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Center Back Depth Becomes Issue for Orlando City in Wake of Antonio Carlos Injury

After Antonio Carlos’ injury, Orlando City’s lack of depth at center back could become a problem.

SOCCER: JUN 22 MLS - San Jose Earthquakes at Orlando City SC Photo by Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Orlando City starting center back Antonio Carlos suffered a seemingly serious injury Saturday night in the team’s 4-2 loss to LAFC. The injury saw the Brazilian depart in the 18th minute, replaced by Rodrigo Schlegel. Evaluation of Carlos’ injury is ongoing, but an early report indicated he could be out for six months with a torn hamstring. An injury to a center back was a fear for the Lions heading into this season as now their lack of depth at the position will be on full display.

Prior to the 2020 MLS season, Orlando City acquired Carlos on loan from Brazilian side Palmeiras. Following that season, the club signed him to a permanent three-year contract with an option for a fourth year. The deal could keep him in Orlando through the 2024 MLS campaign.

Carlos joined Swedish center back Robin Jansson on the Lions’ back line. Jansson had joined the team a year prior, initially partnering with Lamine Sane. Despite the two forming a solid pairing, Sane had a high salary and a history of injury issues, and he was eventually replaced by Carlos.

The new pairing of Carlos and Jansson was a huge success. They have become one of the league’s best center back pairings, resulting in Orlando City’s defense being a strong point over the past two seasons. The Lions had three shutouts in the first five games before their loss Saturday night

Carlos’ backup is the 25-year-old Schlegel. The Argentine became a fan favorite when he went in goal and made a save after goalkeeper Pedro Gallese was sent off in penalties during a 2020 MLS Cup playoff game against New York City FC. However, Schlegel has shown himself to be more than a capable defender, backing up Jansson and Carlos.

The Orlando City defense likely won’t be as strong without Carlos in the lineup, but Jansson and Schlegel have had significant time together. The two made up the center back pairing throughout the preseason, when Carlos had trouble getting a visa to re-enter the country. Now it appears that the two will be starting together again.

The bigger problem is what is behind Schlegel on the depth chart. With Carlos injured, the third center back is now 17-year-old Homegrown Player Thomas Williams. The Titusville native has yet to make an MLS appearance, though he did play well during the preseason. Additionally, he made his professional debut in 2020 for Orlando City B, making 13 appearances and 10 starts for the club’s second team.

If Carlos is out for an extended period of time as reported, it’s likely that Williams will be thrown into action. While Jansson and Schlegel will be the starters, Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja likes to shift to five in the back when the team has a late lead, bringing on a third center back. The teenager is currently the only remaining center back on the roster, making him that late substitution. He may also be called upon to start on occasion, as both Jansson and Schlegel are prone to picking up yellow cards.

Williams showed during the preseason that he is a good prospect that could be a key player for the Lions in the future. But he’s still just 17 and has yet to make a first division appearance. At this time last year, he was playing for Orlando City’s U-17 team. That’s putting a lot on a young, inexperienced player when you’re trying to see out a game with a one-goal lead.

The lack of center back depth was a topic of conversation heading into this season. It’s why so much was said about Williams having a strong preseason. Everyone knew that an injury could force the teenager into an important role when the Lions have a late lead. It appears as though that situation has come.

If Carlos is indeed out for a majority of the season, Orlando City has found itself in a difficult position. Williams is a good player but will be forced to grow up quickly. He got his first competitive action with OCB on Sunday but moving forward it’s unclear how much experience he’ll get with the reserve side as the senior team will need him. His ability to be up to the task could be key in Orlando City’s success this season.