As we head into the 2021 MLS season this weekend, we live in a much different landscape from the time prior to the 2020 season, when we hadn’t yet begun dealing with the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic that ended up halting the last campaign after just two weekends. The world looks a bit different now, but it’s trending in the right direction after an arduous 2020 calendar year.
After a standout season, the Lions didn’t make a lot of changes in the off-season but did add a few pieces to the attack. Oscar Pareja will head into his second year at the helm with an established philosophy and team identity, and expectations have never been higher.
I reached out to The Mane Land staff to find out what everyone is thinking ahead of the Lions’ seventh season in Major League Soccer.
What is your biggest concern with Orlando City entering 2021?
Ben Miller: As it stands right now, my biggest surefire concern is fullback depth — specifically left back. Kyle Smith proved that he’s more than capable of holding things down in Joao Moutinho’s absence, but Moutinho just brings a different level of play when he’s on the field. Both he and Ruan have struggled with fitness at times, and depth behind them is pretty damn thin at the moment.
Daniel Finton: Honestly, it may sound silly, but I’m concerned with how Orlando will cope with not being the underdog in every match. Pareja has made the team a force to be reckoned with and sides may view matches against the Lions as difficult, and play differently.
Guilherme Torres: It has to be a key player sustaining an injury that keeps him off the field for some time. The Lions easily have their deepest roster ever but some players like Nani, Mauricio Pereyra, and Pedro Gallese just won’t be replaced by others with the same quality and experience if they go down. Missing one of these three would inevitably drop Orlando’s level and that could be enough to jeopardize the entire season. That could also be the case, to a smaller extent, with one of Ruan or Moutinho.
Scott Carnevale: My biggest concern has to be the back line depth. I wrote about it a few weeks ago as part of three questions around Orlando City. Specifically, who will play left back? Smith is a good enough option to fill in for Moutinho. When he needs a rest or if he gets hurt, what happens then? Similarly, Orlando only has three experienced center backs — Antonio Carlos, Robin Jansson, and Rodrigo Schlegel. Let’s hope that the Lions don’t fall into injury troubles because the options at the back are thin.
Sean Rollins: The left back position will once again be an issue for Orlando City. Jonathan Suarez was brought in to provide depth but with him now gone, Smith will probably start the season there. While he’s done well, it’s not his natural position.
David Rohe: The left back position. I don’t just mean that the Lions need a left-footed backup for Moutinho, which they do. I also mean João himself. I’m hoping that injuries don’t continue to be an ongoing issue for the youngster. Orlando has Smith, who many know is a favorite of mine for his tenacity and effort, but he’s better as Ruan’s backup on the right side.
Marcus Mitchell: The depth at fullback is worrisome. Smith did well at left back last season to fill in for Moutinho, but an injury to Smith or Ruan could leave Orlando scrambling. Homegrown Player Michael Halliday can step in at right back if needed, but he is far from experienced. Fullbacks were utilized often on offense by Oscar Pareja in 2020, so it will be crucial that they stay healthy until more depth is added.
Joshua Taylor: Striker. Orlando City scored 40 goals last season and improved with a plus-15 goal differential. However, Dom Dwyer left the club in the off-season and we aren’t sure what’s next for Daryl Dike’s future, especially with him leading the strikers with eight goals last season. This season will have a combination of Tesho Akindele, Alexandre Pato, and Matheus Aias leading the front with the most experience. If Dike doesn’t return, they will have lots of work to do unless the Lions’ midfield bails them out.
My Take: While most of my colleagues chose a specific position as their area of concern, and I agree that left back is the most troubling spot when Moutinho is unavailable (I definitely don’t share Joshua’s concern with the strikers — this is the deepest group ever if Dike plays and is still good without him), I like the answers Daniel and Guilherme gave. There is no chance Orlando sneaks up on anyone, especially Atlanta, in 2021. And there is no like-for-like replacement for Pereyra or Gallese, although I think the Lions could be OK if Nani is unavailable after adding Silvester van der Water. My biggest concern is that Orlando simply handled the weirdness of the pandemic better than most teams and that will be much less of a factor this year. I’ll be interested to see how the Lions get out of the gate to start building momentum.
