When Major League Soccer’s Disciplinary Committee decided to hand Orlando City captain Nani a two-game suspension, it was a questionable move to say the absolute least. The suspension was met with staunch criticism from the Orlando faithful, the MLS Players Association, and others.
The decision put a damper on Orlando’s hot start to the season as Nani was in fine form with three goals in five games to start the year. Losing your best player always hurts, but this shoddy suspension opened an opportunity for the Lions that can pay dividends in coming months.
On Saturday, new arrival Silvester van der Water filled in for the captain, making his first start and longest appearance as a Lion so far. He played 58 minutes against Toronto FC and notched his first assist. The Dutchman was dangerous and provided another creative, technical presence on the wing for the Lions. There was also another brief appearance from Ecuadorian winger Alexander Alvarado — his second of 2021 and fourth since arriving late last season.
Following the June international break, Orlando’s depth will be tested due to midweek games. The Leagues Cup will also test the team’s depth in August. Much like last year, squad rotation will be needed in these tough stretches and the depth on the wing is critical. The bulk of Orlando’s offensive production comes from out wide. Chris Mueller led the team in combined goals and assists last year with 17 and Nani was third with 11. A lot was asked of those two in 2020. Building depth out wide has been addressed in the last two transfer windows by Luiz Muzzi and the technical staff bringing in Alvarado and van der Water. Now, it’s important to get them acclimated and into some kind of rhythm with the team.
Getting early minutes further integrates these new faces into Head Coach Oscar Pareja’s system. While Nani and Mueller are clearly the starters and should get the bulk of playing time, getting game time for the team’s other wingers is critical. The sooner they find their rhythm, the deeper and more dangerous Orlando is.
With Nani out last week and again this upcoming Saturday against the New York Red Bulls, there is an opportunity to get other wingers into the action before the grind begins in earnest. If the Lions want to compete for multiple trophies, as their talent level indicates they can, then they will need contributions from depth players as well. Benji Michel can do well in a pinch coming off the bench, but one of van der Water or Alvarado must become a contributor as well.
If Nani gets hurt or finds a bad patch of form, or Mueller can’t recapture his 2020 magic, someone will need to step up to provide danger out wide. While missing Nani for this stretch of two games is certainly annoying and frustrating for the Lions, it could be a blessing in disguise by giving important minutes to other players before squad rotation becomes a necessity.