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2021 Orlando City Season in Review: Benji Michel

The Homegrown winger struggled to improve upon his promising 2020 campaign.

MLS: Chicago Fire at Orlando City SC Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

Orlando City made Benji Michel the club’s fifth ever Homegrown Player signing on Dec. 31, 2018. After a promising first two years in purple, the club picked up Michel’s option for 2021 following the 2020 season. Michel had scored five goals in each of his first two MLS seasons and seemed to be trending upwards heading into 2021.

Let’s take a look at how the winger fared in his third season after seeing the most minutes thus far in his professional career.

Statistical Breakdown

Michel destroyed his previous personal career highs in appearances, setting new marks in games played (34), starts (19), and minutes played (1,870). His old records in those categories were, respectively, 21 games (last year), nine starts (in 2019), and 943 minutes (2019), as Oscar Pareja deployed him as a fill-in when Nani or Chris Mueller were unavailable (or out of form, in the latter’s case) and at times as a second striker. While such a jump in time on the pitch might predict a similar leap in production, Michel scored a career-low four goals after netting five in each of his first two years. He did, however, set a new career high in assists, albeit only with three, besting last year’s previous total of two, which he set in 13 fewer starts and more than a thousand fewer minutes on the field.

His low goal total is surprising given the fact he more than doubled his previous career high of 16 shots by firing 35 times, and set a new career mark for shots on goal (14 — just four more than last season). He managed to raise his passing accuracy to a career high 81.5%, with 14 key passes but just four accurate crosses. He was offside four times for the third consecutive year, but given his jump in minutes, that is an improvement.

Defensively, he chipped in 12 tackles, nine interceptions, and 12 clearances. He won 27 aerial duels. Michel committed a career-high 24 fouls but also drew a career-high 38. He received three yellow cards — another career high.

Michel started in Orlando’s lone playoff match in 2021, playing 75 minutes at Nashville, providing no goals, assists, or shots, with an 80% passing rate on just 15 attempts, although two of those were key passes. He was dispossessed five times in that match and had five unstable touches, so it wasn’t his sharpest game — although the same can be said for several other Lions that day. He added three tackles and committed three fouls while drawing only one from the opposition.

In Orlando City’s Leagues Cup match against Santos Laguna, Michel played 32 minutes and attempted two shots (both off target). He won two of his three duels, did not commit a foul, and was not fouled.

Best Game

Michel’s best match of 2021 was easily the Lions’ 5-0 win at home over the San Jose Earthquakes on Aug. 12. He was a monster in that game, drawing an early penalty that Nani converted and scoring two of his four goals on the season in this one game. He set season highs in shot attempts (5) and shots on target (3) — both of which he equaled in a later game against the Chicago Fire. Michel started the match and played the full 90 minutes, passing at an impressive 90.48% rate on 21 attempts. He committed two fouls but also drew two, including the penalty on Florian Jungwirth.

The first Michel goal in the match was all effort, as he had to stick his foot around a shielding defender to poke the ball into the net, doubling Orlando’s lead to 2-0 at that point in the game. His goal celebration became an iconic City moment as he donned a cowboy hat that came out of the stands.

Michel completed his brace in the 90th minute, finishing calmly off an assist from Tesho Akindele.

2021 Final Grade

The Mane Land staff gave Michel a composite rating of 5.5 out of 10 for the 2021 season. This is a bit of a disappointment after giving him a 6 in 2019 and another 6 in 2020. The overall feeling was that the Homegrown was given more opportunities than ever and as a result should have improved upon his overall goal contribution numbers. Given the huge jump in playing time, one extra assist but fewer goals seems a step in the wrong direction in terms of production. There were matches when he played well, but throughout the season he was inconsistent with his first touch and was too easily dispossessed or took an unforced wayward touch that prevented a scoring chance from materializing. The Lions’ drop in production from both Michel and Mueller on the wings in 2021 was a key reason the team had to start its all-too-brief playoff campaign on the road.

2022 Outlook

Orlando City exercised Michel’s contract option for 2022, so he’s in the club’s plans for next season. However, 2022 seems like an important year in Michel’s career. With Nani and Mueller moving on, the Lions will need to rebuild wing depth. Michel didn’t cement himself as an MLS starter with his play in 2021, despite given the opportunity to do so. He’s obviously got the talent to succeed, but he must become a more consistent offensive threat by working on his first touch and his decision making in terms of knowing when to take on the defense and when to slow things down to maintain possession. The good news is that he’s starting to show signs of rounding out his overall game, but to become a full-time starter he’ll need to produce at a higher level and be more consistent around the penalty area. This could be an upcoming make-or-break season for the Orlando-area native’s time as a Lion, and City fans are hoping he makes the leap in his fourth year.


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