Which position group on the 2021 Lions are you completely unconcerned about?
Ben: Winger, without question. You have Nani and Chris Mueller starting, with van der Water competing for and possibly usurping a starting position, and then Benji Michel and Alexander Alvarado. Alexandre Pato can also play out wide if necessary. Orlando looks very established and dangerous at that position.
Scott: At first I was inclined to say forward. Even if Dike doesn’t come back, or is in Orlando for just part of the season, Orlando still has many attacking weapons. But even stronger than the forward line are the goalkeepers. Pedro Gallese is one of the best ‘keepers in the league. El Pulpo made some truly fantastic saves last season. While we have yet to see Brandon Austin in action, the Tottenham Hotspur youth product appears to be an excellent choice as the number two ‘keeper.
Sean: The strongest position group for Orlando City is probably the midfield. There is more depth in the midfield than any other position. While Pedro Gallese is a rock in goal, Austin and Mason Stajduhar are unproven thus far.
Daniel: I’m the least concerned with the midfield at this point. City has a great deal of players who can play in many different areas. Therefore, I think in the middle of the park the Lions will be set this season.
Dave: I am most unconcerned with the forward position. Pato, van der Water, Mueller, Akindele, Michel, Aiás, newcomer Derek Dodson (if he signs after his college season), and the potential return of Dike is a large and diverse group of goal scorers. The only question will be who gets the hot foot and when? I can see many of these players putting up double digit numbers in 2021.
Marcus: This group of wingers may be Orlando’s strongest since joining MLS. Nani and Mueller combined for 16 goals and 10 assists in the shortened MLS regular season last year, while Michel did well coming off the bench. Alvarado and new addition van der Water and give Pareja even more options to work with out wide.
Guilherme: Central midfield. Orlando is four-deep right there and has a group that features players with different skill sets in Uri Rosell, Junior Urso, Andres Perea, and Sebas Mendez. I believe Pareja will not only have enough bodies to rotate at his will during the season but actually viable options to change the team’s playing style if he wants to.
Joshua: I liked the team’s midfield lineup. Michel, Mueller, Perea, Mauricio Pereyra, and a healthy Nani could do some damage if the strikers struggle early on in the season. I know the Lions are stacked at every position this year, but if Pereyra can continue to create scoring chances for the club, it can make a difference with the Lions winning big games down the stretch.
My Take: As most of my colleagues mentioned, Orlando is set in the midfield and on the wings with lots of depth and quality there. In addition to the defensive mids that Guilherme mentioned, I think Joey DeZart could develop into a solid option as well. I don’t share Scott’s confidence in the goalkeeping because I agree with Sean that Austin and Stajduhar are unknown variables right now. Both have potential, but we knew what Brian Rowe brought to the table and we can’t count on that reliability when Gallese is out at this point.
Which of these players — Andres Perea, Joey DeZart, Benji Michel, or Rodrigo Schlegel — will improve the most over last season?
Ben: I think Perea is well positioned to make a big leap this year. Defensive midfield depth will take a hit when Sebas Mendez is at Copa America during the summer and Perea has already shown he’s got the raw ability to be a contributor for this team. If he can refine certain parts of his game like his passing and decision making then I think we could see a lot of improvement.
Scott: Michel. Perea will get the most game time out of the group, but Michel will have a fantastic year. I think he will end the season as the second highest goal scorer on the team, behind Mueller. The addition of other attacking players on the team this off-season will free Michel up, as well as Mueller’s continued development and the sheer presence of Nani. 2021 will be a career year for the Homegrown Player.
Dave: I’m going with DeZart. I think that Schlegel has some room for improvement but has already shown he’s a capable center back. Benji has already shown improvement in his time with the U.S., and Andres played a ton of matches last season. Because of that, DeZart has the opportunity to make an outsized improvement in comparison to the others mentioned. Plus, I think he has a pretty high ceiling, and some great players ahead of him from which to learn.
