Maybe I’m a bit biased for saying this, but enough credit isn’t given to Orlando City, and James O’Connor specifically, for the massive leap in performance the team has made this season after finishing dead last in the Eastern Conference and giving up more goals than any other team in MLS history last season.
Surely you don’t need to be reminded — and honestly, why would you want to be? — of how poor Orlando’s defense was last season, in which they gave up at least three goals in 11 of their 34 games, including a brutal summer stretch that saw them concede 21 times in six games.
But those days are gone — maybe not long gone just yet, but gone for now — and things are much different for Orlando City at this point in the season. In a remarkable turnaround, Orlando has conceded the fourth-fewest goals in the Eastern Conference this season (10th overall in MLS), better than teams such as East leader Philadelphia Union and fourth place New York Red Bulls.
So when I say they don’t get enough credit, I mean it’s still not hard to find the Lions getting roasted when they let in a bad goal here or there, when in reality the bad goals are coming few and far between nowadays.
In this piece, we’ll look at what O’Connor has Orlando doing that’s kept it closer to the playoff race than most (myself included) thought they’d be at this point in the campaign.
The Lions set out to improve the defense this season, starting with a 5-3-2 throughout the first few weeks before switching to their now normal 4-3-3, balancing their attack while remaining compact in their defense.
The main point of emphasis is staying compact in the middle of the field and organizing through team defending. Orlando doesn’t let teams stretch them out, eliminating space and making it difficult for opposing players to move the ball through the middle of the field. They’re more than OK with giving up space on the weak side, allowing teams to try for those long balls across the field because they have the mobility in the midfield to adjust and coordinate appropriately.
Take a look at this clip below. It comes from Orlando’s recent 2-0 win over FC Dallas. The Lions have eight players behind the ball, and by staying compact and applying constant pressure on the ball through their three midfielders, which are switching off through each section of the field, they stifle Dallas and make it impossible for them to see a clear chance.
They continue this trend out wide, where when opposing teams take possession to the wings, their midfielders and fullbacks — the forwards often join the play as well — can press and create enough pressure to either create a turnover and put the ball back in the middle of the field.
Because they often have numbers deep in a low block, they’re able to win back a lot of loose balls in the midfield and return to possession. They’re good at doing it because their midfielders are generally quick at pressuring and forcing mistakes.
The Lions’ midfield plays a key role in this, either jumping on the ball in the middle of the field or trying to force the play out wide.
As I mentioned, Orlando is strong with team defending, and their midfielders play a central role in keeping key areas covered and staying in after losing the ball and setting into their counter-attack defense.
Because the Lions love to push their fullbacks up into the attack, this often leaves space on the wings that force the midfielders to track back and take over that open ground. You’ll often see during games guys like Sebas Mendez and Will Johnson playing full back or center back because they’re covering space and keeping the backline in order.
In this clip below, Joao Moutinho chases a wide ball up the wing. Robin Jansson covers that space in anticipation of the ball coming back that way, so Mendez drops into the backline as the new acting centerback.
Ultimately, the ball goes back and the players can reset, but the same situation occurs minutes later that sees Mendez tracking a runner to the outside as Ruan chases a ball into the middle.
Here it is again 10 minutes later, this time with Johnson playing the fill-in right back, a role he finds himself playing
You’ll often see when the Lions are in possession and building out of the back, the fullbacks will push forward and the centerbacks slipt wide across the field, so the holding midfielder in the lineup will drop in between then in the event they lose the ball and suddenly have a gigantic hole exposed in the middle of the field.
It’s simple defending basics, but the Lions have progressed through the season to become better at recognizing those potential gaps and closing them down because they became issues. The increased awareness by the players of everything happening around themselves and being able to better recognize moments has helped Orlando strengthen their defense.
It’s where we saw the Lions struggle in games early in the season, as they were adapting to this way of defending they often found themselves exposed in wide areas and that caused them to get stretched thin and ultimately goals followed, whereas now the majority of the goals they conceded are simply due to poor defending or ball watching in bad spots.
You can’t talk about the improved defense without also mentioning the performances of those playing the key roles as well.
Sebastian Mendez has brought a strong presence to the midfield, anchoring down the holding midfield role in front of the backline and being a good passing outlet from the back. Robin Jansson has also put in strong performances throughout the campaign, forming a respectable partnership with Lamine Sané.
Joao Moutinho and Ruan aren’t the strongest defenders, but Ruan’s got the speed to keep up with anybody in the league and both benefit from a system that allows the midfielders to provide backup and help push plays out wide and away from the danger areas.
Even Will Johnson has seen a rise in his level of play this season, winning back the support of many of those who considered him worthless to the club.
Orlando can maybe stand to improve a bit in central defense this winter, but for the time being, they’ve brought together a group and installed a system that is clearly providing results and has helped turn around a defense that was once the laughing stock of MLS.
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