproven Robinho, maybe some spot duty from forward Tesho Akindele, and Homegrown Players Jordan Bender and David Loera.
There wasn’t one player among that group who seemingly fit as a backup for Pereyra. Both Nani and Mueller could play there in a pinch but seem better suited — and more comfortable — coming in from the wings. There was also a dearth of primarily left-footed options.
The season bore out the concerns. When fixtures became congested and minor knocks piled up a bit, Oscar Pareja used some unusual lineups. Robinho’s presence in the starting XI didn’t fill anyone with confidence, and despite showing flashes here and there, the Brazilian was disappointing. Pereyra’s absence was often filled by then-teenaged defensive midfielder Andres Perea. Michel seemed better off the bench in the former Mueller role, while Akindele was needed at forward after Dom Dwyer was lost for the season.
The good news was that Mueller developed not only into an outstanding starter, but his game improved to the point where his name was being uttered in MLS Best XI and USMNT conversations.
Luiz Muzzi eventually added Alexander Alvarado but it was late in the season and didn’t impact the team much in 2020.
The Lions went 9-2-4 in all competitions when the attacking trio of Nani, Pereyra, and Mueller started together. The two losses were a hard-fought 2-1 loss to Portland in the MLS is Back Tournament final and the Eastern Conference semifinal match-up against New England. Results were more mixed when one or more of those three were not in the starting lineup.
Michel provided offense — sometimes at the most timely opportunities, such as in the late season win over Columbus — but was a bit inconsistent at times. Perea did most things well enough when filling in for Pereyra but couldn’t seem to hit the target when in position to shoot. The team didn’t win games when Robinho played, although in a team game that isn’t simply down to him alone. Alvarado was limited to just a couple of appearances after his arrival. Bender started one match as a left-sided attacker but was subbed out at halftime. Loera got into a few games as an energy provider but wasn’t really asked to provide offense in 2020.
Orlando City’s Current Attacking Midfield / Wing Situation
The Lions find themselves in a similar spot as last off-season at the moment, although Alvarado seems likely to be an upgrade over Robinho once he’s had time to assimilate and go through preseason training with the team. Nani and Pereyra return, with the latter signing a one-year extension to stay in Orlando. But both players are on the wrong side of their 30th birthdays.
Mueller played so well in 2020 that there is now talk that he’s on the radar of European teams, but the Lions exercised his option and would like to keep him for a while. Unless the team gets an offer too good to pass up, he’ll be with the club for at least another season.
Alvarado’s loan was made permanent so he remains on the roster and Michel had his contract option year picked up by the club. Bender and Loera remain on the roster as they look to provide depth as they develop.
Orlando City’s Attacking Midfield Wing Outlook for 2021
The starters on this team when healthy are Nani, Pereyra, and Mueller, although Pereyra will miss the first two matches of 2021 due to suspension for his horror tackle against the Revolution in the playoffs. Only a few MLS teams can boast an attacking midfield this strong, but as mentioned, two thirds of this group are getting older. The Lions aren’t going to fix what isn’t broken, however, and this trio still works well.
Behind the starters, I expect Michel to be the first option, although he can also play up top when needed. Michel will fill in on the right for Mueller or Cash will push to the left side when Nani is out. Orlando’s wide players will continue to swap sides sometimes during games but those are the spots those players will most often occupy.
Alvarado is the most intriguing player in this position group. He showed flashes in his few minutes in 2020 and it will be interesting to see what the 21-year-old brings to this position group. The Lions will likely be counting on him to make an impact as a bench option and spot starter in 2021.
If Alvarado turns out to be a major upgrade for Robinho, that would help, as he’d be able to fill in for Nani or even push Nani into more of a forward role. The hope is that Michel will make a leap forward this coming season as Mueller did last year and that Cash himself will be able to maintain — or even build on — the level he found in 2020.
The club parted ways with Robinho and with Josué Colmán, who spent all of last season out on loan. However, Akindele returns and will still be able to fill in when needed, while Homegrowns Bender and Loera provide cover when necessary.
This position group is an area where Orlando will look to add a player before 2021. It will be difficult to find a like-for-like replacement for Pereyra but the team will want to add some depth in central attacking midfield. While Perea and/or Urso can fill in when necessary, that’s not the ideal substitution in terms of maintaining offensive consistency. Urso can chip in the odd goal here or there but Perea hasn’t shown much in terms of scoring touch so far in his young career. Both have good vision and passing skills but not nearly at the Pereyra level — that may be too high a bar to realistically expect but somewhere in the neighborhood of that level would be ideal.
Attacking midfield will be the area of the team I’m most fixated on this off-season, along with finding a quality backup goalkeeper (if Brian Rowe can’t be re-signed), a depth center back and another striker option. If what I’m hearing is correct, those will be the areas the club is looking to shore up as well. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Lions add someone who can play centrally as well as a winger this off-season, although with Alvarado’s addition functionally bringing in a new player already, the team could get away with simply adding someone centrally.