Sean: I expect to see the most improvement from Perea. I don’t expect DeZart or Schlegel to play as much this year and I see Perea having a bigger role in the team.
Daniel: I would have to say Michel. The more I see him, the more he impresses me. I have this weird feeling he could be the next big thing for the club.
Marcus: I think it has to be Perea. He will likely be the one forced to fill in for Pereyra during the Uruguayan’s two-game suspension to start the season. The Lions don’t have many creative players in central midfield and the opportunity is there for Perea to build upon the flashes of skill shown last year.
Joshua: I think Michel can really improve in his third year with the club. I know he won’t start every game but I can see him fill a familiar role as a super sub and score goals off the bench. Over the last two seasons with the Lions, Michel has 10 goals and three assists. He could break that 10-goal barrier mark this year and can have a breakout season just like Mueller had last season.
Guilherme: I believe Perea is the one who will get the most playing time among the four, so I’ll take him. He was really solid in 2020 and seems ready for the next step, especially after being called up for the USMNT.
My Take: Of these four players, I think Michel might improve the most of these four, but I’m not sure that will translate into much better numbers now that the presence of van der Water and perhaps more minutes for Alvarado will combine to make the wing position more crowded.
What’s your gut feeling on Daryl Dike? Will he play zero games for Orlando City in 2021, a few games, half the season, or the whole season (after he returns)?
Ben: That’s a tricky question, made all the more difficult by his scoring numbers for Barnsley. If he comes back to Orlando after his loan ends, I think he’ll be here the whole season. He’s proven that he can play at a European level, so if Orlando brings him back, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the savvy Luiz Muzzi hold onto him for the season and try to drive up his asking price with a good full season of MLS play. But honestly, with the way he’s been playing for Barnsley I think its probably 50/50 on whether he comes back at all, regardless of what the company line has been from the front office so far.
Dave: Orlando City will most likely get Dike back for part of the season. I said weeks ago that he would continue to get bigger offers while still on loan to Barnsley, and then even bigger offers once he came back and started scoring goals for Orlando City. Most likely he will be gone in the summer window, and while that stinks for Orlando City supporters, it will ultimately be good for both Dike and the club. Whatever number over $20 million it turns out to be is a heck of a return on investment for a drafted player.
Scott: Dike will not play again for Orlando City. It hurts to even write this, but his success while on loan has Premier League teams looking for him and Orlando will want to cash in. Dike’s value should only continue to grow, but I think a team pulls the trigger and pays the asking price for Dike this summer.
Marcus: I’m predicting a few games with the Lions for Dike until Orlando gets an offer too good to refuse. Not only are English Premier League clubs reportedly interested, but Dike will have a busy year with the United States Men’s National Team as well. Regardless of how this shakes out, it will end up well for Orlando, considering the windfall of cash if Dike is sold.
Daniel: I have a feeling he will play zero games for the club next campaign. The better he performs with Barnsley, the more likely a move away could become. While his loan club might not be able to snap him up on a permanent basis, I believe some club will be able and willing to.
Sean: I don’t see Dike returning to Orlando. Based on the reported offers, I expect he’ll be sold before he’s able to play another game for the club.
Guilherme: I believe Dike will return from his loan spell just because not many teams in the world are in position to spend the money Orlando is (justifiably) asking for him right now in a player with such a short career and some important questions yet to be answered. If he leaves, I’d think it will be at the end of the European summer window, after a team makes a big sale and decides to invest in him.
Joshua: I think Dike will play a few games this summer for the Lions, assuming Barnsley FC doesn’t get promoted to the Premier League. However, I don’t think Dike will be a Lion for long with many Premier League clubs expressing interest. I think some club is going to bite and pay some big money to keep Dike in Europe.
