Orlando City’s full 2021 Major League Soccer schedule was released on Wednesday. It didn’t contain a ton of surprises with the Lions playing a total of 34 regular-season games — with just over half of those against six regional opponents in order to minimize travel during the COVID-19 pandemic. What the schedule does reveal though, is that depth is going to be very important for the Lions this season.
For starters, the amount of matches during the summer months will be a challenge. July and September will both see Orlando play six games, and a healthy diet of midweek games will make things tough. Taken by itself, that would be challenging, but manageable; after all, the dreaded Wednesday game is something all teams have to deal with at multiple points during the season. Making things more difficult for Orlando though, are the other things that will be going on outside of the Major League Soccer season.
OCSC will play at least one game in the Leagues Cup, hosting a Liga MX side on Aug. 9, meaning that the team will play six games during the month of August as well. Plus, if the team advances, then it could end up playing up to two additional matches during the month of September. Should Orlando participate in the U.S. Open Cup this year, then the team will play at least one additional match in either May or June. While no information about Open Cup participants has been released yet, Orlando has been a participant in each of the years the team has played in MLS. Even though only eight MLS teams will be taking part in the tournament this year, if OCSC is invited then the fixture list gets that much more congested.
Again, all of these things would be tough, but manageable. Where things will really start to test Orlando is international duty. The Copa America will take place from June 13 to July 10, and Sebas Mendez and Pedro Gallese will be away from the team for at least part of that time, and will actually be gone earlier than the start of the tournament to train with their teams. If the United States U-23 team qualifies for the Olympics, then Benji Michel and Andres Perea could also be called up and unavailable for some portion of July 23 to Aug. 8. It doesn’t end there though because the Gold Cup will run from July 10 through Aug. 1, and it’s very possible that Chris Mueller and Daryl Dike could be in the squad to compete for that trophy. The Gold Cup is a tournament that the U.S. historically does well in, so if the duo are part of the squad, then expect them to be away for most, if not all, of that window of time.
There will also be the usual issues with injuries and fitness to deal with over the course of the season, not to mention the possibility of players needing to quarantine if they contract or are exposed to COVID-19. Orlando did a good job of remaining more or less unscathed during the 2020 season, but chances are the team will encounter at least a few issues with COVID before the 2021 season draws to a close.
The long and short of all this is that depth is going to be hugely important for Orlando. Mueller, Dike, Mendez, and Gallese are all frequent starters that the Lions will be without for extended stretches at some point, and Perea and Michel were spot starters and frequently used substitutes during 2021. None of those absences will be insignificant, and the previous four could have a big impact on Orlando’s success. That’s where depth in the OCSC roster comes in.
Fortunately, Orlando seems to be well prepared in that area. The team has done a good job of bringing in bodies, particularly at the forward position with the additions of Alexandre Pato and Silvester van der Water, and even signing Wilfredo Rivera as a Homegrown Player. The team is pretty well stocked at midfield and center back (the latter, providing reinforcements arrive from the rookies drafted in January), but is looking a little thin when it comes to the fullback position. Joao Moutinho, Ruan, and Kyle Smith are the only true fullbacks with professional experience. Homegrown Michael Halliday has not yet seen the field and, while Brandon Hackenberg can apparently play some fullback, we don’t yet know what level of play he’ll bring to the table.
Regardless, the Lions are going to need all hands on deck at various points this season. Guys like Brandon Austin, Mason Stajduhar, Matheus Aias, and Alexander Alvarado will need to deliver when the players in front of them are unavailable. Being a successful soccer team is a double-edged sword, in that the better a team is, the more competitions it qualifies to play in and the more players are likely to be in their national teams’ picture. A big part of Orlando figuring out just how good it can be in its second year will be determined by how its roster holds up top to bottom when facing all the challenges ahead of it.