By DCU Exile (@dcu_exile)
Orlando City has rebuilt their roster with several blockbuster trades and signings this off-season. As they embark on their 4th MLS season, they finally look like a playoff-caliber team.
2017 in review
Orlando City came out of the gate guns blazing last March. The Lions started with a 7-1-0 record before things fell apart, and finished with a 10-15-9 record overall. Yes, that’s right. After starting the 2017 season with the strongest record in the league, Orlando City managed to secure just 3 more wins across the remaining 26 games. Curiously, their fall from grace apparently started in Week Eight, which is when former Ballon d’Or winner Kaka returned from injury and was re-inserted back into the lineup. It is both inaccurate and unfair to pin Orlando City’s poor 2017 season on him alone, because they had issues all over the field. But when a $7.1 million per year Designated Player can’t raise the level of a team, he is either past his prime or the team has far more problems besides him. For Orlando City in 2017, both were true.
Orlando City allowed 56 GA in 2017, almost eight goals worse than their 48.64 xGA, and finished with a -17 GD, which was sixth-worst in the league (we exclude own-goals). Offensively, the Lions generated only 39 GF, making them the 3rd lowest-scoring team in the league (tied with Sporting KC and San Jose). The Lions need to tighten up defensively and generate a lot more chances in the final third if they want to finally reach the promised land (the post-season, that is), and the offseason additions made by Jason Kreis should help them finally get over that hill.
Kaka departed from Orlando City after his three-year contract expired, and the Brazilian legend retired not long after. Other departures include Giles Barnes, Antonio Nocerino, Carlos Rivas, Josh Saunders, Seb Hines, Conor Donovan, Servando Carassco, Hadji Barry, Kevin Alston, Devron Garcia, Leo Pereira, Tommy Redding, and Cyle Larin. The roster culling opened up a lot of roster spots, salary cap space, and two designated player slots formerly occupied by Kaka and Rivas. Finally, after a year-and-a-half at the helm, Kreis was able to build his own team.
At forward, Dom Dwyer was the late addition to Orlando City in 2017 in an unexpected blockbuster trade with Sporting Kansas City. Orlando City continued to grab headlines when they acquired Sacha Kljestan in a trade with the New York Red Bulls, Justin Meram from the Columbus Crew, and former Sporting Kansas City midfielder Oriol (Uri) Rosell from Sporting CP. Another notable addition was 19 year-old Josue Coman, who was signed as a Young DP. Other additions include defenders RJ Allen, Mohamed El-Munir, and Amro Tarek; midfielders Chris Mueller, and Cam Lindley; and forwards Stefano Pinho and former LA Galaxy Homegrown Player Jose Villarreal.
Orlando City tried to implement a variety of formations during the 2017 campaign, but finished the year playing in a curious 4-3-1-2 formation. While I doubt this was what Kreis wanted to do, I suspect he used this as a way to get all of his best players on the field at the same time. That said, it just did not function well at all. In the final 15 games of the season, Orlando put up a 2-9-4 record and missed the playoffs for the third consecutive year of their MLS history.
But with a massive roster overhaul that involved the acquisition of some very well-known MLS stars, Jason Kreis will likely to deploy a 4-2-3-1. Veteran defenders Jonathan Spector and Scott Sutter will lead an upgraded back line in front of Joe Bendik. Though Yoshi Yotun played most of 2017 in the middle, it seems he will start 2018 on the wing until Josue Colman is ready (at only 19, opinions vary on if he's a starter from day one). Yotun played on the left side of midfield in Sweden, so he seems like a natural fit. Rosell and Higuita will play as deep-lying central midfielders. Meram has played mostly on the left the last few years in Columbus, but may see more time on the right side of midfield under Kreis. Kljestan and Meram will take plenty of shots-on-goal for themselves, and generate a plethora of chances for Dwyer, who has 61 career goals.
Defense and Goalkeeper
In goal, Bendik is likely to retain his starting job despite the fact that he let in 50 goals last season. Why? Because he faced 168 shots on goal—second only to Minnesota United’s Bobby Shuttleworth—and led the league with 118 saves across the season. That comes out to 3.6 saves per game; 2.2 inside the penalty area (tied for 1st in MLS) and 1.3 from outside the penalty area (8th in MLS). By the numbers, Bendik is a solid goalkeeper. But goals allowed is a statistic that reflects the defense as a whole, and not just the man between the posts. Earl Edwards Jr., Adam Grinwis, and Mason Stajduhar will battle it out for the number two spot behind Joe Bendik.
Former USMNT centerback Jonathan Spector will anchor the back line. In addition to wearing the captain’s armband, Spector was 6th in the league with 5.5 clearances per game. Uruguayan Jose Aja and recent addition Amro Tarek will battle it out for the starting job alongside Spector. Recent reports from camp indicate a close competition between Tarek and Aja, but I think Tarek might have a slight edge on Aja at the moment.
