By this point, Kyle Smith is a familiar face to Orlando City fans. The 29-year-old joined the Lions before the 2019 season and has made 42 regular-season appearances while also playing in both of the team’s playoff games last year. After a couple of seasons of slotting in as a substitute for injured players or to spell a starter, he has stepped his game up in 2021.
For someone who played in 23 games in 2019 with 15 of those being starts, Smith flew a little under the radar his first year in Orlando. He was a solid backup who ended up being thrust into a starting role as Joao Moutinho and Ruan struggled with fitness. In particular he flashed his versatility, playing fullback, center back, and even starting in midfield for a game. He averaged 1.8 tackles per game, 2.2 clearances per game, 0.6 interceptions, and 0.8 blocks per game while passing the ball at an 81% rate. Last year, he averaged 2.3 tackles per game, 2.3 clearances per game, 0.8 interceptions, and 0.25 blocks per game, while passing at an 81.5% clip and chipping in with an assist. In summary, he increased his defensive stats in every category except for blocks, and was a slightly better passer.
He also increased his end of season grade from our writers here at The Mane Land. Smith was awarded a season rating of 5.5 in 2019, with that number going up to a 6 in 2020. While he actually played fewer games and minutes in 2020 than he did in 2019, Smith’s contributions were more noticeable last year, both because of his statistical increases and the context of the minutes that he was playing.
During Orlando’s run during the MLS is Back Tournament, Moutinho was one of the key pieces for the team due to what he brings offensively, namely the ability to attack down the wing and provide quality service into the box. After Moutinho went down injured and his season ended, there was plenty of reason to doubt whether or not Orlando would be able to win without him.
The short answer was yes. The Lions did keep winning, even in Moutinho’s absence. They didn’t quite reach the heights of the possession-based, attacking soccer that was being played during MLS is Back, although the absences of Uri Rosell and Mauricio Pereyra at times during the second half of the season played a factor there too. While he didn’t bring nearly as much threat going forward as Moutinho did, Smith stepped in ably on the defensive side of things. There was no drop in the quality of Orlando’s defending after Moutinho went down, and Smith grew more comfortable and confident after getting a run of games as a starter; and a Man of the Match performance that saw him provide an assist, seven tackles, a clearance, and five crosses was the highlight of those games.
The left fullback position was a big question mark ahead of this season with Moutinho still sidelined by injury and Smith the only backup fullback (and a traditionally right-sided one at that) with any professional experience to his name. We knew that Smith wouldn’t have a problem with the defensive side of things, but the drop in quality offensively is something that was a worry. While it’s only been a small sample size, Smith has ratcheted his overall game up a notch in 2021. He’s averaging 3.3 tackles per game, 3.7 clearances, 0.7 blocks, and 0.3 interceptions.
While he hasn’t turned into an offensive dynamo overnight, he’s improved in that area too, especially in terms of his passing. His accuracy rate is up to 83.3% and he’s averaging three accurate long balls, 0.7 crosses and 0.3 key passes per game. Again, although the sample size for those numbers is small, the increase is still there. If you want to go by the eye test, Smith looked perhaps the most comfortable going forward he ever has for Orlando during the 3-0 win over FC Cincinnati, doing a particularly good job of brining some danger to the attack during the opening half-hour. He was an important part of Orlando’s tying goal against Sporting Kansas City as well. Smith’s improvement has also been reflected in his grades this year, as he’s averaging a 6.5 through three matches and was awarded the Man of the Match with a 7 in the season opener.
In short, Smith has turned the dial up during his first three performances of the 2021 season. His defensive stats are up for the second straight year, and he’s starting to bring a bit more on the offensive side of the field too. Moutinho is the presumptive starter once he returns to full fitness, but as the only experienced backup fullback on the roster, combined with the history of the two starters struggling to stay fit, Smith’s involvement in the season will be far from over. Based on how he’s played so far, that’s definitely a good thing.