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Deep Group of Wing Players Should Serve Lions Well in 2021

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Orlando’s strength at winger should help facilitate rotation and rest for when the team needs its big guns most.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Several weeks ago I talked about how Orlando City was going to have the depth of its squad put to the test during the upcoming Major League Soccer season. A combination of a crowded fixture list across multiple competitions, combined with absences at various times for international duty, means that Orlando will need more than just its big ticket performers to come through over the course of the season.

Some areas of the squad have a question mark next to them in terms of depth, with fullback immediately springing to mind and striker also a little uncertain if Daryl Dike should depart. The part of the field I’m least concerned about though is the winger position, and actually OCSC’s strength across the board in that area should be a valuable asset this year.

Orlando City’s pool of out-and-out wingers consists of Nani and Chris Mueller (the presumptive starters), Silvester van der Water, Benji Michel, and Alexander Alvarado. In a pinch, Alexandre Pato is also capable of playing out wide, although he does his best work playing through the middle. Regardless, that gives the team five players at the wing position, three of whom have already proven themselves to be MLS caliber players. While we haven’t seen much from Alvarado, he’s young and has a lot of upside, and if Luiz Muzzi’s track record of signing young players continues then at the least he’ll prove to be a capable backup. Van der Water is a talented winger with a good amount of experience for his age, and could very well end up competing for a starting spot.

Both Nani and Orlando City should benefit from the large number of capable wingers. Orlando’s captain is 34 years old, and while his first two seasons in MLS have been good ones, they’ve both more or less followed the same formula. He has tended to have more goals and assists in the front half of the season when his legs are fresher and don’t have as many miles on them. Last year, he played 1,424 minutes during the regular season, which was sixth most among OCSC’s outfield players. Those minutes started to show a bit in the back half of the year, as the last goal he scored from open play came on Sept. 19 against the Chicago Fire. He’s one of the team’s most dangerous players, but he’s getting older and keeping him as fresh as possible for the end of the season (and hopefully the playoffs) is a strategy that needs to be considered. He’s done a phenomenal job of keeping his body in top condition, especially considering his age, but Father Time is undefeated.

If there are other difference makers on the team who can log meaningful minutes and help keep his legs fresh for the latter stages of the season, then it could give the Lions a helpful boost when they need it most. The question that will be interesting to get an answer to is: Who becomes the most dangerous winger not named Nani or Chris Mueller?

Let’s start with Benji Michel. This will be his third year with Orlando, and he showed improvement during 2020 from his first year in purple, notching the same number of goals (5) and two assists in 100 fewer minutes than he played in 2019. He did well enough to earn a seat on the plane for the Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament and, while that didn’t end the way anyone hoped it would, Benji has proven to be a solid MLS winger, particularly when coming off the bench. The question he needs to answer in 2021 is whether or not he can make a third-year leap the way Chris Mueller did last season, and go from a super-sub to a consistently performing starter.

Silvester van der Water is perhaps best poised to take the lions share (haha) of any winger minutes that are up for grabs. The team used Targeted Allocation Money to bring the Dutchman to Orlando, which is an indicator of what Luiz Muzzi and company think of his ability. On tape he certainly has the talent to succeed at the MLS level, even if his 10 goals and eight assists in 53 Eredivisie appearances don’t jump off the page right away. He has a lot of experience and can play comfortably on either wing — something that could prove invaluable depending on the team’s rotation needs. Van der Water will need to prove that he can adjust to a league with an unforgiving travel schedule and brutally hot games from May through September. If he can do that, then he might even wind up fighting for a starting position by the end of the season.

The real wild card of the group is Alexander Alvarado. The 21-year-old only logged 25 minutes last season, and while he showed a little of what he can do, we just didn’t really see enough to begin to formulate a real opinion on him. He has plenty of professional experience under his belt for his age and has played for Ecuador at both the youth and senior levels, which seems to indicate that he’s got plenty of talent. At 5-foot-5, he’s definitely on the diminutive side, so he’ll need to show that he can hold up in a league that tends to be on the more physical side of things. His best bet is to make mostly substitute appearances, with an occasional start here and there as needed.

Regardless of how things shake out, I’m very comfortable with the Lions’ situation at winger this year. I have plenty of confidence in Benji to do his thing, and I think van der Water will likely prove why OCSC used TAM to scoop him up. Alvarado is a bit more of a mystery but I wouldn’t be surprised if he chips in a couple goals and assists before everything is said and done.

As long as that group can avoid injuries and perform well, Nani should have some of the burden lifted from his shoulders. He’ll undoubtedly still want to be on the field as much as possible, but with the depth the Lions have at winger, the club shouldn’t be in a situation where he has to be on the field for the team to succeed. That in turn should help him be fresh and rested for when he’s needed most.