2019 Orlando City Preview: Can the Lions prove they’re finally ready for the playoffs?

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Photo Courtesy of Orlando City SC

There was once a point last season in which things were going pretty darn well for Orlando City.

After dropping two of their first three games to start the season, the Lions went flying under then-head coach Jason Kreis, racking up six straight wins from the end of March through first week of May. It looked like Kreis finally had things going in the right direction and that Orlando would be good enough to finally push towards its first playoff appearance in MLS.

And then, well… the wheels fell off, the truck ripped through the guardrail into oncoming traffic and exploded into a million tiny pieces — to put it lightly.

After such a promising start following a massive offseason rebuild, the Lions dropped nine straight, fired Kreis on June 15, and even after hiring former Louisville City FC gaffer James O’Connor two weeks later, they managed two more wins through the rest of the season. Nine points from 25 games after that six game winning streak.

The Lions finished the year 8-4-22 with 28 points, leaving them dead last in the Eastern Conference and above only the San Jose Earthquakes in the entire league.

That brought Orlando into another offseason in which a major rebuild was necessary. Nearly an entire month went by before General Manager Niki Budalic was let go by the club, making way for the hiring of former FC Dallas VP of Soccer Operations Luiz Muzzi to join Orlando City in the same capacity, overseeing all of the club’s soccer operations, beginning a top-to-down culture shift in the club, setting the focus back into player development, overall continuity, and a better sense of pride in the badge — things missing from Orlando City over the last few seasons.

15 players from last year’s squad are gone, 12 new players so far are in, including former Manchester United winger Nani.

The jury is still very much out on whether any real change will occur this season, but there is, for the first time in a while, optimism that the club is heading in the right direction under Muzzi’s leadership.


Departures

Goalkeepers: Joe Bendik, Earl Edwards Jr.

Defenders: Scott Sutter, Jonathan Spector, Donny Toia, , Mohamed El-Munir, Amro Tarek, Victor “PC” Giro, R.J. Allen, Chris Schuler.

Midfielders: Yoshimar Yotun, Tony Rocha, Jose Villarreal, Richie Laryea

Forwards: Stefano Pinho

Arrivals

Goalkeepers: Brian Rowe, Greg Ranjitsingh.

Defenders: Joao Moutinho, Kyle Smith, , Danilo Acosta, Ruan, Alex De John.

Midfielders: Jhegson Sebastian Méndez.

Forwards: Tesho Akindele, Santiago Patiño, Benji Michel, Nani.

Gavin’s Projected XI

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Muzzi said last week that the club expects Nani will have all of his paperwork done in time to be available for the Lions’ season opener on March 2 against New York City FC. The assumption among myself and others is that he’ll slot in at the top of the field next to Dom Dwyer, creating one of the most lethal front-two’s in the league.

Playing behind those two is Sacha Kljestan, Uri Rosell, and Sebastian Méndez in the midfield, with Kljestan playing the higher role of the three, pulling the strings from the top of the midfield, relying on wing-backs from both sides to bomb forward and take on space down the wings around him.

Kljestan had a down year in 2018, struggling to deal with the lack of talent on the field with him and eventually posting arguably his worst season since re-joining MLS in 2015. The Lions will need him to get back to being the MLS assist king he was in 2017 with the New York Red Bulls.

In said wing-back spots, Danilo Acosta, who is one of the most talented players in the youth national team pool, will likely get every opportunity to prove himself. And on the right side of the field, it looks like Ruan will get the nod, with his ability to blaze down the wings and keep up with opposing wingers with his killer speed. In between the pair, Orlando will be hoping to get a much better campaign out of Lamine Sane, who missed much of last season due to injury. Alex De John, another newcomer, was strong in preseason and could see his name in the lineup alongside Carlos Ascues.

In goal, Brian Rowe was a late addition to the field, joining the Lions early in camp on a trial basis before eventually earning an MLS contract last week.


Key Player

You could make a case for any number of players, but the fact is Kljestan is one of the most important players on the field for Orlando City and a major key for them to have success in 2019.

Six goals and six assists in 30 games is simply not good enough for a player of his caliber and wages, but that’s not to say everything was in his control last season. The Lions suffered injuries constantly, lacked the depth to give Kljestan viable options to play the ball to when Dwyer was shutdown by defenses, and simply played poorly altogether to make his job any easy.

The Lions’ hopes in 2019 don’t rest entirely on Kljestan’s shoulders, but he needs to play a big role for the club if there’s to be any success for Orlando City this season.

Orlando City can make the playoffs if…

… Several things happen.

First, the Lions need to hope their issues defensively are as solved as possible. As you may have heard, no team in MLS history has given up more goals in a single season than last year’s Orlando City team, which was really only part of the problem. If O’Connor’s new defensive shape and formation can take form, the Lions have a chance to be much better in the back than they have been in previous years, but they also need Sané and Ascues to be really good, and hope Acosta can break through and Ruan isn’t just all pace.

Second, they need more scorers. Dom Dwyer scored 13 goals last season, which for him wasn’t bad, but Orlando was certainly counting on him to provide more — maybe even counting on him too much.  Behind Dwyer, only three other players had at least four goals — Yotun (4), Cristian Higuita (4), and Kljestan (6). Last year, the team simply had no depth at forward, and when opponents were able to eliminate Dwyer from the game plan, things became tough. Orlando loaded up on forward depth this offseason with the additions of Tesho Akindele, Santiago Patiño, and Benji Michel.

It obviously remains to be seen what kind of impact Nani will have on the squad, but the Lions are going to need whatever he can give them, in addition to Josué Colmán finally showing up and being the influential designated player Orlando brought him in to be.

On top of all of that, the team most importantly just needs to stay healthy. I know that’s a big ask, but they can’t afford to lose any depth, especially in the midfield and on the back line, two areas where the Lions aren’t already bursting with impact depth.

Oh, and they need to play well at home, too. They haven’t done that often enough in two years at Orlando City Stadium.

Orlando City will miss out on the playoffs again if…

Let’s say if any two or three of the things I mentioned above don’t happen. If the defense isn’t good, they’re fighting an uphill battle. If the attacking core, which on paper can be one of the best in the league, doesn’t live up to it’s potential, we’re going to see a repeat of last season, when the Lions couldn’t score and the defense couldn’t hold opponents down to enough goals to keep pace.

If injuries hit the back line, they might be toast. And the same can be said for either of Dwyer and Kljestan missing significant time.

And if you can’t win at home, you have no chance.


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