Orlando City 2017 Season Preview / by DCU Exile

Production is per 96 minutes because that is the average length of an MLS game. Touch percentage is percentage of total team touches on the ball while the player is on the field.. That, plus expected assists and goals can be found on our Player xG 2016 table.

By DCU Exile (@DCU_Exile)

2016 in review

After failing to make the playoffs in their inaugural season, Orlando City began 2016 with Head Coach Adrian Heath already on the hot seat. An uninspiring 4-4-8 start to the season resulted in Heath’s dismissal on July 6 following a 4-0 shellacking at FC Dallas. Two weeks later, Orlando City hired former Real Salt Lake and NYCFC Head Coach Jason Kreis. While this gave some fans optimism that Orlando City could make a late-season push for the playoffs, it was not meant to be. The Lions finished the season 8th place in the East with 41 points, and were edged out of playoff contention by the Philadelphia Union and New England Revolution (each sitting on 42 points). 

Despite not making the playoffs, Orlando City had one of the most productive offenses in the league. They were third overall with 55 Goals For, which was less than only NYCFC (62 GF) and the New York Red Bulls (61 GF). Cyle Larin (14 goals, 3 assists) and Kaka (9 goals, 9 assists) are both returning and should continue to produce, but Kaka’s age may limit his minutes this year. The departure of Kevin Molino (11 goals, 8 assists) is a big void that needs to be filled, and I’m sure the Orlando City front office is already hard at work looking for reinforcements.

The crux of Orlando City’s problems lie on defense. They led the league in Goals Against last year (60) and averaged 14 shots allowed per game (5th most in the league). Orlando were also fourth in the league in fouls per game (13.4), which gave opponents more than a few chances on goal via set pieces. Call me Captain Obvious, but upgrades all along the back line and reducing the number of fouls around the penalty area would go a long way to improve Orlando City’s odds of becoming a playoff-caliber team.  Which would be nice, since, you know, they’re moving into their brand new stadium this year. (Woooo!)

2017 offseason transactions

With 2016 finally over, newish Head Coach Jason Kreis went to work cleaning out large portions of the roster that he inherited. Four players had their options declined and will not be returning:  defenders Luke Boden and Tyler Turner, midfielder Pedro Ribeiro, and forward Julio Baptista. Atlanta United acquired two former Lions via trade and an Expansion Draft selection:  Harrison Heath and Mikey Ambrose. Orlando then traded away two more players to Minnesota United, goalkeeper Patrick McLain and midfielder Kevin Molino.

Furthermore, Kreis announced on February 1 that three more players have no future with the club:  David Mateos, Bryan Rochez, and Devron Garcia. Although they are still on the roster as I write this, the team is in the process of trying to off-load them as quickly as possible. Successfully doing so will free up three international spots, a designated player spot, and a big chunk of cap space—Rochez is a designated player and Mateos is making just below the designated player threshold at $453,333 per year. So we’re talking about an additional $900k in cap space being freed up. 

The Molino trade was probably the biggest surprise of the off-season for Orlando, and one of the biggest off-season transfer stories in MLS.  Not long after rumors emerged that Molino was unhappy with his situation in Florida, the 26-year-old Trinidadian was sent to Minnesota United in what was the largest intra-league transfer in MLS history. While Molino’s departure from Orlando leaves a gaping hole in their offense (11 goals and 8 assists in 2016), Orlando acquired $450,000 in General Allocation Money and $200,000 in Targeted Allocation Money from Minnesota in the process. The move also freed up around $121,000 of cap space previously occupied by Molino. Orlando will have to put this money to good use finding another attacking piece (or two) to help out Kaka and Larin. I fully expect this to happen—the question is when. The spring transfer window closes on May 8, so they have time in that sense. But Orlando City’s first game is less than two weeks away, so there is a good chance Kreis will be fielding a less than optimal lineup until reinforcements arrive.

In an effort to shore up the back line, the team acquired Donny Toia in a trade with Atlanta, Brazilian fullback Victor “PC” Giro from the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and former USMNT prospect Jonathan Spector in a high-profile transfer from Championship side Birmingham City. Spector is expected to play as a centerback, and is the missing puzzle piece that Orlando has needed to anchor their back line. Former Portland Timbers and Toronto FC midfielder Will Johnson and Orlando City B midfielder Pierre Da Silva provide Kreis with midfield reinforcements. Goalkeeper depth has also improved with the arrival of Josh Saunders from NYCFC and Patrick McLain via re-entry draft.

Here’s the bottom line: Orlando City’s squad is still very much a work in progress. Their roster will continue to evolve in the weeks leading up (and into) to the start of the 2017 season, and more moves in the summer transfer window are likely. This means that predicting a formation and a starting XI is going to be quite difficult, so take it this with a few grains of salt.

Positional expectations

Before we dive into the positional depth chart, I think we need to first lay a foundation and discuss which formation Kreis is likely to use until he has the roster he wants. Looking at the players left on the roster, this is really difficult. But if you were to put a gun to my head, I would probably say a 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1 are the most likely scenarios.  This is based primarily on three assumptions:

  1. Cyle Larin is a lock to start at forward. Duh.  This rules out any 4-4-2 or 4-1-3-2 scenarios.
  2. Kaka needs to be deployed in the center of the midfield so he can pull the strings on offense. He can do this in both a 4-2-3-1 or as a withdrawn forward as a 4-4-1-1.
  3. The acquisition of free agent Will Johnson and the presence of Cristian Higuita, Servando Carrasco, and Antonio Nocerino on the roster have me convinced that Kreis wants two central midfielders shielding the back line. This can be done in both of the above-mentioned formations.

