Following the 2021 MLS season, Orlando City lost much of its offensive production. Chris Mueller departed for Hibernian FC in Scotland and Daryl Dike was sold to English Championship side West Bromwich Albion. Additionally, Nani’s option was not exercised and Alexandre Pato was out of contract.
The Lions made multiple signings to rebuild the attack. In addition to resigning Pato, the club brought in Uruguayan attacker Facundo Torres as a Young Designated Player and Austrian striker Ercan Kara as a Designated Player.
After initially closing all preseason games to the public and media, the club has provided access to two of the first three games, giving fans and media the opportunity to see where the new attack currently stands.
The first opportunity to see the new attack came on Feb. 5 in a morning clash against FC Dallas in Kissimmee. The starting lineup included both Pato and Kara up top. The two high-profile forwards showed they can be a strong attacking option for Oscar Pareja.
Over the previous two seasons, the 6-foot-2 Dike was Orlando City’s best target striker. In addition to his scoring ability, Dike had the size to hold up play and send oncoming teammates through. The only other player on the team with that type of ability was the 6-foot-1 forward Tesho Akindele. However, while the Canadian has shown excellent hold-up play, he’s struggled putting the ball in the net and has not been able to establish himself as the team’s first-choice option.
From the opening kickoff against FC Dallas, Orlando City fans saw the man who was signed to be Dike’s replacement in that role. At 6-foot-4, Kara is able to compete physically with the center backs in MLS. In his first public appearance for his new club, he showed an ability to hold up play, sending teammates through on goal, as well as putting shots on target.
Playing alongside Kara up top was Pato. The 5-foot-9 Brazilian doesn’t have the size of Dike, Akindele, or Kara, but is excellent on the ball. He showed off his skill and potential importance last season when he nearly scored the winning goal in a critical game against Nashville SC, only to see his free kick ping off the woodwork.
Against Dallas, Pato played slightly behind Kara. While the European import played the target role, Pato spent much of his time between his new strike partner and the midfield. As a result, Pato used his ability on the ball to get involved in the buildup, setting up Benji Michel on the left and Ruan on the right.
Things took a turn just before halftime when Kara was taken down by an aggressive opponent. The new signing stayed down as the Orlando City medical team came out to assist him. Eventually he got up but had to be assisted off the field, unable to put weight on his left leg.
It appeared as though the medical staff was looking at his knee and he was taken away on a golf cart, creating the fear of a season-long injury. However, the club later stated that it was a sprained ankle and Head Coach Oscar Pareja informed media after the following game Friday night that Kara is nearing his full return.
The injury meant that Kara was sidelined for the team’s second open preseason game against the Colorado Rapids Friday night. The absence of Kara saw Pato take over the target striker role in the starting role. However, the much smaller forward didn’t have the same impact against the Rapids.
While Pato was an integral part of the team’s attack against Dallas, he had much less of an impact against Colorado. He found it much more difficult to get involved in play and his lack of size forced the Lions to build on the ground instead of sending balls to Pato through the air.
In many situations, the Lions have gone with a 4-2-3-1 formation, leaving one striker up top. However, there have been times where Pareja has put two strikers on the field together. With that in mind, it wouldn’t be unusual to see Pato and Kara creating a strike partnership.
It’s a small sample size of two games and against two vastly different teams, but the performances against Dallas and Colorado show that Pato may be much more effective when he can drop back into the midfield and get involved in the attack. Conversely, he could be much less effective playing as a target striker, a role that Kara appears to relish.
However, there is another aspect that could play a role. Pato has been injury prone his whole career. As a young player at Internacional, it appeared as though he would be the next great Brazilian. After an impressive performance in the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup, he left for Italian giants AC Milan, where he joined former Orlando City captain Kaká.
Unfortunately, injuries have plagued the promising forward. He ended up making 117 appearances for Milan and 27 appearances for Brazil between 2007 and 2013, but has bounced around since, struggling to stay on the field.
His injury problems arose once again last season when Pato was injured late in the Lions’ first game against Atlanta United. The injury required surgery and resulted in his absence for most of the season. Even when he returned, he was only able to come off the bench for the last 20 or 30 minutes in the final few games down the stretch.
Orlando City fans were excited about the arrival of Kara, an Austrian international. But Kara’s injury against Dallas spurred fears that the new arrival would have the same injury problems as Pato. Fortunately, it appears that the injury wasn’t as serious and he’ll be ready to go when the Lions face CF Montreal on Feb. 27.
If Pato and Kara can stay healthy this season, Orlando City could have a strong attack. Pato’s ability on the ball will make him a threat going forward and Kara’s size will allow the Lions to play through the air — something they attempted frequently last season. Additionally, both players have a nose for goal.
When the season starts at the end of the month, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Pareja decides to play the two forwards together. In this case, it’s likely that Pato will play slightly behind Kara, getting involved in the attack, while Kara takes over the target striker role. It’s a partnership that’s already looked promising this preseason.