Orlando City has had a strong start to its 2023 MLS season, picking up five points in its first three league games. However, the Lions have shown some vulnerabilities, including scoring and winning balls in the air. While it’s unclear how the team will find goals as the season continues, the return of a key player from injury absence will likely improve the latter.
Center back Antonio Carlos has been half of a dynamic duo on the back line during the past three seasons, partnering with Robin Jansson. However, the Brazilian suffered an injury prior to the season that saw him miss all of the preseason games, the first three regular-season games, and the team’s Champions League first leg away to Tigres.
While Carlos and Jansson make up one of the league’s best center back pairings, the team has missed Carlos’ aerial presence. The Brazilian has been the team’s most effective aerial threat since arriving prior to the 2020 season, leading the team in aerial duels won in each of the last two seasons.
Carlos’ most effective aerial season was in 2021, when he tied forward Daryl Dike for the team lead with 2.2 aerials won per game. Last year, with Dike in England, Carlos led the team for the second consecutive season with 1.9 aerials won per game, despite missing time with a hamstring injury.
The center back’s absence in the early part of this season has been on display during aerial duels on the back line and on set pieces. The Lions have been outdueled in the air in each of the last three games — 24-18 against the New York Red Bulls, 13-6 against FC Cincinnati, and 24-16 against D.C. United.
While Carlos is a center back, his aerial presence makes a difference on both ends of the field, as the Lions have been beaten regularly in the air offensively and defensively. Against the Red Bulls, 5-foot-7 forward Ramiro Enrique led the team by winning four aerial duels. Meanwhile, New York center backs Andres Reyes and Sean Nealis each won six. Rodrigo Schlegel led Orlando’s defense with three aerial duels won, tied with Red Bulls forward Tom Barlow.
In the second league game against FC Cincinnati, forward Ercan Kara was the only Lion to win more than one aerial ball, coming away with two. During Saturday night’s 1-1 draw against D.C., Kyle Smith led the team with four aerial duels won, trailing D.C. center back Steven Birnbaum (seven aerial duels won) and forward Christian Benteke (11 aerial duels won).
Part of the problems in the air can be chalked up to rotation in the team early in the season. Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja has only had the team’s best available lineup in the season opener, making five changes for the game against Cincinnati and six changes in D.C. Instead, the team has focused on getting past Tigres in the Champions League.
However, the regular starters have yet to make an impact in the air so far this year. The team’s tallest defender is currently Jansson at 6-foot-2, but he’s only won one aerial duel in each game, despite playing 90 minutes against the Red Bulls and the whole second half in the last two games. The tallest Orlando City player has been Kara at 6-foot-4, but he’s only won four total aerial duels, two in each of the first two games.
Carlos was on the bench in D.C. and has returned to training, so he should be back in the lineup sooner rather than later. The Lions have been dominated in the air by opposing forwards, putting more pressure on goalkeeper Pedro Gallese to make stops. They’ve also been regularly beaten on the attacking end, which is part of the reason why the team only had one shot on target in each of the first two games. The center back’s return should help Orlando win more duels on both ends for more clearances and better opportunities in the final third.
Despite its strong start to 2023, Orlando City has shown some issues that need to be resolved as the season continues. The Lions sorely missed Carlos’ presence in both boxes early in the season and should see improvements in the air when he fully returns.