The 2021 Copa America will feature a pair of Orlando City players, as Sebas Mendez represents Ecuador and Pedro Gallese represents Peru. Gallese has been Orlando’s unquestioned number one goalkeeper and his absence will allow the club to determine its options in goal once the season returns this weekend.
The MLS spring-to-fall schedule means that players representing their country will be absent for several games throughout the year. South American internationals are away for the Copa America in the summer and will be gone for CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers this fall as well.
The group stage of the Copa America, which began last night, will run through June 27. That means Gallese, Peru’s starting goalkeeper, will miss at least three of Orlando’s games.
This won’t be the first time Orlando City is without its star shot-stopper. Last season, Gallese was on international duty in October and November, causing the club’s backup to take over for four MLS games. While Gallese is the first choice, the Lions had a more-than-capable backup in Brian Rowe, who started for the Lions in 2019.
The first stretch of games came in mid-October, a key part of the year for the Lions. Rowe was terrific in those three games, recording a clean sheet against Atlanta United in Georgia and only conceding once each in a pair of 1-1 draws against New York City FC and the New York Red Bulls. The three points from those matches were critical for the Lions to host their first MLS Cup playoff game as they finished the season two points ahead of NYCFC.
With Brian Rowe as the backup, Orlando City knew what it was getting when Gallese was on international duty last year. An MLS veteran, Rowe had been a starter for several years and the Lions were aware they had a quality goalkeeper in reserve. The club offered Rowe a new contract after last year but the 32-year-old opted to retire instead.
To replace Rowe, Orlando City acquired Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper Brandon Austin on loan. The 22-year-old Englishman spent the 2019-20 season in Denmark with Viborg FF, where he made 14 appearances. Other than that, he played with Tottenham’s U-23 side.
Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja will surely go with Austin in goal to fill in for Gallese, but there are still questions about the young player. He has yet to take part in a competitive game for Orlando City so he hasn’t experienced MLS competition yet.
Regardless of his training with the team, it will be different when he’s in a full stadium against real opposition. The team’s first game back in action will likely be in a nearly empty stadium as the Lions take on Toronto FC. However, the June 22 matchup against the San Jose Earthquakes will be the team’s first full-capacity home game since Feb. 29, 2020.
While the next three games are important, Austin’s upcoming performances will show what Orlando can expect later in the season. Gallese will depart again in September and October to take part in World Cup qualifying with Peru. This will force Austin back into action during a critical part of the season.
If Austin plays well in the upcoming games, it will provide confidence that the team will be fine without its starter later in the year. But if he struggles, it could prompt questions about what the club should do when Gallese is away again on international duty.
Orlando City has gotten off to a strong start in 2021, currently sitting third in the Eastern Conference. The next few games will be telling for the season as some key starters will be missing. Austin’s play will allow the Lions to determine their backup goalkeeping situation going forward.