Orlando City hasn’t had a clean sheet in its last seven matches. The Lions have conceded two or more goals in six of those matches. For all that’s been said about Orlando’s lack of scoring at times this season, the once elite defense has regressed. To clinch another playoff spot, that defensive strength needs to make a comeback.
For what it’s worth, injuries have been largely responsible for Orlando’s defensive struggles. Sebas Mendez missed significant time and he’s a lynchpin defensively. When the Lions are missing Mendez in the middle, some of their bite is missing and more of the defensive workload falls on the center backs. Against strong offensive teams, the Lions can become overrun without Mendez in the midfield and the back line ends up buckling under the pressure. Getting Mendez back healthy has already helped shore up the defense. The latest match against D.C. United was Orlando’s strongest defensive showing in terms of expected goals allowed (0.5) since early August. An increasingly fit and in form Mendez, who played 81 minutes against D.C., was a huge reason why.
Both Joao Moutinho and Ruan have also been healthy for a while, giving the back line real consistency. Add in the return of Pedro Gallese after an injury this summer, and Orlando City is reaching full strength at an important time. A lot of defensive issues will be and have been solved simply by having the top guys healthy again.
If Orlando can be solid defensively, it removes so much of the burden from its top offensive players. Daryl Dike has been massive in recent games, but that’s an enormous amount of pressure for him to deliver every game. In the early parts of this season, Orlando had time to figure out its offensive issues because the defense was among one of the best in the league. That luxury hasn’t been there in recent weeks and the offense has struggled to keep pace.
We have plenty of proof this personnel group is capable of being an elite defensive unit. At one point not too long ago, Antonio Carlos was in the discussion for MLS Defender of the Year and Pedro Gallese was an MLS All-Star. If the past three games are any indication, a healthy defense allows Orlando to compete against some of the Eastern Conference’s toughest teams.
Sometimes things aren’t that complicated. Orlando City’s defensive strength took a nosedive once its best defensive players got hurt, went on international duty, or were suspended. Now that those key players are back and fit, the defensive performances have improved. Frankly, that’s the case for most of the entire team, with the offense finding its rhythm once Dike came back from injury and the Designated Players became healthy.
With six games to go, Orlando is finally healthy and playing up to its potential, and that starts defensively. The Lions have the pieces in place to boast an elite defense and that’s at the center of Orlando’s playoff push.