Orlando City raised a small bit of concern when they limped into the summer break with a loss at the New York Red Bulls on May 30, but they’ve been anything but concerning since returning to play, bursting out of the break with three wins in the span of seven days, claiming all nine points up for grabs and firmly establishing themselves as a top-tier team in Major League Soccer, not just the Eastern Conference.
Not since last summer’s MLS is Back Tournament run to the final has the fan base been so collectively high on this club, as things are certainly looking good for Orlando’s chances to make some noise in the playoffs this season (knock on wood).
Here are five things at the top of my mind following one of the best weeks in Orlando’s MLS history.
Is this the start of Chris Mueller’s resurgence?
June has certainly been a big month for Chris Mueller; between being named to the provisional squad for the United States’ Gold Cup roster, to announcing he’s publishing a new book, and now he’s finally starting to light it up on the field for City too. Mueller went into the break with just two assists and no goals to his name this season, struggling to find anything near the level of form that made him an MVP contender last season. Over the last week, he’s racked up two assists and a highlight-reel goal against Inter Miami, including a strong performance against San Jose that saw him contribute four key passes (passes leading directly to shots).
With the emergence of Silvester van der Water as a key contributor already this season, Oscar Pareja has found himself with more options to choose from on the right side, pushing Mueller to the bench more this season – he’s started three of Orlando’s last six matches on the bench, including two of this week’s three contests.
Something’s been missing from Mueller this season, he just hasn’t looked like the same guy that was catching eyes around the league last season when he started by dazzling at the MLS is Back Tournament. Here’s to hoping that this hot run of form over the last week is exactly what he needed to find that edge again.
This isn’t even Orlando City’s final form
Those three wins over seven days, did you notice who wasn’t playing for Orlando in those games? The Lions have been without Top 3 goalkeeper Pedro Gallese and Top 5 midfielder Sebastian Mendez this month as both have been away competing with their respective countries at the Copa America in Brazil — two players undeniably critical to Orlando’s success this season.
That said, it’s worth pointing out that Orlando was able to pick up the nine points without those guys, pointing to the strength of depth on this roster.
Joao Moutinho hasn’t played much this season, and could be looking at another long-term sidelining after picking up an injury against San Jose, meaning Kyle Smith has started every game this season either at left back or right back, where Ruan also hasn’t played since getting hurt against New York City on May 8. Smith has been fantastic, cementing himself as one of the best defenders on this team throughout the season each week. With both Moutinho and Ruan out against Miami, it was 18-year-old Homegrown defender Michael Halliday who stepped up this past weekend with a strong performance in Fort Lauderdale, adding one more layer of much-needed depth to the fullback position.
Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned that Orlando finally has Daryl Dike back (for the time being), and he’s already scored two goals.
It’s been pretty clear for the last couple of months that staying healthy is going to be an important piece of the puzzle for the Lions this season, but if nothing else, they’ve shown that they have enough depth on the roster to keep the team floating near the top of the conference standings.
Nani continues to make me feel dumb
“The Lions signed Nani to a three-year contract, which is… complicated. A two-year deal? That would have been far more ideal, given what the Lions went through near the end of Kaka‘s deal with the club, which took a lot more out of the club and the team than anyone would have been hoping for them they signed him on in 2014. My point being: three years is a long time, and we’ll have to get through year one before we start making any judgments on what Nani has left in the tank and how well he will be able to hold up through the length of his contract.”
What kind of doofus would have doubted this guy?
*putting hand on my ear piece*
Oh, right . . . that was me.
Well in any case, Nani has not only kept up with the league, he’s still lighting it up in his third season with Orlando.
Nani’s six goals in eight games this season already matches his total from 19 games in 2020 — he’s also tallied three assists this season, just two shy of his total last year. He’s currently on a pace that would see him blow past, with ease, the 12 goals, 10 assists season he put up in 2019 across 30 games. Health and long-run form will be key, but it would be a massive accomplishment for him at this stage to put up a 15-15 type of season.
We’ve seen countless times over the years older European stars coming into MLS and thinking it’ll be an easy pay day, basically a vacation, but Nani’s attitude has couldn’t be any farther in the opposite direction. Aside from the fact that he’ll leave Orlando City one day as one of the highest goal scorers in club history (a total that’ll surpass numbers from any other club in his career, including Manchester United), he’s brought a level of intensity and commitment to Orlando that most teams can only hope for when they make these kind of DP signings.
Nani’s intense work ethic rubs off on the rest of the locker room and it’s clear to see in the way they play and train.
The only concern from here on out, as you may have seen pointed out before, is his play down the stretch, which in the previous two seasons has not been very good:
MLS is famously a league where getting hot at the right time can be the difference between winning an MLS Cup and going home early in the playoffs as one of the top seeds. Playing well and scoring bangers in May and June is nice and certainly helps, but what matters most in this league is whether or not you can still do those things in September and beyond.
Oscar Pareja surely has to know about these numbers, so having the right plan to manage his minutes with a congested schedule this summer will be just as important as anything else.
More praise for Kyle Smith
Only two players have played every minute for the Lions this season: Antonio Carlos and Kyle Smith.
I mentioned Smith earlier in this column, but i just want to jump back to him real quick. As I mentioned, he’s started every game this season, both on the left and right sides of the field. He’s been one of Orlando’s most consistent players, a strong defender on a team that’s been near the top of the league in fewest goals conceded all season.
His numbers constantly stand out on the page after matches, as he leads the team in tackles per game (4.1, ahead of Sebastian Mendez, who averages 3 per game), third in aerials won (1.2), and fourth in clearances (2.8). Using WhoScored.com’s player rating metrics, his season average of 7.09 is second on the team behind only Nani (8.08).
Coming into the season, Ruan and Moutinho were the clear No. 1s at full back, but if Orlando ever gets back to having both available at same time, it’ll give Pareja a whole new (good) problem to think about.
A hopeful resolution to the Daryl Dike situation
I have no idea what’s going to happen with Dike, but one thing is probably a safe bet: he’s going to get sold. To who and for how much are really the only unknowns at this point. Dike is back with Orlando with the moment and has already found the net twice, but he’s likely to be off once again when the Gold Cup comes up in July.
Dike made a national name for himself during his loan and playoff run with Barnsley, sparking rumors of a possible sale to a Big Six Premier League club and suddenly casting his future with Orlando in doubt.
Orlando made it clear that they can still win games without Dike, but there’s no debate that they’re a much better team with a player of his caliber. A hopeful solution to this saga? In an ideal scenario, the Lions would sell Dike to some big European club, who would immediately loan him back to Orlando for the rest of the MLS season, which would let Dike and Orlando make the most what could be a very big year for the club.
It’s a situation that we see happen often when MLS clubs sell off their best players to overseas clubs, including this past week with the New York Red Bulls selling Caden Clark to RB Leipzig. It would all depend on the buying club and their plans for the rising American star.
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