The rest of the starters are a bit less of a mystery, but still an unknown until we see the team sheet on March 5. 

Defense and Goalkeeper

Joe Bendik is most likely to start in goal, if only because he held down the job for the entire 2016 season, and did okay given the serious misgivings of his back line. His goals against minus expected goals against were worse than average in MLS, and Bendik allowed 59 goals in 2016 (the most in the league), but made 114 saves in the process (also the most in the league). This is a clear indication of a defense that let its goalkeeper get absolutely shelled. All. Year. Long. Upgrades made to the back line should make life more bearable for Joe, but we’ll just have to wait and see just what that looks like. If Bendik shows any lapses, recent acquisition Josh Saunders will be bearing down on him for the starting job. Saunders is joining Orlando from a NYCFC defense that also let its goalkeeper get bombarded, so his numbers from last year appear a bit bleak at face value (54 goals against, which is 5 more than his 48.88 xGA). But Orlando now has two goalkeepers on the roster with significant MLS minutes both competing every day for a spot on the team sheet.

At centerback, Orlando signed Jose Aja on a long-term deal and inked former USMNT prospect Spector from Birmingham city. This strikes me as a solid centerback duo, with Tommy Redding and Conor Donovan providing depth at the position.

The fullback spots are most likely to be claimed by new players Victor “PC” Giro and Donny Toia. If Rafael Ramos can stay healthy (eds. note: uh oh), I could see him re-claiming his spot at right fullback within a month or two. Former New England Revolution fullback Kevin Alston is also an option, but I don’t think Kreis sees him as a starting-caliber fullback. Brek Shea could play fullback on the left, but he seems to be more suited and comfortable when joining the attack as a winger.

The eventual departure of Mateos would allow Kreis to bring in another solid centerback or fullback, which I believe is needed. I know I sound like a broken record, but the Orlando City back line is going to need to play a hell of a lot better if this franchise wants to make the playoffs. I would say, given the new additions, they are halfway there.

Midfield

As mentioned above, I think Kreis will opt for two central midfielders shielding the back line, and he has (I think) four options to choose from: Johnson, Nocerino, Higuita, and Carrasco. In the final 10 games of 2016, Kreis gave Nocerino and Carrasco the majority of those minutes at defensive midfield. But Orlando didn’t splash cash on free agent Will Johnson to have him sit on the bench. Johnson’s experience and leadership in the center of the pitch will help keep the team organized, and he’s good at harassing opposing team’s playmakers to limit their influence in games. This could potentially leave Higuita in the lurch, although I would hate to see a young talent like that on the bench, given that he had 99 tackles and 44 interceptions in just 1513 minutes last year. I think Kreis will look to start Johnson, but his partner a d-mid is a toss-up.    

In the attacking central midfield role, Orlando has two very good options in Kaka and Matias Perez Garcia. Kaka is obviously the preferred starter here (9 goals, 9 assists, 12th in xG+xA), but at his age I would not be surprised to see him rotated with Perez Garcia to keep him fresh. If Kaka is in the #10 slot, then I would expect Kreis to push Perez Garcia out to the right wing. Perez Garcia could do quite well as a chance creator on the right flank, but his natural position is still more towards the center of the field. If Kaka is being rested, I think that moves Perez Garcia into the center and opens up a spot at right wing for one of his teammates.

Which brings up the left wing. Towards the end of last season, Kreis was deploying Kaka, Perez Garcia, and Molino as a three-man attacking midfield trio in a 4-2-3-1. With Molino’s departure, I think either Brek Shea or Carlos Rivas make the most sense to step in at left wing, with Kaka and Perez Garcia shifting over. Brek Shea has started getting more minutes on the wing than he has at fullback as time has gone by. But Rivas is a more natural attacking option, despite not playing many minutes there last year. I would imagine Shea starts the season at left mid, but Rivas has a good chance to pry the starting role away from him.

Forwards

Cyle Larin is the man. He took MLS by storm in 2015 as a rookie, bagging 17 goals across 27 appearances. He had a similarly strong year in 2016, notching 14 goals and 3 assists, which was more than his xG of 11.82 for the season.  Larin is going to remain their target forward for all of 2017, and will play in at least 30 of their 34 games this year. His only true backup at center forward is 24-year-old Hadji Barry, who only got 293 minutes last year with only one assist to show for his work. The main question for Larin in 2017 (as it was last year) is if his teammates can provide him with service.  Kaka and Perez Garcia can both do that from attacking midfield roles. But there are questions about service from the wings. Molino was his playmaker on the right flank last year, and the left wing is somewhat of an unknown. Brek Shea is presumed to be the starter at left-mid, but Rivas may push for minutes there as well. 

Other than Larin and Barry, there is really no one else on the roster who can fill that role. Both Kaka and Matias Perez Garcia could play as a withdrawn forward, but there isn’t anyone else on the roster who can step in for Larin and score goals. If I’m Jason Kreis, I am on the lookout for another forward to add to the roster, especially if overseas teams arrive in the summer with legitimate transfer offers.  

Prognosis

I hate to be a wet blanket, but signs point to Orlando having a tumultuous start to their 2017 season.  Jason Kreis is really only halfway through his roster rebuild, and they need reinforcements at several positions. The up-side is that Orlando City will be flush with enough GAM, TAM, and roster spots to acquire the players they need. Kreis and his team need to move quickly to accomplish this, but at the same time ownership will need to show perseverance. Sacking Kreis before he has a chance to build and implement his own roster would be imprudent.

But if ownership is patient and Kreis is given the keys to the castle (so to speak), this is a team that could potentially turn into something really scary in the second half of 2017. It will be an interesting case to keep an eye on in 2017. You won’t want to miss out.