Welcome to the second 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 fullbacks.
Orlando City had one of the best sets of starting fullbacks in Major League Soccer in 2020 when right back Ruan and left back Joao Moutinho were both healthy. The duo played well enough in the MLS is Back Tournament to both make the competition’s Best XI squad. They could play the traditional fullback roles or slide seamlessly into wingback spots when Oscar Pareja chose to go with three center backs — a tactic that helped see out several wins in close games this past year.
Moutinho was so good in 2020 that he was pushing much bigger name players for the team’s MVP when his season was shortened by what appeared to be a groin injury in Orlando’s first ever win at Atlanta on Aug. 29. That ended up being a hip issue requiring surgery at the end of the season when rehab continued to turn up discomfort while shooting or crossing the ball. Moutinho missed the final 15 regular-season matches and both playoff games.
Behind the starting pair, Kyle Smith did a serviceable job filling in on either side, although he rarely offered any of the attacking threat that Ruan and Moutinho provided. He was solid defensively, but the Lions lacked the same width in the attack, particularly when Smith was on his weaker left side. Canadian international and 2019 SuperDraft pick Kamal Miller struggled with some costly turnovers in his first few appearances of the season but he eventually settled in and provided another solid option on the left side behind Moutinho.
Homegrown right back Michael Halliday signed on July 15 but did not appear in a game, making the bench a few times during the season.
Orlando City’s Current Fullback Situation
Ruan and Moutinho are both back for 2021, as Orlando City exercised the contract options for both players following the 2020 season. However, Moutinho will not be ready to play at the start of the season due to undergoing hip surgery on Tuesday, Dec. 8. The recovery time for that surgery is four to six months, meaning the young Portuguese defender will not be back until mid-April at best and potentially not until mid-July, dealing a huge blow to the left side of Orlando’s attack in the season’s opening months.
Smith’s option was also exercised, meaning the team returns its primary backup and a versatile player who can fill in at other spots as well. With Homegrown Halliday still under contract, the Lions are well-positioned at right back. However, the Lions’ fullback depth on the left side took a hit when Miller was selected by Austin FC in the MLS Expansion Draft and was subsequently traded to the Montreal Impact on Dec. 15.
Orlando therefore only has three fullbacks on the squad at the moment who will be healthy when the 2021 season opens and all of them are right backs, even though Smith has filled in admirably on the left side.
Orlando City’s Fullback Outlook for 2021
The right side is certainly set. With Brazilian starter Ruan — a fullback whose performances can be inconsistent but generally range between good and MLS Best XI caliber — ahead of experienced backup Smith and unproven youngster Halliday. The right side could hardly be in better shape both in terms of salary distribution and versatility to play different styles.
It’s the left side that is a problem right now. Moutinho was playing like an MLS Best XI left back at the time of his unfortunate injury and his health has been the only issue with the former No. 1 SuperDraft (2018) pick through his young career. The 22-year-old — he will turn 23 on Tuesday — hasn’t appeared in more than 16 games in a season in any of his first three years in the league. Getting and staying healthy will be the key to his success.
Meanwhile, the Lions don’t have a left-footed fullback on the current roster. Smith can fill in when needed but Ruan is also a player prone to the odd hamstring issue and is never far from a knock due to his full-speed-ahead style of play. It seems obvious that a left back will need to be a priority this off-season for Orlando.
I would suspect the club will look for someone who can provide some of the attacking flair of Moutinho, as the team missed the Portuguese’s presence when he was out. There are some good options still available in free agency or the team could look to bring in a young player from South America on loan — a favorite tactic of Orlando City. The Lions might also have to find a short-term backup for the position to avoid having to play Smith on his weaker side and in case something were to happen to Ruan. I’d also look for Halliday to get some minutes in preseason to evaluate his level of preparedness to step into MLS action.