During halftime of Orlando City’s 0-0 draw with Atlanta United Saturday afternoon, Head Coach Oscar Pareja made one key change. He took veteran forward Tesho Akindele off and brought on 20-year-old midfielder Andres Perea. In the second half, Perea showed that he may be able to take over a role for the Lions that will eventually be vacant.
One of the most important acquisitions for Orlando City over the past two years was the signing of Mauricio Pereyra. The former Uruguay U-20 international joined the Lions in 2019 from Russian club FC Krasnodar and immediately made an impact.
While much of the domestic and international focus on the club has been on Nani, Pereyra has been just as important for the team on the field. Playing as the team’s No. 10, Pereyra has been the team’s facilitator, creating chances in the final third.
However, Pereyra was sent off during the Lions’ 3-1 loss to the New England Revolution in the 2020 MLS playoffs, meaning he is serving a suspension to start the 2021 MLS regular season. That leaves a key position empty that needs to be filled.
To start the game, Pareja used several players in an attempt to fill that role. Nani, Chris Mueller, and Junior Urso played in the middle of the field at times, looking to fill the role that would typically be filled by Pereyra. Unsatisfied with the offensive production in the first half, Pareja decided to go another way.
Part of Perea’s job was to stop Atlanta United midfielder Santiago Sosa. “We needed to stop the number five, a player that is a key player for them,” Pareja said after the game. “We stopped that connection and we started increasing ours.”
Perea typically plays as a defensive central midfielder. This is a strength as he’s able to break down the opposition’s attack. But that’s not the entirety of the role the young Colombian filled when he entered the game to start the second half.
When the Lions transitioned into the attack, Perea was used as the facilitator to play the attackers forward. He spent much of the second half playing in front of Urso and Sebas Mendez but behind Nani, Mueller, and Alexandre Pato. Pareja gave Perea the freedom to roam the midfield, creating options for passes and sending the more attacking players through on goal.
“We needed a player that can mix the energy there, who can give us some legs too,” Pareja said after the game. “Andres knows how to do that.”
Perea’s role in the attack Saturday afternoon was because of the missing piece in the midfield, but, if he can develop that side of his game, it could be his primary role in the future. Pereyra is 31 and Nani is 34 years old. The two most often used playmakers, both are entering the later stages of their careers. Mueller can also fill that role but is better and more comfortable with space on the outside.
The Lions could go after a new addition to fill that role, but it could take time for them to jell with the others on the team. That was also seen Saturday as Pato seemed to have some trouble connecting with his new teammates, which is not unusual for players joining a new team. The team’s facilitator can’t have that type of trouble if the team wants offensive production.
A change in position isn’t to say that the young midfielder has been bad as a defensive player. While Perea has done well defensively at the club and youth international level, the Lions are well-stocked in that position. In addition to Urso and Mendez, Uri Rosell is an experienced veteran that would be above Perea on the depth chart.
Perea showed an exceptional ability to spread the field and find space for attacking teammates. He’ll still need some work to become a starter at that position — notably on his finishing if he’s going to become an attacking player — but at only 20 years of age, he’s got plenty of time.
Eventually, Orlando City’s older playmakers are going to move on. With their increasing ages, that’s likely to happen sooner than later. The Lions will need to find their new playmaker and, as we saw Saturday afternoon, it might be the young Perea.