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Orlando City’s Defensive Versatility Has Been Its Key to Success

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The adaptability of Kyle Smith and Rodrigo Schlegel has lifted the Lions near the top of the Eastern Conference.

MLS: Toronto FC at Orlando City SC Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

Orlando City’s defense in 2021 has led the team to an undefeated start through six MLS games. It usually takes a consistently healthy back line to avoid conceding goals. However, versatility has been the key to success so far this season.

To say that Orlando City has struggled offensively would be an understatement. The team has only scored multiple goals in one of its six games. But the Lions have had an excellent start to the season, winning three games and drawing the other three.

The Lions have only conceded a league-low two goals through six games and have four clean sheets. That type of defensive production is a collective effort. While starting goalkeeper Pedro Gallese has been great, so have the players in front of him. But it hasn’t been easy.

Heading into the season, the back line was expected to consist of Ruan, Antonio Carlos, Robin Jansson, and Kyle Smith at left back while João Moutinho recovered from hip surgery in December. But Jansson was injured during the preseason and Ruan was injured in the team’s 1-1 draw with New York City FC on May 8.

The defensive success of the early season can be largely attributed to the play of Kyle Smith and Rodrigo Schlegel. Both players have filled in at multiple defensive positions and played well at each one.

Last year, Smith was Orlando City’s starting left back for much of the season, filling in for the injured Moutinho. Despite being a natural right back, Smith was excellent and helped a revived Lions’ defense that had struggled for most of the team’s first five years in MLS.

With Moutinho not yet ready for 90 minutes, Smith was once again asked to start at left back to begin the year. However, in the team’s fourth game, starting right back Ruan went down injured and was substituted at halftime. With Jansson still out at center back, the only option was to bring Moutinho back earlier than expected and move Smith over to the right side.

Many Orlando City fans know Schlegel because of his goalkeeping heroics in the 2020 MLS Cup playoffs against NYCFC. But the center back has shown his quality so far this season. With Jansson out injured early in the year, Schelgel started the first five games alongside Carlos. His exceptional play looked to be forcing head coach Oscar Pareja into a difficult decision.

Moutinho started his first game of the year last week against D.C. United. He went the full 90 minutes but experienced some soreness in training this week and Pareja said he held the Portuguese left back out of Saturday night’s matchup with Toronto FC as a precautionary measure.

Without Ruan and Moutinho, Pareja had to make some adjustments. Smith continued to play at right back, where he started in the nation’s capital, and Schlegel filled in on the left side. The result was a similar performance to the other games, where the Lions completed yet another clean sheet.

The versatility of Smith and Schlegel has been invaluable this year for the Lions. Not only have they filled in at multiple defensive positions, they’ve been excellent when inserted into the starting lineup.

The play of the pair has been a blessing but could become a problem for Pareja. On the one hand, the Lions’ boss knows he can plug these two players in anywhere on the back line and expect a quality performance. On the other hand, it causes difficult decisions when all defenders are eventually healthy.

For now, the versatility of Smith and Schlegel has been a godsend. They’ve produced stellar performances and have allowed Orlando City to make up for its offensive deficiencies despite multiple injuries on the back line. The confidence in the play of these two will only help the team going forward.

The lack of offensive production so far this year has forced the defense to carry the team. The season’s early success can be attributed to the Lions’ stingy play, resulting in four shutouts. Without the versatility of Smith and Schlegel, that likely would not have been possible. Instead, the team sits near the top of the Eastern Conference.