Young center back Rodrigo Schlegel became an instant club hero for Orlando City with his heroic performance as an emergency goalkeeper against New York City FC in the MLS Cup playoffs last season. After such an iconic moment, it can be easy to overlook Schlegel’s actual value as a player. Through four games in 2021, Schlegel is proving to be much more than just a folk hero.
Starting center back Robin Jansson, who has started 50 regular season games for Orlando since joining in 2019, has been dealing with an injury since the start of this season. With Jansson out, Schlegel has filled in on the back line. The 24-year-old has more than lived up to the standards of his Swedish teammate, helping the Lions concede only two goals this season.
The early success of Orlando’s defense and Schlegel’s impressive individual performance leaves Oscar Pareja and his staff with an interesting problem moving forward: Who should start at center back once Jansson is recovered?
The Case for Schlegel
I’ve mentioned it a few times already, but Orlando City has been pretty great defensively through four weeks of MLS play. A lot of that defensive success comes from the teamwork between Schlegel and Antonio Carlos at center back. They have limited opportunities for opposing strikers and made things challenging in the box.
Schlegel in particular has done a lot of defensive work. Through four games, all 90-minute starts, he’s already racked up seven tackles and five interceptions. For context, Jansson had 12 tackles and 17 interceptions across 22 starts last season during a shortened season with little rest between matches. Center backs don’t necessarily need to make many tackles to be successful, but it does fit well with the style of play Pareja wants. When numbers are pushed forward in attack, center backs have to put out fires at a high level, and Schlegel has shown he can do that.
He’s also been good in possession. Antonio Carlos and Sebas Méndez have been on another level in that department, but Schlegel has been very good as well. He’s averaging 43 passes at a 92.3% success rate per game, including three successful long balls per game. Jansson’s best asset is his own distribution and Schlegel has been up to that level so far in a small sample size.
The Case for Jansson
Jansson has been a revelation for Orlando City at center back since signing from AIK in Sweden. His defensive strength, range of passing, and consistency have played a huge part in stabilizing one of the worst defenses in MLS history. In the 2018 MLS season, the Lions conceded 74 goals, which was the worst mark in league history at the time. The rotation of center backs, including Jonathan Spector, Lamine Sané, and Amro Tarek, wasn’t able to stabilize a poor defense. The arrival of Jansson in 2019 was key to conceding 22 fewer goals than the previous year. With further reinforcements such as Carlos and Pedro Gallese arriving in 2020, Orlando gave up the sixth-fewest goals in the league last year.
That experience is valuable. Jansson has played against the best of MLS at a pretty high level for two whole seasons and that shouldn’t be taken lightly. His partnership with Carlos was fantastic for stretches of last season. They had an excellent understanding of one another on the field, even though the two players don’t speak the same language.
Perhaps more valuable than his experience is his distribution. I know I said Schlegel is passing well this season, but he’s still not Jansson. The Swede has been one of Orlando’s best long ball distributors for two seasons, particularly last year when he averaged nearly three successful long balls per game over the course of an entire season. Even though Méndez, Carlos, and Schlegel have all been better with their long balls through four games, we’ve seen how great Jansson’s passing accuracy can be for two seasons now.
What Should Orlando Do?
This is a great, and new, problem for Orlando City to have. For most of its MLS history, it’s barely had one starting-caliber center back and now it has three. In the immediate future, this is Schlegel’s spot to lose. The defense is organized, he fits the system, and he is performing as well as a center back could. As long as he continues to play up to this level, he’s locked in as a starter. If the Lions keep playing this well defensively, there’s no reason to shake things up.
However, Jansson is far from out of the picture. This is a big year for squad depth for Orlando, with midweek MLS games and the Leagues Cup providing plenty of opportunities for regular rotation. He’ll get plenty of minutes, and he’ll have every opportunity to unseat Schlegel for the starting spot. Having this type of competition is what makes good teams great, and it will hopefully get the absolute best out of every center back on the roster. It might be Schlegel’s job right now, but if he doesn’t maintain his current remarkable form then another high-level player will be ready to take that spot.
Do you think Schlegel has earned a regular starting job or is it still Jansson’s spot to lose once he recovers? Leave your thoughts below.