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Orlando City’s First Half Showed Vulnerability of Young Players in New Formation

Orlando City used a rotated roster and a formation that showed potential vulnerabilities in the first half against FC Cincinnati.

Image Courtesy of Orlando City SC

Orlando City had heavy squad rotation for the team’s home match against FC Cincinnati Saturday night, but that wasn’t the only change. Oscar Pareja also displayed a new formation, one that the team worked on throughout the preseason. The lineup featured two young players on one side. Although the Lions held Cincinnati to just four first-half shots, the vulnerability of the new system with two developing players showed at times.

The Lions’ starting lineup Saturday night featured three center backs and two wingbacks. The idea was to have three in the back when they were attacking and five in the back defensively. Four of the team’s five preseason games featured this formation, with the open game against the New England Revolution being the only one with the team’s well-known 4-2-3-1 setup.

As expected, the Orlando City lineup Saturday night featured several changes from its 1-0 win over the New York Red Bulls a week earlier as the team prepares to take on Tigres in the Concacaf Champions League tomorrow night and the Lions will play five matches in a 15-day span. Five changes were made to the lineup, including the addition of rookie defender Abdi Salim in his first professional appearance.

There was a big difference in the experience of the two sides for Orlando City. The left side featured 31-year-old veteran defender Kyle Smith with 21-year-old midfielder Gaston Gonzalez. Despite his age, Gonzalez has experience playing in Argentina’s Primera Division with Union de Santa Fe.

The right side featured the 21-year-old rookie Salim and 20-year-old Homegrown Player Michael Halliday. While it was Salim’s first professional game, Halliday had only made 16 appearances for the first team in all competitions and 13 MLS regular-season appearances prior to Saturday night’s clash.

Knowing the inexperience on the right side, FC Cincinnati tested the duo from the start. Especially in the early minutes, Cincy consistently attacked Orlando’s right rather than the experienced opposite side, creating multiple chances with a dangerous attacking unit. The lack of experience showed as the visitors were able to take advantage of Halliday’s more attacking role and Salim, who’s still learning the professional game.

Neither Salim nor Halliday played particularly poorly, especially as young players. However, this formation often results in the wing backs going far into the attack, sometimes leaving the three center backs on an island. That happened to Salim on multiple occasions in the first half, being left with the always dangerous Brenner.

The first sense of vulnerability came in the second minute when Luciano Acosta found Brenner on his left. The forward made a run past Salim and into the Orlando City box, where he got a shot off. However, goalkeeper Pedro Gallese did well to come off his line and cut down the angle, resulting in the shot going well wide of the far post.

Cincinnati had another opportunity in the 23rd minute when Salim got caught too far inside, allowing Brenner to receive a pass on the outside. With Halliday up field, Salim was left one-on-one with the Brazilian, who turned him around to create a shot just outside of the box. Fortunately, the shot was at Gallese, who made one of his four saves on the night.

In the 32nd minute, Brenner could’ve had a third chance against the rookie. Junior Moreno played the ball to Ray Gaddis on the right, but Gaddis was a half step offside and his cross attempt was blocked. However, Brenner had beaten Salim into the box and was open for a tap-in if the ball had reached him.

Each of these situations occurred because a young defender was left alone in his first professional game to face a good attacker. If the Lions had their typical back four, Halliday would’ve likely been further back as the first line of defense with Salim being his backup. Even if Salim was the first one to step up, Halliday would’ve been back to provide support.

The vulnerability of the back line may have played a role in the team going back to its usual 4-2-3-1 formation to start the second half, although Pareja talked after the game about wanting to get more control of the midfield in order to help the attack. Whatever the reason, Halliday dropped into a more traditional outside back role and Smith went from a third center back to the left back position, before ultimately being relieved by Luca Petrasso.

This wasn’t the first time Orlando City has displayed this formation and it won’t be the last. However, the extreme squad rotation in preparation for an important upcoming game left a young and inexperienced player in a tough battle. If the Lions display this formation in future games, the center backs will likely be the veterans Robin Jansson, Rodrigo Schlegel, and Antonio Carlos — three players experienced at this level.

Fortunately, Cincinnati wasn’t able to take advantage of these opportunities and Orlando City claimed a potentially important point while providing rest heading into the first leg with Tigres. But the first half showed that the new formation can make the team vulnerable defensively when there’s a lack of experience on the field.