The start of the 2023 MLS Regular Season is only weeks away, and this version of the Lions will have big expectations set by management, the coaches, the supporters, and the players themselves. Despite the many moves Orlando City made during the off-season, I still have some concerns and questions as the season gets underway.
Orlando City made plenty of personnel moves this off-season, addressing positional needs and adding some real quality. Of course, how quickly the new additions can integrate into the club may determine how successful the Lions are — at least in the early going.
Fortunately, there will be plenty of opportunity early on for the club to coalesce. From Feb. 25 to March 25, Orlando City will play seven matches. There are the five regular-season games and the home and away legs of the Concacaf Champions League against Tigres of Liga MX.
The challenges are not the same for each of the new additions. Felipe Martins and Luca Petrasso both come from MLS clubs and are familiar with the league, the type of travel, and the varying environmental conditions one finds in MLS. Their challenge will be fitting into Orlando City’s club culture and bonding with their new teammates.
Other players, like Dagur Dan Thórhallsson, Martín Ojeda, and draftees Shakur Mohammed and Duncan McGuire, will have to deal with both fitting into the culture and adapting to the league. Ramiro Enrique and Rafael Santos will have to deal with all of that, and they’re still not even in the country.
Oscar Pareja has shown an ability to get his players to buy into the culture, his tactics, and each other. Hopefully, this group will come together sooner than later.
The Center Back Situation
Orlando City has possibly the best three-deep group of center backs in the league. When Antonio Carlos and Robin Jansson start together they are excellent. Rodrigo Schlegel is, in my opinion, the best backup center back in MLS. It is a luxury many clubs don’t have, but I’m still worried.
After those three things get dicier, with Kyle Smith stepping in as the utility defender anywhere along the back line, including at center back. Further down the chart is the young Thomas Williams, who saw limited minutes — although I think he has the necessary tools — and there is OCB center back Brandon Hackenberg.
You might think three is enough, but as we saw last season, injuries can make a big dent in a depth chart with both Carlos and Jansson out for a significant number of matches, including some at the same time. With the schedule congestion between all the different competitions Orlando City will play, figuring out the center back situation is vital.
One possibility that we’ve seen in the limited preseason matches is employing a three-man back line rather than a four-man back line, using Wilder Cartagena and rookie Abdi Salim. I’m not at all convinced it is something that Pareja will do, but it could be an option depending on the opponent.
For most of his time with Orlando City, Mauricio Pereyra has played a more traditional No. 10 role higher up the pitch in the attack, and has been tasked with directing his teammates. The addition of Facundo Torres last season resulted in Pereyra moving back into a deeper position and effectively playing as a No. 8. With the preseason underway, Pereyra once again played as the No. 8 against Florida International University in front of Cesar Araujo and behind Ojeda and Mohammed.
Orlando City’s ability to deploy Ojeda, Torres, and Gaston Gonzalez in the attacking midfield might make this move a permanent one. Of course, Pereyra will be able to move up further into the attack as necessary, but more playmakers on the pitch is a good thing.
Those are some of the things that are on my mind as we inch towards the first match on Feb. 25. What is on your mind? Let me know in the comments below.