Orlando City’s preseason is now fully underway. The Lions beat the Philadelphia Union 1-0 in the first match of training camp. Both teams appeared to go to the bench often, and many players saw the field. As the Lions continue to improve as the season draws near, there are still a few question marks that hang over the team.
Below are just a few of the questions that must be answered before the start of the season.
Will the Lions add fullback depth?
The Lions’ defense has seen a remarkable improvement over the years. The defense was once breaking records for all the wrong reason. Now Orlando’s top choice back four of João Moutinho, Antonio Carlos, Robin Jansson, and Ruan has proven to be rock solid. The issue is there is little depth outside of them, particularly at the fullback positions.
Rodrigo Schlegel can fill in nicely at center back and even emergency goalkeeper. That is the extent of the options at center back. Jansson and Carlos combined for 40 starts last year — 22 and 18, respectively — and Schlegel made another seven starts. While another center back couldn’t hurt, the trio is a solid group.
The outside players have more questions marks surrounding them. Ruan gets up and down the wing every game that he plays. He tends to pick up minor knocks every now and then but overall has been able to stay healthy. He could use another option to give him a rest. Right now, that option is Kyle Smith, who is a more defensive-minded player and doesn’t provide the width in the attack that Ruan does.
Homegrown player Michael Halliday is a depth option, but the 18-year-old is young and unproven. He likely will need time to grow and develop before being handed a starting spot.
Moutinho is recovering from surgery. Smith is also currently the top option at left back, but there is a huge drop in quality from Moutinho to Smith in terms of service and for some of the same reasons regarding the attack as listed above. Smith is also not left-footed, so service from the end line can be an issue. An upgrade to replace the departed presumed backup, Jonathan Suarez, would be helpful.
What happens if Daryl Dike doesn’t return?
At this point, there is little reason to think that Daryl Dike will not return to Orlando City. However, he is excelling while out on loan, and the Lions recently reportedly turned down a $10 million offer from “one team from the Premier League’s big six.” If this unnamed team — or any other team — comes back with a better offer, it could leave Orlando with little choice but to accept. If that happens, what will the Lions do up top?
Orlando signed a handful of attacking players in the past year. Obviously it depends on the shape of the team, but Alexandre Pato is the likely starter to kick off the 2021 season if only one striker is used. If Dike returns as expected, the two could play together up top or they could rotate as the schedule requires to keep both fresh. Veteran Tesho Akindele will be in the mix and can be an effective spot starter as well.
Matheus Aias will also be vying for playing time at forward and, if needed, Benji Michel could potentially see some minutes there. Depth could be added when Derek Dodson completes his college season if the club signs him.
Pareja seemingly has plenty of options, even if last year’s top striker moving on.
Who will be Orlando’s breakout player?
Just about every year, there is a player who seemingly exceeds all expectations. Last year it was Dike. The striker struggled to even see the field at the start of the season and turned into a vital piece. Akindele was the team’s surprising attacking force in 2019, putting up a career high in goals. And in 2018 it was Chris Mueller turning heads. Who will be that player in 2021?
One player who comes to mind is goalkeeper Brandon Austin. While Pedro Gallese is the clear first-choice goalkeeper, Austin will likely have to fill in when Gallese is called up for international duty, particularly the month-long Copa America, which will take place from mid-June to mid-July. Austin will also likely be given time in the U.S. Open Cup, should the Lions play in it. Orlando’s goal should be to win the trophy, and the Lions will rely on Austin.
Another candidate is Halliday. As mentioned above, the Lions lack depth at fullback. If Halliday can impress the coaching staff and leapfrog Smith, starting right now in preseason, he could see a run of games this season when Ruan is rested. Or perhaps he slides over to the left back spot as well until Moutinho recovers.