My Take: Barring some crazy good offer that is too high to refuse, I think Daryl returns, plays about a month and a half, and gets sold when he continues scoring. Barnsley is playing well now, but I’m not sure the Reds will get through the playoff to earn promotion. It’s possible the club could execute the purchase option on the loan and immediately sell him on to another team, which would greatly benefit Orlando from the initial sale price, plus the percentage of his sell-on, but I think that would require Dike to score even more than he already is. Here’s why:
The price would have to go up or it’s not worth Barnsley’s while. For example, assuming reported numbers are correct, if Barnsley bought him for $20 million and moved him on for $25 million, the Lions would reap the original $20 million, plus an additional $5 million, which is a wash for Barnsley, which would net zero profit after spending the initial $20 million and passing along 20% of that sell-on fee. If Dike sold for $30 million, Orlando would get $6 million and Barnsley would net $1 million dollars profit in the transaction. I’m not sure Dike has yet shown enough for an EPL club to spend $30 million on him. So, the most likely sale would be to a promoted Barnsley, and then only if the technical staff there think Dike is ready to start at center forward in the EPL. So, I think the most likely scenario is that Daryl returns to Orlando and plays a few games while Orlando lines up a buyer.
Who leads the Lions in goals in 2021 and how many will they score?
Ben: If Dike is here for a full season, then I think he leads the team with 15. If he isn’t, then I think Pato seizes the opportunity and leads the way with 10.
Sean: I think Nani will lead the team in goals this season with around 14 goals.
Scott: Mueller will have the most goals, followed closely by Michel. Mueller will finish with about 20 goals, with Michel at around 15.
Daniel: Pato for me. I have a feeling he’ll do decently and score a respectable 13 or so.
Guilherme: If my thoughts about Dike are correct and he ends up staying for the entire season, I’d say it’s him with 14 goals (regular season and postseason included). If not, I’ll take Mueller with nine.
Dave: Pato leads the club in goals with 16. I don’t think Orlando City will have one dominating scorer, but rather several guys with double digit seasons. We saw something similar last season, with goals coming from multiple players, and I expect that to continue this season.
Marcus: Pato will finish with the most goals with 15. The Brazilian has done well in the preseason so I don’t think there will be much rust or time needed to adjust. Dike and Akindele are both great at pulling defenders and Pato is capable of finding the same spaces exploited by Mueller last year. With a lethal supporting cast around him, Pato should do very well.
Joshua: Nani will lead the team with 16 goals this season. I know he only scored six goals last season and played 19 games due to injuries. If Nani can regain his form when he joined the team in 2019 — he led the Lions with 12 goals — so it’s certainly possible.
My Take: With Dike’s uncertainty and Pato’s preseason form without even probably knowing all his teammates’ names yet, I think the Duck will end up on top with around 14 or 15 goals. I think Scott might be clinically insane (j/k), but I wouldn’t hate it if he ended up being right. Getting 35 goals from those two guys in addition to what Pato, Nani, and others contribute would be an incredible offensive season. I expect Michel to be a backup all season and 15 goals off the bench would be unbelievable.
Which newcomer (and I’m counting two guys who arrived late last year) will have the greatest impact in 2021: Alexandre Pato, Silvester van der Water, Brandon Austin, Matheus Aias, or Alexander Alvarado?
Ben: I think it’ll be Pato or van der Water. In Pato’s case, he showed last season at Sao Paulo that he still knows where the goal is, and with Nani, Mueller, and Pereyra around him I think he could surprise a lot of people with what he does this year. Van der Water is no slouch either, and between his own ability, Nani getting up there in age, and Mueller potentially getting brought in for the Gold Cup, he’s definitely going to have an opportunity to impress. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if van der Water ends up with something like six assists and seven goals, or something in that range.
Scott: I think Pato will have the most appearances and most goals out of the group. I don’t think any of them get to double digit goals though. Pato will especially have the biggest impact if Dike is not on the team. It will be interesting to see how many minutes he gets, but even if he largely comes off the bench he should have enough quality left in him to change the momentum of the match. Austin will likely get games in cup matches and possibly start for Gallese when El Pulpo is in need of a rest. He could end up being a terrific addition but without the appearances he will not be the Lions’ best newcomer.
Sean: I think that Pato will have the biggest impact. With Dike possibly not returning, I think the team will rely more on Pato than originally planned.
