Even with the recent loss to the New York Red Bulls, Orlando has had an excellent start to the season, sitting second in the Eastern Conference and five points back in the race for the Supporters Shield. Most everything has gone as well as one could’ve hoped to start the season, but if there’s one glaring hole, it’s the fullback position.
In 2020, fullback was an obvious strength of the team. The combination of Joao Moutinho and Ruan was arguably the best tandem in the league and incredibly dangerous on the attack. They both posed real threats overlapping and whipping in crosses, a key component of Orlando City’s offensive attack. Aside from creating chances in the box, it also opens space for the likes of Nani and Chris Mueller to cut inside and create centrally. This threat has been seriously missing for the Lions in 2021.
A lot of that is due to injury. Moutinho started the year with an injury and has battled other injuries since coming back, while Ruan hasn’t played since May 8 and isn’t even back in training. Without those two, the offensive presence at fullback all but disappears. Kyle Smith has been great for Orlando — an incredibly reliable defensive presence — but he has half as many shot-creating actions per 90, progressive carries per 90, and crosses per 90 than Ruan had in his early season appearances. Homegrown Michael Halliday has been equally unproductive offensively, with only 0.97 shot-creating actions per 90, well short of Ruan’s 2.65.
Moutinho has been less of an offensive threat than Ruan or even prior versions of himself, playing more as a third center back than an overlapping left back, but he still gives Orlando so much quality with his delivery when he decides to push forward. There is no replacing the offensive threat of Moutinho and Ruan. While Smith is a great player and Halliday is incredibly promising, neither pose any real threat pushing forward, leaving so much offensive burden on Nani, Chris Mueller and the other wingers. So far this season, those playmakers have delivered. Nani has been an MVP candidate and Mueller’s been good and getting better, but will Orlando City have enough offensive thrust all season without contributions at fullback?
My gut says no. Defenses will key in on Nani and company, making things far more difficult and put an unsustainable burden on the offensive playmakers. Having overlapping fullbacks as a supplemental offensive weapon creates problems for defenses and opens up so much space, but with Smith, Halliday, and other, less offensively potent fullbacks, that threat just disappears.
So how does Orlando get more production in wide areas? Hopefully sometime this year we’ll see both Moutinho and Ruan return to the lineup, which could largely improve these issues. There’s also hope that Halliday will continue to grow with more playing time. He delivered a dangerous cross against the Red Bulls and will hopefully improve his sharpness and confidence with more first-team minutes. That’s far from a concrete solution with a whole lot of ifs, but it’s a somewhat plausible answer. The other potential solution is the transfer market. Orlando was already linked with one potential left back, though The Mane Land’s sources found no truth to the rumors. Could Luiz Muzzi and company find another fullback in the secondary transfer window? It seems possible and is probably the best way to find an other fullback capable of replicating Ruan and Moutinho’s offensive production.