Orlando City entered the 2023 Major League Soccer regular season with significant roster turnover from the club that last took the field in the MLS Cup playoffs in in Montreal on Oct. 16, 2022. The roster turnover led to numerous preseason predictions from pundits and casual fans relating to this year’s squad’s strengths and weaknesses. The majority seemed to think that the Orlando City attack would be refreshed and lethal (a current work in progress) and that the OCSC defense may — for the first time in several seasons — be the weak area on the pitch.
Entering the campaign, the back line for Orlando City consisted of a known commodity in the veteran center back duo of Robin Jansson and Antonio Carlos. The pair, when healthy and in form, have combined to form one of the top central defense tag teams over the last few seasons. The key area of concern surrounding those two players was regarding health, as Jansson was coming off of surgery to repair a fracture in his foot and Carlos missed significant time during the 2022 year with a hamstring injury.
Departing the defense were both fullbacks, the speedy Ruan and defensive stalwart Joao Moutinho. Orlando City addressed the latter departure by signing Luca Petrasso and Rafael Santos. The concerns about the strength and reliability of the back line were magnified by a lower leg injury which kept Carlos out of the preseason and has lingered into the regular season campaign, although his name has come off the club’s availability report, indicating he is finally be close to a return.
Finally, in an off-season that saw Orlando City sign a new offensive Designated Player and a few other offensive-minded players, the team did little to address center back depth outside of spending an MLS SuperDraft pick on 21-year-old Abdi Salim, who racked up his first start against FC Cincinnati last weekend.
Despite depth concerns, injury woes, and the integration of new pieces, Orlando City has opened the year with three straight clean sheets against some potent offensive teams. Facing the persistent, and at times abusive, press of the New York Red Bulls; a trio of offensive juggernauts in Brenner, Luciano Acosta, and Brandon Vazquez for FC Cincinnati; and the always dangerous Tigres in the first leg of the Concacaf Champions League Round of 16; Orlando City has employed a bend-not-break mentality, which has allowed the club to take four points in its first two regular-season games and to come back home from Mexico with everything to play for in a CCL knockout game.
Homegrown right back Michael Halliday has started all three matches and has performed well, as he continues to grow in confidence and integrate himself into the attack. Petrasso has established himself as the club’s starting left back, and while he hasn’t been as involved in the attack as Moutinho was, he has still provided solid play on the left flank. For the opening match and against Tigres, Rodrigo Schlegel has started alongside Jansson in the center of the defense and has been in strong form as well, providing the effort and grit which Orlando City fans have come to expect from the backup over the past few years.
All in all, what was once considered a looming concern prior to the start of the season has been put to rest. The strength and cohesion of the defense should only continue to grow as Carlos is integrated back into the starting lineup and the newcomers continue to grow and develop.
Do you still have concerns over the state of the defense? Let us know in the comments below.