2021 Orlando City Season Preview: The hunt for greater success is on


Photo: Courtesy of Orlando City SC

To be unprecedented means something that’s never happened, to be unknown. In those terms, 2020 was an unprecedented year for Orlando City. Setting aside a global pandemic that threw the entire soccer world into chaos, the Lions were, for once, a good soccer team! Oh, and I can’t forget to mention beating Atlanta United for the first time since the two became instant “rivals” in 2017.

Oscar Pareja‘s arrival to Orlando brought along expectations of playoff berths and competing for trophies, but few people expected to see that plan come together so quickly. The Lions were a surprise Cinderella team at the MLS is Back Tournament over the summer, making a run all the way to the Final, where they fell to the Portland Timbers in a close match. Then they carried that success over into the shortened regular season, finishing 4th in the Eastern Conference, going 11-4-8 with a +15 goal differential. Pareja’s team was strong defensively, scored goals on an excellent pace, and ultimately made it to the Eastern Conference semifinals before losing to the New England Revolution, 3-1.

Under Pareja, with limited time to put much together before the season was put on pause due to the pandemic in March, the Lions played some of the best soccer we’ve ever seen from this club. Pragmatic, organized, winning soccer.

The +15 goal differential was not only the best posted by the club in six MLS seasons, it was the first time, albeit playing a shorter schedule, that Orlando posted a positive goal differential, a dramatic shift in form compared to the last several years, one of which just two years prior the Lions let in the most goals in MLS history (a feat broken by Cincinnati the following season).

And now Orlando comes into 2021 with even higher expectations to build on that success and will be hungrier than ever to deliver a trophy back to Exploria Stadium.

The schedule is more condensed, tougher, and already more packed than it was last season (with the possibility of qualifying for the U.S. Open Cup if the Lions get off to a strong start in their first three games). On top of league play, Orlando was also invited to participate in the Leagues Cup in August.

Easing into the schedule won’t be an option for Orlando, which kicks the season off against a much-improved Atlanta United side, followed up by a flight out to the Midwest to take on Sporting KC — last season’s Western Conference regular season champions. In addition to Kansas City, the Lions will see just one other Western Conference opponent this season, the San Jose Earthquakes, with the league looking to reduce travel amid the pandemic. That means 32 of their 34 games will be entirely against teams within the conference, building up the race to the playoffs into a total dogfight for points, where every game matters.

Each new season brings along a sense of optimism, whether you actually think your club is going to be good or not. In MLS, any team can be good, that’s what makes this parity-driven league so entertaining, as opposed to most European leagues where the same 2-3 clubs compete for titles every season. For Orlando City fans, the optimism this season is not only real, but justified following last season’s emergence from being one of the league’s cellar-dwellers for far too long.

One of the biggest things we lost in 2020 was being able to celebrate Orlando’s success together, side-by-side, loud and proud each week at Exploria Stadium. Making the playoffs and even winning a playoff game in front of mostly-empty, reduced crowds took away from the excitement of finally reaching those achievements. If there was any fan base deserving of actually getting to see what winning soccer looked like, it’s Orlando. We don’t yet know when, but at some point this year we’ll all be together again, 25,000 strong, creating one of the best soccer environments in North America.

Orlando City roster (as of April 15, 2021):

Goalkeeper (3): Pedro Gallese, Mason Stajduhar (HG), Brandon Austin

Defenders (8): Kyle Smith, Ruan, João Moutinho, Robin Jansson, Rodrigo Schlegel, Antonio Carlos, Rio Hope-Gund, Michael Halliday (HG)

Midfielders (9): Oriol Rosell, Jhegson Sebastián Méndez, Andrés Perea, Mauricio Pereyra (DP), David Loera (HG), Jordan Bender (HG), Júnior Urso, Joey DeZart, Raul Aguilera Jr (HG)

