The beginning of Orlando City’s 2021 season was always going to be difficult due to suspensions, loans, and injuries. Getting those players back as soon as possible is key to the team’s success. Fortunately for the Lions, they’re starting to get healthy.
To start the season, Orlando City has been missing several starters. Playmaker Mauricio Pereyra was suspended for the first two games after being sent off during the 2020 MLS Cup playoffs and Daryl Dike remains on loan at Barnsley FC in England. The team has also suffered injuries to defenders Robin Jansson and Joao Moutinho, midfielders Uri Rosell and Nani, and new signee Alexandre Pato, who was injured in the scoreless draw against Atlanta United.
The fact that the weakened Orlando City squad was able to claim points in the first two games against Atlanta United and Sporting Kansas City is a positive. The team could’ve easily started in a hole by failing to get results but the Lions have put themselves in a better situation. Now, some of those players are starting to come back.
Pereyra’s two-game suspension ended after the team’s 1-1 draw with Sporting Kansas City Friday night, meaning the midfielder will be available for the team’s game on Saturday. The Uruguayan’s absence has been obvious in the Orlando City attack. Andres Perea has done well in his place but the 20-year-old can’t entirely make up for what Pereyra provides.
Moutinho’s recovery also seems to be going well as the left back was on the bench Friday night. Kyle Smith has done well in Moutinho’s place but Head Coach Oscar Pareja is anxious to get his starting left back into the lineup.
Possibly more troubling than any other preseason absence was issues for the team captain. Nani didn’t miss any regular season games, but was out for a period of time during preseason. As you might expect, it has taken some time for him to get back to his usual self.
“My preseason was a little difficult,” the Portuguese star said following Friday night’s game. “I was out for three weeks and I played only 45 minutes of one game in the preseason.”
In the team’s first game against Atlanta United, the time off was obvious in the attacker’s play. Arguably the team’s most important player, Nani appeared to still be working himself back into game shape. He looked much better in Kansas City Friday night and confirmed that he’s feeling more comfortable.
“It’s a long time not playing and getting in the rhythm is difficult,” he said. “Today I was a little bit better but there’s still a lot of work and I need to get in my best shape. But I know that just playing the games, you’re going to get your best.”
While Orlando City has been missing some key defensive players, that hasn’t been a problem through the first two games. Despite playing out of position, Kyle Smith has played very well in place of Moutinho. After spending much of the 2020 season playing left back, the natural right-sided defender is much more comfortable and continues to improve.
While Jansson has been a key Lion since arriving prior to the 2019 season, Rodrigo Schlegel has been more than an adequate replacement. Mostly known for his goalkeeping heroics against New York City FC in the 2020 playoffs, when starting goalkeeper Pedro Gallese was sent off in penalties, Schlegel has done very well when called upon defensively and been solid in the first two games this season.
The bigger issue has been up top. Dike’s absence has been noticeable as Tesho Akindele hasn’t looked good in either game this season. Pato looked like the new guy in the first half against Atlanta and then suffered a lower body injury in the second half. These problems only add to missing the two players most involved in the team’s attack.
It’s unquestionable that Orlando City is better when the Lions have their best attacking options. While the team will still be missing Dike and Pato, a healthier Nani and returning Pereyra will put the other players in better positions to score. With these two returning, fans should expect more opportunities on goal in the coming games. Likewise, Moutinho is more of a creator in the attack than Smith and is a more accurate crosser.
When Orlando City takes the field Saturday night against FC Cincinnati, Pereyra and Nani will be in the lineup and ready to produce. While still not at 100%, the team will be much closer to what fans should expect for much of the season.