The 2021 Major League Soccer season is nearly upon us and while we’re not exactly back to normal yet after a decidedly abnormal 2020, hopefully there will be a greater sense of normalcy than last year. Soon it will be time to get your scarves, jerseys, and tailgating supplies ready because fans are allowed in the stands and the number of folks permitted to attend should only go up as the season moves forward.
Orlando City had a relatively quiet off-season after its most successful MLS campaign to date. The Lions appeared in the MLS is Back Tournament final, made the playoffs for the first time in the team’s top-flight era, and kept its core together over the winter months. Luiz Muzzi and Oscar Pareja had to make only minor tweaks this off-season to improve the overall team quality and nearly every area of need was either sufficiently addressed or, in one case, addressed only to unravel due to — well, let’s just say “unfortunate circumstances” and move on.
Let’s take a look at Orlando City’s off-season.
How Did Orlando City Finish in 2020?
The Lions did well last season, finishing 11-4-8 (W-L-D) with 41 points, which was good enough for fourth best in the Eastern Conference and across Major League Soccer overall. If not for a poor final few minutes in the season finale, the finish would have been tied for second overall on points with Toronto FC. Orlando’s four losses in 2020 were tied with Philadelphia for the lowest in MLS.
In the postseason, Orlando City hosted New York City FC in the first round and drew 1-1 before advancing in the most bizarre penalty shootout imaginable. Goalkeeper Pedro Gallese was sent off with the Lions in control during spot kicks, only to see Nani’s try saved. Rodrigo Schlegel became a club legend with a save and the Lions advanced. Orlando fell 3-1 to New England in a heartbreaker. Down to 10 men, the Lions had a chance to level with a late penalty but Nani had his shot saved for the second straight week and the Revolution added an insurance marker late to end Orlando’s season.
Oscar Pareja enters his second season at the helm. Papi turned things around quickly last year with an 11-4-8 season, a 4-1-2 run in the MLS is Back Tournament, and the club’s first-ever postseason appearance. He also did well to quickly develop young players such as Daryl Dike, Andres Perea, and Joey DeZart, who all logged meaningful minutes in 2020.
F, Alexandre Pato
W, Silvester van der Water
GK, Brandon Austin
F, Wilfredo Rivera (Homegrown Player)
F, Dom Dwyer
GK, Brian Rowe
D, Kamal Miller
D, Alex De John
F, Santiago Patiño
Projected Best XI:
It’s difficult to pin down Orlando’s best shape. When the full team is available, a key player will be missing from the starting XI regardless of what shape Pareja uses. I think we might see more 4-4-2 if Pato and Dike are both available.
The best 4-4-2 lineup probably leaves van der Water on the bench and leaves Mauricio Pereyra playing in a deeper role, which probably means the Lions need Sebas Mendez’s pace and tackling on the field as the No. 6:
Pedro Gallese; Joao Moutinho, Robin Jansson, Antonio Carlos, Ruan; Nani, Mauricio Pereyra, Sebas Mendez, Chris Mueller; Alexandre Pato, Daryl Dike.
The best 4-2-3-1 leaves either Pato or Dike on the bench and either van der Water or Mueller would work on the right wing:
Gallese; Moutinho, Jansson, Carlos, Ruan; Uri Rosell, Junior Urso; Nani, Pereyra, Mueller; Dike.
The best 4-3-3 strengthens the midfield but leaves more top attacking players on the bench:
Gallese; Moutinho, Jansson, Carlos, Ruan; Rosell, Pereyra, Urso; Nani, Pato, Mueller.
Best Off-Season Move:
The best move during the off-season is the addition of Pato. The veteran forward can play in multiple formations and, with the club parting ways with Dwyer, the Lions needed a player who can score goals. Orlando gets someone with potential Designated Player-level production at a reasonable cost. The potential sale of Dike makes this an even bigger signing.
Pato’s play in preseason games shouldn’t be blown out of proportion — it’s the preseason, after all — but a forward figuring in a goal every game in which he plays is still a good sign. If he can carry that momentum forward into the MLS season, Pato could be one of the league’s best signings of the off-season.
Reasons to be Worried about Orlando City:
There are a few reasons to be concerned about the 2021 Lions at this point. The team’s work in limiting goals conceded a year ago could easily be undone if something happens to the center back position. Robin Jansson and Antonio Carlos worked well together last year and turned into one of the league’s best (and most underrated) central defense pairings. Rodrigo Schlegel also played well on the few occasions he was asked to fill in.
However, that’s it for the center back depth in terms of experience. The Lions never replaced De John, who recently signed with Atlanta. Rio Hope-Gund, a first-round draft pick out of Georgetown, signed on April 8. Right now, he’s the only true depth behind Schlegel. If one of the starters went down, it would be bad for Orlando. If two of the three experienced center backs were out at the same time, it could become a catastrophic weakness.
Speaking of depth issues, we simply don’t know what the Lions have after Gallese in goal and he’s going to miss a good chunk of the season due to Copa America duty. Rowe was a solid backup last year but there’s no MLS experience between loan signing Austin and Homegrown Mason Stajduhar.
TL;DR — Two of last year’s team strengths could be problematic in 2021.
Why Orlando City is Worth Watching:
The Lions became a fun team to watch in 2020 and that shouldn’t change this season. Orlando plays an exciting brand of possession-based soccer, typically building out of the back but perfectly willing to have Jansson or Rosell send a long ball out wide to catch the opposition napping and create a quick transition opportunity.
Nani is always doing something interesting on the pitch, whether it works or not. The captain favors a bold style of play that is often jaw-dropping but can occasionally backfire. It’s not fair to call it a high-risk, high-reward style, because he’s so gifted with the ball that the risk is never as high with him as it seems.
The team is loaded with other fun players, too. Dike was a revelation at forward last season. Mueller is a hard-working and creative player with a motor that only runs at full power. Pereyra is a sorcerer with the ball because, as Falcon says, a sorcerer is a wizard without a hat. And let’s not forget Ruan’s (and Benji Michel’s) blazing speed, Junior Urso’s passion, Gallese’s highlight saves, the hustle of the center backs, or Moutinho’s magical crosses.
And we haven’t even seen Pato or van der Water yet!