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Replacing Attacking Trio Key to Orlando City’s 2022 Season

Have the Lions done enough to address the departures of Daryl Dike, Nani, and Chris Mueller?

SOCCER: FEB 11 MLS - Colorado Rapids at Orlando City SC Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Orlando City is just 12 days away from kicking off its eighth season in Major League Soccer. After making the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, fans understandably have an expectation of the Lions taking the next step and transitioning from a team that is competitive and capable of reaching the postseason to one that can become a favorite to win a trophy.

However, in order to do that the Lions must replace some key players — all from the attack. With the departures of Daryl Dike, Nani, and Chris Mueller, the offense lost 23 goals and 17 assists from the 2021 regular season. That’s 46% of the team’s total goals and 34% of the club’s assists from 2021 that must be replaced.

To that end, the club has brought in a pair of Designated Players in Austrian target striker Ercan Kara and Uruguayan winger Facundo Torres. I’m not a mathematician but that’s two guys to replace three key losses in the attack. If there are no more additions to the roster, the Lions will enter the season needing to get more from re-signed forward Alexandre Pato (which, theoretically, should only require him to stay on the field since he was nearly absent for the entire 2021 campaign), second-year Dutch winger Silvester van der Water — who contributed three goals and three assists but struggled to find consistent minutes — and fourth-year Homegrown winger Benji Michel, whose production took a step backward in 2021 despite him playing 1,000 more minutes than he did in 2020.

While I remain skeptical (for the moment, anyway) that enough was done in the off-season to replace the three missing pieces of the Eastern Conference’s fifth-best offense from a year ago, Head Coach Oscar Pareja said during Monday’s Media Day press conference that he’s happy with the progress of the two attacking newcomers as well as central midfielder and MLS U22 Initiative signee Cesar Araujo.

“Gluing the new players (into the group) is not an easy task. It hasn’t come immediately,” the coach said. “They’re doing a great effort to make that happen. Despite their youth they have done that connection in different places. I’m very optimistic. They look very good and hopefully the (preseason) games that we still have, that can help us continue with that adaptation.”

“I feel like we’ve got a lot of pieces in place. It’s still missing maybe a couple things,” Orlando City Executive Vice President of Soccer Operations and General Manager Luiz Muzzi said on Monday, although it’s unclear if that meant the 2022 roster as it stands or just the guys, such as Antonio Carlos, who have been dealing with visa issues.

The 26-year-old Kara may be best equipped to replace the production of the player who vacated his position. The 6-foot-4 target striker seems to have all of the requisite skill and strength to make up for Dike’s departure to the English Championship. Kara is in his prime as a player. The Austrian made 32 appearances in 2021-2022 for Rapid Vienna in all competitions, scoring 14 goals and adding four assists. Last season, Kara notched 20 goals and 11 assists in 43 appearances across all competitions. A player in the Austrian national team’s pool, Kara should have the maturity and experience to adapt to life in North America quickly and produce on the field.

Torres has massive upside but is just 21 years old. With other Uruguayans and assorted other South Americans already on the team, Torres may have a bit more of a support structure than Kara, but as a much younger player, he’ll need it. His preseason debut on Friday was a solid one, as he showed his quickness and creativity, drawing several set pieces and giving the defense a lot to focus on. Still, he’s got big shoes to fill if he’s going to replace Nani’s team-leading 18 direct goal contributions of a year ago. To be fair, he doesn’t have to do that himself. If he and Kara can combine to replace the production that left with Nani and Dike, that just leaves a hole where Mueller was last year.

Despite Mueller’s slump in 2021, he still finished with nine direct goal contributions (three goals, six assists). But even when he wasn’t providing offense, Mueller’s relentless energy and hustle plays were helping the Lions maintain and/or regain possession and creating issues for the opposition. Short of another signing — and there have been rumblings about another young South American wing player who could join the team this spring — that’s going to fall to some combination of Pato, Michel, and van der Water.

It’s reasonable to expect the 25-year-old van der Water to produce more in his second season (especially if he can stay healthy). It’s also reasonable to expect more than five appearances and one start for Pato in 2022 after his disastrous first season in Orlando from a health standpoint. It’s also possible that Michel will make a jump in 2022. After all, he’s only 24. While Michel has at times struggled with consistency and with his touch, he’s an obvious talent and has the ability to finish around the net.

If there are no more signings prior to opening day, the new players must settle in quickly and the returning players must produce for Orlando to remain among the Eastern Conference’s group of playoff teams. If the offense struggles, Muzzi will be under pressure to get something done in the secondary transfer window if the Lions are to avoid falling back among the pack below the postseason line.

The resources should be in place for that to happen if needed.

“They’re committed to putting resources for us to make the team bring titles and trophies here. You can’t ask for more than that,” Muzzi said of the Wilf family, who took over the club’s ownership in late July of last year.

Club ownership having deeper pockets than previous years could be key to Orlando City’s 2022 season if the roster as it stands struggles to replace the offense that left over the winter months. The Lions are better positioned now than in previous years to spend money mid-season to correct any roster deficiencies that are exposed.

“I have felt support on the idea to make this franchise stronger and bring in the players that we have signed today,” Pareja added. “It was not an easy task for the club financially or even fighting with many other clubs that wanted one of these players, so I have seen support and and that’s good.

“We have these ideas to keep working in terms (of) bringing in the people to the club that really deserve to dress in an Orlando City jersey and create this culture of collectivism. We would like our fans to feel proud about the culture that the club has and the Wilf family has been supporting that idea. So, bringing in Ercan, Facundo, Cesar, and possibly just to keep growing, but not with desperation. I think we have to be wise about bringing the right people here. That will be the success on the project for me.”

If the new Lions’ new pieces can fit snugly early in the season and the returning players are able to increase their production from last year, there should be no reason to expect Orlando City to tumble out of the top half of the conference this season. But at this point there are a lot of questions and we’ll just have to wait to see how everyone answers them when the regular season arrives.