Forwards (9): Nani (c, DP), Chris Mueller, Tesho Akindele, Benji Michel (HG), Matheus Aiás, Alexander Alvarado, Alexandre Pato, Silvester van der Water, Wilfredo Rivera (HG)

DP – Designated Player

HG – Homegrown Player

Out on Loan:

Daryl Dike – Short term loan to Barnsley

Not a whole lot has changed since we last saw Orlando City on the field. Goalkeeper Brian Lowe left as a free agent and was replaced on the roster by Tottenham goalkeeper Brandon Austin, who joined the club on loan for the first six months of the year with the option for another six months. On the backline, the only addition is the recent signing of SuperDraft pick Rio Hope-Gund, a Georgetown University centerback picked up by Orlando in the first round. And Raul Aguilera Jr. in the midfield is another recent signing as a Homegrown player; he joins the Lions from Orlando City B after playing collegiately at the University of North Carolina.

The biggest batch of new and departing faces comes from the forward group. Dom Dwyer is gone after three and a half years with the club. Alexandre Pato, Silvester van der Water, and Wilfredo Rivera (another Homegrown signing) are all in to give the Lions both more depth and firepower in the attacking third.

And lastly, as you may have heard, Daryl Dike is currently out on loan with Barnsley in the English Championship, where he’s been setting the league on fire since his arrival in January. Dike has bagged eight goals in 14 matches and is reportedly drawing the attention of several Premier League clubs. His loan to Barnsley concludes at the end of May, but with his value skyrocketing to unimaginable heights over the recent weeks, it’s becoming tougher and tougher to believe we’ll see Dike playing for Orlando again, if not for only a short period of time until the summer transfer window, but at the moment all indications from the club are that they expect him back on the field to help Orlando win an MLS Cup when his loan is over. Time will tell.

Gavin’s Projected Starting XI

A few different things of note here with this lineup: as you can tell, this lineup is nearly unchanged from what we saw last season, a noticeable difference in the way that Orlando has entered just about every season prior, where half the roster is brand new and the rebuild was just starting over again. Not this year.

With Antonio Carlos and Robin Jansson both returning to the club on new contracts this winter, the Lions will be heading into the season with a consistent backline duo for the first time in their MLS history. The club is coming off of its best defensive performance in six seasons and with Joao Moutinho, who is sidelined with a hamstring injury, being the only missing starter, Oscar Pareja is starting Year 2 with his entire defensive unit still in tact.

In the defensive midfield, I could see Andres Perea getting more time as the regular starter than we saw last season, but Pareja likes Uri Rosell in the deep role. Orlando likes to play from the back, and that usually means coming through the middle, where Rosell was so good last season at both short and long distribution into the midfield, catching a lot on counter-attacks.

With this lineup, I’ve already mentioned the situation with Dike above, so this projected lineup represents how I expect things to look for at least the first month or two of the season when everybody is available. Mauricio Pereyra will miss the first two games of the year due to suspension, but he’s the obvious No. 10 for this team. Orlando wasn’t nearly the same side through the final weeks of the regular season when he was sidelined for five matches in October due to injury. Pereyra is a ball-winner in the midfield, a maestro with his passes, and ultimately helps set the tone when Orlando is on the attack. When he’s in the center, things are usually trending well.

The biggest issue from the start of the offseason to today has been the situation at left back. Moutinho, as I mentioned, had surgery in early December with an initial timetable of 4-6 months. Based on b-roll footage of training sent out by the club on Tuesday, Moutinho was training, in some form, with the full squad. That’s great news, but it’s also the only information we have to go on at this point, meaning we currently have no idea when he’ll be back, leaving Orlando with Kyle Smith, not technically even a left back, as the only go-to option on the roster right now. Jonathan Suarez was brought in on loan from Mexico, but was ultimately released by the club following an arrest for sexual battery in February. Kamal Miller was also lost in the expansion draft to Austin FC, leaving the Lions paper thin at that position.

