Orlando City’s strong start to the 2021 MLS season has largely been due to the team’s stellar defensive play. After a difficult 2-1 loss to the New York Red Bulls Saturday afternoon, the Lions now have three weeks before they’ll take the field again. The team that returns in mid-June is likely to be more balanced.
Following the loss, Head Coach Oscar Pareja spoke about the return of missing players after the break.
“The most important part of this break is the players that are absent,” Pareja said. “Because there are too many and (we need) to have the complete team available for the next game.”
Some of the players referenced by Pareja are defenders Ruan, who was injured against New York City FC, and Rodrigo Schlegel, who missed Saturday’s game after returning home to deal with personal matters. However, the most important returning players will be on the attacking side.
Prior to the 2021 MLS season, Orlando sent Daryl Dike on loan to Barnsley FC in England. Originally a short-term loan, Dike became a key part of Barnsley’s squad, scoring nine goals in 21 games to help the team reach a playoff position. However, its loss over two legs to Swansea City saw the team’s season end, also ending Dike’s loan.
After his Barnsley loan, Dike was immediately called up to the United States Men’s National Team. While he won’t play in the Concacaf Nations League semifinal or final, the striker will be a part of the camp and is available for selection in the June 9 friendly vs. Costa Rica. What happens after that is unknown. The U.S. will take part in the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup in July, with what Head Coach Gregg Berhalter says will be a largely domestic-based squad.
If Dike is not involved in the Gold Cup, he could end up playing the next few months with the Lions. Even if he is called up for the Gold Cup, the Lions might get their young standout back for a few games before that tournament starts in July.
With Dike succeeding in England, Orlando City brought in forward Alexandre Pato to take his place. The former Brazil and AC Milan striker started in the team’s first game against Atlanta United but was injured in the second half of his club debut. Pato initially seemed to escape any major problems but it was later revealed that he would be out for three to six weeks after a surgical procedure.
Orlando City’s attacking situation was made worse when club captain Nani was suspended for two games following an incident that resulted in contact with a referee. Occurring during the team’s 1-0 win over D.C. United, the MLS Disciplinary Committee deemed the contact was enough for the league to issue a two-game suspension, despite the Portuguese star only receiving a yellow card from the referee. That two-game suspension ended following the team’s loss in New York.
The lack of these three key players, as well as the cautiously slow return of left back Joao Moutinho, has been evident in Orlando City’s play. Tesho Akindele has spent his career as a second forward rather than a target man. This is shown in his career statistics as the Canadian has only recorded double-digit goals in one of his eight MLS seasons. That 10-goal season came in 2019, his first in Orlando.
Akindele is best at winning the ball, pressuring the opposition, and defending. It’s a role that he’s played well this season. However, that leaves the Lions without a target striker that will score the needed goals — though Akindele has picked up his pace in that regard with four direct goal contributions in the last five games. It’s a large reason why Orlando has only scored multiple goals once this season, scoring three times in a 3-0 win over FC Cincinnati.
While the defense has been great this season, it can’t be expected to hold the opposition scoreless or conced only once each game. Saturday’s 2-1 loss was the first time the team has given up multiple goals this season. It had previously given up just two goals in six games.
When the Lions face Toronto FC on June 19, they should have at least two of those three missing attacking players back. This will give the Lions a much better attack and allow Akindele to play a more comfortable role in the team. It will also take pressure off the defense knowing that it doesn’t have to record a clean sheet to claim all three points.
Several of Orlando’s wins this year have involved scoring early or on the break and defending the rest of the game. With the attacking players returning after the upcoming three-week international break, a more balanced team can play the way Pareja desires.