Orlando City kicked off its 2023 MLS regular season Saturday night with a 1-0 win over the New York Red Bulls at Exploria Stadium. The Lions found the winner in the 56th minute when a handball in the box by Sean Nealis allowed Facundo Torres to score from the spot. Prior to the goal, the Lions struggled dealing with New York’s successful and consistent high press. However, they might have an answer to teams that attempt to do the same in the future.
As expected, Orlando City came out with Designated Player Ercan Kara starting up top. The 6-foot-4 Austrian is the biggest attacking option for the team, with an ability to win balls in the air and compete physically with the biggest center backs in the league. But his lack of pace made it difficult for his team to beat its opponent over the top, which it tried to do unsuccessfully, especially in the first half.
Oscar Pareja’s first substitution in the game was bringing 21-year-old U22 Initiative signing Ramiro Enrique into the fray in the 63rd minute. The Argentine offered the speed and energy that Kara’s game lacks, and Pareja mentioned that his ability to stretch the field was a key reason why the substitution was made.
“Seeing the way he performed today and the way he came out in the game, bringing us that energy, so those actions were just himself creating something that we needed,” Pareja said about Enrique’s inclusion after the game. “Because we were under pressure, it just let us feel very optimistic. The idea of bringing him on in the field was exactly that, just tried to stretch the field because that’s what he likes. And use the spaces in behind of those central backs, tried to win our duels and use his energy as well to defend. I think he did that very well.”
Other than Enrique’s speed and energy, little is known about his game in Orlando. It’s still unclear how well he’ll finish chances when he’s up top on his own. He scored 12 goals in 73 appearances at the club level in Argentina, but he’s yet to experience being a forward in MLS when his team needs a goal.
What we did learn from this game is that Enrique provides the attributes required to beat opposing presses the way Orlando City tried for much of the game Saturday night. When the defenders play long balls into space, the young attacker can beat others to it. Once on the ball, he can beat defenders by pushing the ball past them and using his speed again to win it, something he did down the wing as the Lions attempted to run out the clock.
There are other players with speed that can help spread the field. Torres, Martin Ojeda, and Ivan Angulo have more pace than Kara, but they prefer to have the ball at their feet and beat players one-on-one. That’s why these players usually ask for direct passes, especially as they get close to the opposing 18-yard box. Enrique seems more comfortable using his energy to beat opponents to the ball, something the club needed to replace when Benji Michel rejected the club’s offer of a new contract to join Portuguese side F.C. Arouca.
This doesn’t mean that the Lions should make a change to the starting lineup. Michael Halliday’s crossing was exceptional at times against New York and far better than the club ever got from Ruan. Luca Petrasso also showed his ability to send quality crosses into the box. At 5-foot-7, Enrique’s not going to win anything in the air. Conversely, Kara is big and strong, with an ability to win aerial duels with nearly anyone he goes up against.
If the Lions can successfully play out of the back, they don’t need the speed up top that Enrique provides for 90 minutes. They can get balls out wide to Halliday and Petrasso or to the attacking midfielders at the top of the box with space. In these cases, Kara is the best option up top as he fits the needs of the team in those situations. However, if the Lions attempt to go over the top as they did Saturday night, Enrique provides the ability to do so more successfully than the team’s usual starter.
As the season continues, Kara will remain the starting striker and the team will attempt to find him with crosses from the outside backs. But when the team needs to go over the top and is unsuccessful early like Saturday night, the game against New York showed it has a quality option. Enrique could be crucial for Orlando later in the 2023 MLS season.