With the outside transfer window closed and the roster currently full, the Lions are limited on options right now besides sticking with Smith and waiting for Moutinho to fully recover.

The last point with this lineup: while a full strength lineup is ideal for most games, we’re going to see it change a lot on a game-to-game basis as we roll into the summer. As I mentioned above, the schedule is going to be packed this season, meaning Pareja is going to have to reach all the way down the roster to find minutes throughout the year. The season opens with seven games in seven weeks leading up to the Gold Cup break in early June, but that’s when things get crazy coming out of the break with nine games in 36 days, not including potentially the Open Cup. And as we all know, summers in Florida are brutal and create their own challenges to plan around, making none of this any easier.

Pareja got a lot of quality minutes from a lot of non-regular players last season, so this is nothing new, but with a longer season and more games, the need for rotation and depth will be emphasized.

Key Player

Every position on the field has somebody that’ll be a key to success at some point this season, but ultimately I think that without a real No. 10 this team’s potential takes a couple big steps backwards. With two goals and eight assists in 16 games last season, Pereyra showed the fanbase exactly what they were hoping to get from this Designated Player spot. When he was on the field, Orlando was one of the highest scoring teams in the league, but when he was out that production dropped way, way down and Orlando was in the bottom of scoring categories during his injury absence.

The Lions run a very pragmatic, fluid attack with players focusing a lot on off-ball movements, getting into open spaces, and creating opportunities in and around the penalty area to find shots. Pereyra is one of the best on the field in getting the ball into those shot opportunities and creating scoring chances.

This will be the first time we’ve seen him over the course of a full regular season in Orlando, and I really think that with the players he has around him, a 15-20 assist campaign is realistic, and that’ll mean a lot towards the Lions’ playoff, and trophy, hopes.

Orlando makes the playoffs if…

I think Orlando is positioned well to make the playoffs this season, but things obviously have to go well over the course of the regular season (big take, I know). If Pato stays healthy and provides a solid replacement for Dike up top and scores, say 10 goals this season that’ll be huge. Or, even better, if Dike returns to Orlando for the rest of the season and scores somewhere between 15-20 goals that’ll also be a big difference maker.

Health is another factor, especially when we talk about some of the older guys, like Nani and Pereyra. I talked about the rotation, but I think that Pareja needs to be a lot more mindful of managing Nani’s minutes this season. He played so much soccer last summer and into the playoffs that by the end of the regular season he was becoming so ineffective for Orlando that he wasn’t making much of a positive impact in games anymore — he finished the regular season with just two goals and one assist in his final nine games. Pareja has more than enough forward depth (although you can never have too much) to make sure nobody is getting burned out.

Orlando misses the playoffs if…

…everything imaginable goes wrong. Seriously, it would be a big surprise to me if Orlando takes so many steps back this season that they are not one of the top seven teams in the East. If injuries pile up or the backline suddenly forgets how to keep the opposing teams from scoring, Orlando won’t make the playoffs. The Lions were on a great scoring pace last season, and even if they don’t keep that up (I think they will), this squad should be good enough defensively that keeping goal totals low throughout the season should be enough to help squeak by on a lot of draws and low-scoring wins.

Gavin’s expectations

I’ve already said it, I think Orlando makes the playoffs again (finishing around 4th in the conference makes the most sense to me) and this time they get taken a little more seriously in the playoffs. I think if Orlando was to compete for or get close to winning a trophy this season, it’ll be in the Leagues Cup. I don’t know, I just think they’re going to take that tournament seriously, whether you think of it to be important or not (I don’t). It’s a trophy, and it would come against some very competitive Liga MX opponents that would add a bit more legitimacy outside of central Florida to the things that Oscar Pareja and Luiz Muzzi have been doing in Orlando since arriving.

Orlando City got a taste of mild success last season by finally making the playoffs and now they’re ready for a lot more.

For more soccer news, follow the Soccer Journal on Twitter: @osjsoccer

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s