One of the questions surrounding Orlando City’s 2021 roster in recent weeks was defensive depth. The Lions released Alex De John at the end of the 2020 season, and then lost Kamal Miller in the MLS Expansion Draft. Miller in particular became an important figure down the stretch in the 2020 season, as he started getting more playing time as Joao Moutinho and Ruan were struggling with injury. Following Miller’s departure, the club was beginning to look worryingly thin at fullback, with Kyle Smith the only other experienced fullback on the roster.
Fortunately, it seems that OCSC’s decision-makers recognized this, and took steps to address it early on in the 2021 MLS SuperDraft. The Lions originally only had two picks in the first round — the 19th and 22nd overall selections. However, Orlando made a trade to also nab the eighth pick, giving the team three picks in the first round alone.
While the team went offensive with the eighth pick, taking Georgetown forward Derek Dodson, the other two first-round picks were both used on defenders. The Lions selected Rio Hope-Gund at no. 18 and then Brandon Hackenberg at no. 22.
The selections of Hope-Gund and Hackenberg mean that the Lions have partially filled a big area of need — defensive depth. While both players are center backs, Hackenberg in particular should bring a necessary injection of versatility to the Lions’ roster. While he was primarily deployed in the middle of the back line at Penn State, he has the skills and ability to play as a left-sided fullback if necessary. While that doesn’t make him an exact replacement for Miller, he’s arguably a more flexible one.
In a year where Moutinho will not be able to start the season due to injury, having cover on the left is going to be important. Given that both Hope-Gund and Hackenberg are center backs and the latter could play left back, but it puts the Lions in a better position than they were pre-draft, which is about all you can ask for.
“With the two center backs, we have a need for the position. We need depth,” Orlando City Executive Vice President Luiz Muzzi said. “We lost Kamal (Miller), a left-footed center back/left back. In Hackenberg we got another guy who can play the position. Hope-Gund was a guy that we rated high and we thought there was a chance he was going to get there to 19, but we thought it was a small chance. So, when we saw that he was available we were really happy with that. It’s a need that we tried to fill and we’re really happy with those two picks.”
In all likelihood neither one of the two will find themselves starting as 2021 opens. Antonio Carlos and Robin Jansson occupy the starting center back spots, Ruan will start on the right, and unless Orlando goes out and gets another left back, Kyle Smith will probably start in that position until Moutinho returns. There’s a chance they’ll end up contributing this year though.
Both Moutinho and Ruan have had struggles with injury since joining the club. Those durability issues meant that Miller made 12 appearances last season while Kyle Smith played in 16 league games, all of the team’s knockout games at the MLS is Back Tournament, and both of the team’s playoff games.
For my money, a decent indicator of the team’s intentions with these two players is the point in the draft that they were selected. Trading up to the first round to ensure both defenders joined the Lions points to the club having a high opinion of them, and even if they aren’t major contributors this year the team has at least succeeded in bolstering depth at an area that was in sore need of reinforcements.