Joshua: After transferring from Hercales in the offseason, I think van der Water will have the greatest impact in 2021. He can be that creative playmaker for the Lions. We know when Pereyra missed games last season, the Lions’ offense really struggled. If Nani or Pereyra go down with injuries, you have a proven midfielder with experience that can fill the void to keep the Lions steady, especially with a packed schedule of matches and tournaments this year.
Daniel: I’d be inclined to go with Pato. While I think many will be impressed with Austin’s quality, if he’s rotated in, Pato could be the standout newcomer.
Dave: This is a no-brainer for me, as we’ve already seen it during the preseason. Pato is going to be a huge part of the offense. Prior to Dike’s return, I expect him to be the first choice striker, and even after Dike comes back that might still be the case. He scores, he provides assists, and he has plenty of experience. My impression is that he has something he wants to prove to himself and his doubters. I also think Pareja and Orlando City might be the right coach and the perfect place for him.
Marcus: For the same reasons I think he will score the most goals for the Lions, I think Pato will have the greatest impact. Pato will likely receive more minutes than any other newcomer considering his experience and the chance Dike doesn’t play many games with the Lions. I’ll also throw a small shoutout to Dodson, who isn’t signed or with the team, but could make an impact once he does.
Guilherme: It has to be Pato. As a striker, he’ll have the most chances to impact the game and I believe he’ll be a nice addition for the Lions. I don’t expect him to set the league on fire, but he’ll score important goals and bring a spark off-the-bench when called upon. He should also get some starts when Dike is out, either still on loan or in international duty.
My Take: Yep, it’s Pato. Joshua is the outlier here as we have a strong staff consensus.
Which Orlando City Homegrown Player not named Benji Michel gets the most minutes in 2021: Mason Stajduhar, Raul Aguilera, Jordan Bender, Michael Halliday, David Loera, or Wilfredo Rivera?
Guilherme: I say Loera because he seems to be the most ready of them and has been with the team last year already. Stajduhar has more first-team time than him, but goalkeepers hardly get as many opportunities to play as field players.
Sean: I think Bender will see the most minutes this year. He improved throughout the 2020 campaign and I see him coming off the bench more regularly in 2021.
Ben: Halliday. I think Orlando City’s fullback situation is going to lend itself to the youngster getting a decent chunk of playing time, whether it be in substitute appearances, cup games, or spot starts.
Joshua: It could be an opportunity for Rivera. I know I’m going out on a limb here, but I think Rivera will get a shot to prove himself after a solid performance with Orlando City B last season. He led the young Lions with three goals and made 15 appearances. Rivera will capitalize on this chance especially with his speed and versatility. If the striker depth gets dealt some injuries, Rivera could step up down the stretch even if his minutes are limited to a reserve role this season.
Scott: Halliday could end up becoming a starter this year. With the lack of depth on the back line, if Halliday proves himself early on, he could become a regular starter in just a few weeks. The rest will struggle to see the field much this season.
Daniel: It would not surprise me to see Halliday granted some more minutes. With his preseason goal, he could be filled with confidence, and that is the key as a youngster.
Dave: Halliday will get the most minutes due to his position as a defender. The rest are further down the pecking order on the roster in relation to those that play the same position. Given that Pareja likes his fullbacks to bomb forward into the attack, I think having Halliday as the third choice on either side gives him the best chance to get in the game.
Marcus: In terms of minutes, I will go with Halliday. The midfield is going to be crowded with so many Homegrown Players fighting for minutes and I don’t see Stajduhar getting past Austin on the depth chart. As far as impact, Bender could stand out among the pack.
My Take: The majority likes Halliday here and it’s possible but, if it happens, I think that likely doesn’t mean very good news for Orlando City in terms of health. Loera and Bender seem the most ready but their position groups are deep. I think I’ll take Stajduhar here because if he plays one full game, he might get more minutes than any of the others in 2021.
What position in the Eastern Conference will the Lions occupy at season’s end?
Daniel: I have a feeling that Orlando City will narrowly scrape into the playoffs. If I had to predict a finishing spot I would say sixth.
Guilherme: I place the Lions at fourth, behind Columbus, Toronto, and Atlanta.
