Welcome to the sixth and final post in a series of stories in which we explore how Orlando City is situated entering the upcoming MLS SuperDraft and the 2021 season as a whole. Today we’ll take a look at the striker group.
Orlando City entered the 2020 season seemingly in great shape on the striker front. Dom Dwyer finished 2019 on a strong run, with two goals and an assist in his final three matches of the season. Dwyer was entering the final year of his contract, so he figured to be on a mission to have a great season. Tesho Akindele, who had filled in admirably for Dwyer in 2019, was coming off a career year in which he scored 10 goals and added two assists — his best offensive output across his first six seasons in MLS.
The Lions had added Daryl Dike in the MLS SuperDraft. Dike was widely considered the striker with the highest ceiling in that year’s draft but he somehow fell to Orlando at No. 5. Second-year striker Santiago Patino was back after initially showing some promise in 2019 before dropping off and going through the usual rookie struggles for consistency.
In addition, Benji Michel was back for his second season. Michel had been used primarily on the wing but could play up top when needed. Nani too could play as a second striker/false nine. With all of these players in place, the position group appeared to be in good shape.
Dwyer picked up a knock in preseason and missed the two early matches prior to the suspension of play at the start of the pandemic. He then showed signs of a player trying to perhaps do a bit too much when he returned in MLS is Back, but he did manage a nice assist to set up a Chris Mueller goal in his two appearances. But after leaving the tournament bubble to get an MRI, damage requiring surgery was found in his knee and he was lost for the season.
Akindele showed his usual workhorse tendencies but could not match his 2019 level of production. Dike stepped into the starting lineup and seemingly never left, no matter how many fixtures there were. Sometimes that seemed to work against him, but the former University of Virginia star was on pace to become MLS Rookie of the Year before Major League Soccer discontinued that award late in the season.
The Lions added Matheus Aias in the midseason window but he unexpectedly needed further medical evaluation upon his arrival and was barely able to make an impact on the season, although he did score a goal a la Josué Colmán, having someone else’s shot bounce in off of him.
Patino, who had trouble getting onto the pitch, was loaned out to Mexican side Cimarrones de Sonora in August and never returned. His option was declined after the 2020 season.
In addition to Dike’s emergence — to the tune of eight goals and four assists in 17 appearances — the Lions got an unexpected jump in production from winger Chris Mueller (10 goals, seven assists) and Michel added five goals and two assists playing primarily as a substitute for Mueller. The team also got some midfield goals from Junior Urso and Mauricio Pereyra, so the loss of Dwyer and drop in productivity from Akindele were largely mitigated.
Orlando City’s Current Striker Situation
The Lions parted ways with Dwyer and Patino after the season, but picked up the option on Michel and already had Aias, Akindele, and Dike under contract for 2021, so the team is currently in decent shape up top.
Dike has a season under his belt, so he’ll know what to expect from Major League Soccer the second time around, although there are still teams he hasn’t faced and several venues he has yet to visit. Akindele provides a veteran to continue mentoring the young forward and gives Orlando two guys up top with good hold-up play.
Aias still hasn’t shown what he can and can’t do, but if he works out like previous young players Luiz Muzzi and Ricardo Moreira have recruited, he should provide cover for the other two. Michel adds depth, although not a prototypical MLS striker.
Orlando City’s Striker Outlook for 2021
Orlando enters 2021 with Dike as the presumed starter up top, potentially with Nani as a false nine. My guess is that the more experienced Akindele would be the first choice option off the bench, although the team will likely want to get Aias more playing time in 2020.
Dike and Aias are young, however, and there’s no guarantee Aias will work out or that Dike can avoid the proverbial sophomore slump. Further, there is no guarantee that Akindele can rise to meet or exceed his 2019 output. Michel will continue to be asked to use his pace and clinical finishing in a variety of ways, both out wide and with the occasional move up top.
It’s likely that Orlando City will try to add another striker to the group. This could be a position addressed in the MLS SuperDraft or through a new signing. The ideal player might be an MLS veteran who is still somewhat productive but fine with accepting a bench role. A Bradley Wright-Phillips would have been ideal, but pricey. A Will Bruin or Patrick Mullins type would be good. It should ideally be someone who can make some spot starts when needed and also who can work with a young striker and show him some of the tricks of the trade.
But it doesn’t have to be inside MLS. That’s just a better fit from the perspective of not having to spend an international slot. Someone like Julio Baptista from a few years ago would be another example of a direction the club could go to round out the position group and help Dike reach the next level of his development.
While striker isn’t the team’s greatest need entering the season, the team should address it this off-season to provide depth in case of an injury or two, or potential international absences in Dike’s case, as he’s been getting some looks with the USMNT senior and U-23 sides in recent months. But if the club can find the right player who won’t be available until the secondary window, I could see Muzzi holding firm until then.