At left fullback, Donny Toia is the incumbent starter, but recent acquisition Mohamed El-Munir may steal the job by Week 1. Brazilian PC Giro provides a third option on the left. At right fullback, Sutter is the man to beat, and one of the veteran leaders of the back line in 2017. But RJ Allen, acquired from NYCFC, will push Sutter for minutes.
The starting deep-lying midfield duo is likely to be Rosell and Higuita (though it's also possible Yotun starts centrally over Higuita and Coman goes to the wing). Rosell was a standout defensive midfielder for Sporting Kansas City before transferring to Sporting CP in Portugal, and was a key member of the Sporting KC squad that won the MLS Cup in 2013. He's a strong tackler, has good defensive positioning, and is an excellent passer—both short and long range. He is likely going to be the tempo-setter for Orlando City when in possession, and still holds the record for most passes ever completed in an MLS game—an astonishing 160 of 166 passes completed (96% accuracy) in a 2014 game against the Montreal Impact. Higuita is an Orlando City original and Rosell’s probable deep-lying counterpart. He is also a strong passer (87.6% accuracy) and should average around 4-5 defensive actions per game. Together, Rosell and Higuita should do a good job shielding the back line, breaking up counter attacks, and maintaining possession.
Further up field, Kreis has a potent attacking trio in Yotun, Kljestan, and Meram. Yotun joined Orlando City late in 2017, and proved an adept chance-creator even with just 887 minutes as a sample size. Kljestan has been perhaps the best chance-creator in MLS over the past couple of years, and his numbers show it. Meram is a dual-threat winger who can cut in and score goals, and generate assists for his striker as well. The table below highlights these three players’ offensive numbers from 2017.
|Attacking 3rd Passing|
|Minutes||Goals||Assists||Dribbles/game||KP/game||Passing Accuracy||Passes||Rank||Pass %|
|2 ||17 ||0.7 |
Yotun, Kljestan, Meram, Rosell, and Higuita are likely to be the five starting midfielders for Orlando City in 2018, but Kreis has a mix of experience and promising youth on the bench if he needs to rotate his lineup or deploy a late-game substitute. Colman, despite signing as a Young Designated Player, is likely to play a supporting role in 2018. While Orlando Fans are bullish on Colman—who can play centrally or on the wing—the fact is that he’s only played about 2000 minutes in his life and has only gone a full 90 minutes a handful of times in his career. Colman is talented, but still very raw.
Besides Colman, Kreis has a fairly diverse group of experience and youth among the midfield depth players: Will Johnson, Dillon Powers, Tony Rocha, Cameron Lindley, Pierre da Silva, Richie Laryea, and Jose Villareal will all see minutes.
The departure of Cyle Larin to Turkish club Besiktas was protracted and very messy. Eventually Orlando City got their transfer fee, but still issued a scathing statement about how Larin and his agent handled the situation. Some argue that Orlando should have held out and demanded more money for Larin, but I think it would have proved a constant distraction for the team moving forward since Larin was eventually going to make the move overseas. Better to have it done and dusted before the season starts.
Lions fans shouldn’t mourn Larin’s departure too long, because they have a proven MLS goal scorer in Dwyer. Dwyer has 61 goals across six seasons, and was a key member the Sporting KC teams that won MLS Cup in 2013 and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in 2015 and 2017. Dwyer has good speed and experience in big games that matter. If Kljestan, Yotun, and Meram can provide the same chance creation in 2018 that they have in the past, Dwyer could have a very strong year wearing purple.
At the same time, Dwyer can’t rest on his laurels. Brazilian striker Stefano Pinho joins Orlando City from Miami FC after winning the NASL Golden Boot in 2017 with 17 goals across 27 games. This includes a hat-trick performance against Orlando City that knocked the Lions out of the 2017 U.S. Open Cup. Pinho was NASL MVP in both 2015 and 2017, and won’t require an international roster slot as a green card holder.
Rookie Chris Mueller, a SuperDraft pick from Wisconsin, sits lowest on the depth chart and will struggle to get minutes in 2018. Mueller posted nine goals and 20 assists in his senior season with the Badgers, breaking the Big 10 record for assists in a season. He is definitely a player to keep an eye on down the road. In contrast to Dwyer and Pinho, Mueller seems more like a false nine or a winger that cuts in to create chances for his teammates. Realistically, I think Mueller will only see minutes in U.S. Open Cup competitions this season, but rookies have surprised us all before.
Jason Kreis was able to add several key players at positions of need, while building depth all over the field. When you look at the starting XI he assembled, this looks like a much improved team compared to the last three years. Yet this will require his key players to consistently produce throughout the season and stay healthy. Since Orlando joined MLS, I have never been convinced they were capable of making the playoffs. But I think they have what it takes at this point, and if they can make it to their first post-season as an MLS franchise, Florida fans in purple will go wild.