Dave: I think that Orlando City finishes the regular season in third place in the Eastern Conference. The Lions make the Eastern Conference final, and after that I’m not entirely certain. This is a team that could win it all, or merely take another step forward. My head says third at season’s end, but my heart says they lift the cup. Oof, I’m already starting to get worried about the season.
Ben: Third. The fullback conundrum and questions over Dike’s future definitely mean that there’s some room for fluctuation this season. However, I think this squad still has enough talent top-to-bottom and is comfortable enough with Pareja’s system to finish one spot above where it did last year.
Sean: I don’t see Orlando City being the top team in the East just yet but I think it can reach the third spot in the conference.
Scott: Orlando City had its best season to date last year. And, on paper, they have gotten better this off-season. They finished fourth in the East in 2020. I think that’s a fair place for them again this year. I’ll have them one spot better, finishing in third.
Joshua: The Lions will finish third in the Eastern Conference.
My Take: It’s clear that Daniel is the pessimist in the group, expecting a big drop-off for some reason. No one seems terribly optimistic, without a single person predicting an improvement by more than one position, but that’s just the way Orlando City fans are wired. This is a tough question because it forces you to figure out which other teams have gotten better or worse, and there are always teams that surprise everyone on both counts. I’m going with Guilherme and saying a repeat of fourth position but I think the team might be better prepared for the postseason.
Hit me with your boldest prediction for Orlando City’s 2021 season. Make ‘em extra spicy!
Marcus: Orlando City sweeps the 2021 MLS Awards. Pareja proves 2020 wasn’t a fluke due to the shortened season and will be named Coach of the Year for turning OCSC around. Nani will have double-digit goals and assists, including a strong highlight reel, to win MVP. Gallese will continue building his reputation in the league, adding more clean sheets to win Goalkeeper of the Year. Ruan will lead all defenders in assists after improving his crossing ability, becoming the first fullback to win Defender of the Year since 2001. Pato wins Newcomer of the Year and Moutinho secures Comeback Player of the Year once he returns to form. With Diego Rossi now ineligible, either Dike wins Young Player of the Year by staying with the Lions or Dodson becomes the latest young forward to shine under Pareja.
Dave: Orlando City not only wins the MLS Cup, but also the Leagues Cup. The Lions run the table on both Atlanta United and Inter Ft. Lauderdale, and do so while never losing a match in Exploria Stadium. The Dike deal garners the club a cool $30 million to play with, and Pareja earns the MLS Coach of Year award he was denied last season.
Scott: Mueller will win MVP. How’s that for bold? Mueller had a career year last year and was a key reason why the Lions were so successful. Cash has gotten better every year and that trend will continue in 2021. He will finish in the top five in the most combined goals and assists, and become a regular in the USMNT picture.
Ben: Orlando City leads the league in goals scored. Perhaps not the boldest direction I could have gone considering only four teams outscored the Lions last year, but the men in purple will have some stiff competition in that category. Atlanta United gets Josef Martinez back and LAFC will have a full season of Carlos Vela. However, if Dike stays, Orlando has one of the most dangerous crops of attacking players in the league, and I think it could start pouring goals as well as copious amounts of precipitation in central Florida this year.
Daniel: Michel will be an out and out starter. In my opinion, he could do what Mueller did last season this coming one.
Joshua: I think the Lions learned a lesson from their playoff loss to the New England Revolution last season. I say the Lions redeem themselves, make it to MLS Cup, and win their first trophy in club history.
Guilherme: Junior Urso will be sent off in one of the matches against Atlanta after a scuffle with Josef Martinez.
Sean: My bold take for this season is that Orlando City won’t qualify for the Open Cup but will make the Leagues Cup final.
My Take: I will say Nani scores seven goals this season for Orlando and ends up only fifth on the team in goal-scoring behind Pato, Mueller, Michel, and van der Water, in that order. If Dike returns after his loan and stays the full year, he will join the others ahead of Nani as well.
Thanks for reading this way-too-long roundtable discussion. We can be a verbose bunch sometimes, but we’re all excited for the MLS season to get going. Let us know in the comments where you agree and disagree and give us your own bold predictions.