Three matches into the 2022 MLS season, it has become clear how teams are tactically going to deal with Orlando City attackers — foul early, foul often. The Lions have suffered 52 fouls on the season, which is second in Major League Soccer only to the San Jose Earthquakes, who have sustained an incredible 59 fouls in the first three matches of the year.
Orlando’s fouls suffered numbers could be right up there with San Jose’s if referee Ismir Pekmic hadn’t been so lenient in the first half hour or so of the match at Chicago. There were several plays let go early in that match that were whistled as fouls in the second half. Likewise, Marcos de Oliveira was a bit lenient early in the opening match against Montreal and started being more strict in the second half as the game became more chippy and threatened to get out of hand.
Orlando City is on pace to suffer 589 fouls over the course of the 2022 season. That’s a huge increase over 2021, when the Lions were just the 10th-most fouled team in the league, sustaining 419 in 34 games. At the current rate, that would finish as an incredible 170 more fouls over last year, which is a rise of five more infractions per match on average. And there haven’t even been any rivalry games against Atlanta or Miami yet.
When it comes to translating fouls into bookings, Orlando’s opponents have already picked up 11 yellow cards and one straight red (four bookings per game, on average), with the leniency (incompetence?) of Pekmic the only reason Fabian Herbers didn’t get a second yellow (or a straight red) in Chicago and Fire forward Jhon Duran didn’t get a straight red for an elbow to Cesar Araujo’s face.
What about Orlando’s fouling? Are these just contentious, physical games?
The Lions have committed 46 fouls on the year, which is tied for seventh most in the league. If you add up the three OCSC opponents so far, the total is equivalent to the 52 of New York City FC, which sits second in the league in most fouls committed. That’s not a giant discrepancy, but it’s one that isn’t hard to explain.
Referees typically don’t like to call games in a way to leave a large discrepancy in fouls, which gives the appearance to neutral observers of calling an even game. But that doesn’t mean the game is called the same way for both teams and it doesn’t account for the kinds of fouls being committed. A couple of Orlando’s fouls in the Cincinnati game came during attacking set pieces. In the Chicago game, both Alexandre Pato and Facundo Torres were whistled for fouls trying to win balls back in the attacking third, after they themselves appeared to have been fouled without a call. Being called for attacking fouls is a bit different than chopping down the other team when the opposition has the ball and is trying to score.
As for cards, the Lions have received eight yellows on the year — only three fewer than their opponents — but, like fouls, not all bookings are created equal. Orlando has gotten two of those yellows for time wasting, three for dissent, and Robin Jansson’s first yellow against Montreal was for “other reason,” which likely had to do with something he said to Romell Quioto within the referee’s earshot shortly after the Montreal forward had punched him. Araujo’s two yellow cards this season were for a slight shirt tug against Montreal that wasn’t an obvious transition and an attempted grab that failed and didn’t even slow down his opponent at Chicago.
Meanwhile, Orlando opponents have been booked for tactical fouls to stop the Lions’ attack from creating danger seven times. Herbers’ such infraction on Torres was extremely rough and cynical, and could have been red. Joel Waterman should have been sent off for being the last defender and denying Ercan Kara a goal-scoring opportunity in the opener.
Playing physical is perfectly fine, if it’s within the rules of the game. Orlando opponents are roughing up Pato, Torres, and Pereyra and that has a cumulative effect as a game wears on. Some of that contact is being called and some isn’t, which is normal.
The Lions’ defensive midfielders are doing a typically good job of drawing fouls, but Torres (8) and Pereyra (7) are also getting fouled a lot, and that doesn’t even take into account Chris Penso’s MLS initiation-like treatment of Torres on a couple of occasions last Saturday, when he let go some of the things he was otherwise calling. Kara has been fouled three times in limited action. Pato doesn’t seem to be getting those calls, only having been officially fouled twice so far, but watching the games tells a different story and his ability to keep the ball has also resulted in some “play-on” situations.
Pereyra was getting knocked around pretty good against Cincinnati, often to the point where he had to recover his footing after a first touch before he could regather the ball. Fair play to the opposition if the referee allows it, as it disrupts the timing of the Orlando attack and prevents Pereyra from turning toward goal and picking out his next pass.
How Can Orlando Combat this Approach?
Ideally, referees should be handing out more bookings for persistent infringement. Brandon Vazquez seems to be the only player to have received such a booking among Orlando opponents so far in 2022. And that doesn’t necessarily mean one player has to rack up fouls. If a team collectively is knocking Pereyra and Torres down often, a booking should be given to discourage that. However, if one cannot count on a referee to only overturn goals on clear and obvious errors, there’s no way one can reasonably expect competent and consistent calling of games.
As a result, Orlando will continue to see these tactics from opponents until the Lions can adjust and punish their opponents for it. One way to deal with it is to score first, which is easier said than done, but it can alter the way an opponent approaches the game. It’s difficult to get into a rhythm to come from behind in a choppy, stop-and-start match, and a team with the lead has an advantage if there are a lot of stoppages. Taking an early lead won’t eliminate the tactic completely, but taking a two-goal lead certainly would.
Otherwise, Orlando will need to be stronger on the ball to play through some of these fouls, and it must get much better at set pieces. If teams are going to concede free kicks, the Lions need to punish them for it, and so far they haven’t been doing that. Perhaps there was less fouling tactics by opponents a year ago because of Nani’s free kick prowess and Daryl Dike’s known ability to win aerial crosses and get them on target. The Lions haven’t been very good so far on set pieces. Kara appears to be a good set piece target like Dike was, but his minutes have been limited early this season due to his preseason injury.
Antonio Carlos is a good target as well, but hasn’t been the most accurate in getting headers on frame. When he did (on a corner this past Saturday), Alec Kann made a good save to deny him a goal. Outside of Kara and Carlos, there isn’t a lot of aerial prowess in the starting XI. Is that something that can be addressed in the next transfer window? Maybe, but we’ll have to see first if more minutes for Kara mean him getting more comfortable with service — or that opponents can’t just focus on Carlos on set pieces.
What about going for goal? Here’s where losing Nani hurts and even departed winger Chris Mueller had shown an ability to bury a direct free kick. Pereyra has shown inconsistent accuracy on his direct free kick shot attempts during his time in Orlando. The ones he’s gotten on target haven’t had enough pace on them and have been saved. Others haven’t been on frame. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not the best man for the job, but he’ll need to dial in his delivery. Torres hasn’t been accurate yet on his tries. Pato might be a good option in terms of pace and accuracy, coming close with a blast late last season against Nashville. This is an area Oscar Pareja and his staff will have to work on to figure out the best solution. If that’s Pereyra, he must improve. Plus, the Lions will have to win more free kicks in good shooting positions.
Lastly, the Lions need to do a better job of getting the ball into the area. Opponents are unlikely to foul inside the box, where conceding a foul can be lethal. So far, teams have done a good job of packing the middle of the field at the top of the area and fouling Orlando on the perimeter, where set pieces have a lower chance of success. A more concerted effort of getting the ball inside the top of the area can create issues and/or win penalty kicks. Just getting it into the middle, even outside the area, can help create better free kick opportunities.
The bottom line is that Orlando must make teams think twice about fouling. There aren’t many ways to do that and some aren’t always in the team’s control. So far, these tactics have cost the Lions five out of nine points. That’s the kind of success rate that will ensure that opponents will continue to foul Orlando City until the Lions force them to stop.