It’s been over three months since Orlando City last kicked a ball in early October, and while the start of the 2020 regular season is still another six weeks away, preseason started on Monday.
The Lions — and the rest of Major League Soccer — are back this week after the long winter break with a new head coach, plenty of new players, and a brand new training home. It’s been a long winter (if you live in Florida it’s actually been a pretty cool and occasionally warm winter, not to brag) and like many of you, I’m ready for another year of weirdness that this league has to offer.
With that, let’s dive into a bunch of stuff that’s on my mind with Orlando City heading into the preseason.
Lions, octopuses, and bears, oh my! (credit goes to Julia Poe for that one)
Orlando’s coming into the preseason on the heels of pushing several important signings across the finish line, bringing a more prominent sense of optimism into the 2020 season. The Lions nabbed a new, in all likelihood, starting goalkeeper in Pedro Gallese (nicknamed ‘the Octopus’) and a new starting defensive midfielder in Júnior Urso (nicknamed ‘The Bear’) this past week, in addition to highly-touted college prospect Daryl Dike, a forward from Virginia, in the MLS SuperDraft.
You could also make the case for the club’s brand new training facility in Kissimmee, which officially opened on Friday, being a big addition as well — in which case, it’s one of the biggest for Orlando City in the last six years, but more on that further below.
The Lions got great production in goal from Brian Rowe, who was playing on an extremely club-friendly $98,000 per year contract, but can now put their long-term hopes for the position into Gallese, the 29-year-old Peruvian international who is joining Orlando from Alianza Lima, where he spent the 2019 campaign on loan from Liga MX side Veracruz. Orlando has struggled for stability at the goalkeeper position, but with Gallese, the Lions might finally have the answer there with this Targeted Allocation Money signing.
With Urso, the Lions are getting another prominent South American midfielder that can pair up nicely right alongside Sebastian Mendez, creating a fearsome duo in the defensive midfield. We don’t know much right now about how Oscar Pareja intends to use this roster tactically, but the thoughts of Mendez locked down things in front of the backline with Urso being the kind of box-to-box player to add a different dynamic into the mix is something to look forward to.
Orlando’s defense was much-improved last season largely in part because of how well the defensive midfielders mixed into and provided cover on the backline, but you could also easily make the case that when the team was focusing its resources primarily on defending it was taking away from the team’s ability to attack effectively. This pairing helps move towards eliminating that problem in 2020.
With new players comes new challenges
The Lions have added five new international players — all South Americans — so far this winter, with their name still being attached to even more foreign names as we head into preseason, not even mentioning the two new Homegrown Player signings and multiple draft picks (although Dike might be the only one staying from that group), that’s nearly 20 percent of the current roster that is not only new to Orlando but new to Major League Soccer and to life in the United States. Now, most of these guys are experienced players with thousands of professional minutes under their belts, but there’s always the challenge of adjusting to new teams in new countries.
I don’t think anybody is expecting this team to turn out to be an MLS Cup favorite in Year 1 under Pareja (at least I’m not expecting that to be the case), but in MLS, a league with more than half of the teams making the playoffs, no team is ever truly out of contention until September. This team has the talent on paper to fight for a playoff seed, but whether or not it does compete could largely depend on how well and how quickly most of these new additions adjust to their new life settings and integrate into the squad.
Gallese and Urso I’m truly not worried about, but, let’s say, a guy like Antonio Carlos. Center back is a tough position, especially in MLS, and finding that connection and chemistry on the backline could be tough. The Lions will certainly be hoping that it won’t be if they want to take advantage of their home-heavy schedule early in the year before things start to get challenging in the summer.
Moving forward with the forwards
Nani and Tesho Akindele were the two leading goal-scorers for Orlando in 2019, but outside of those two, the Lions struggled to find goals throughout the roster. Dom Dwyer was historically bad; Chris Mueller was good early in the season but fizzled out; Benji Michel and Santiago Patino both showed flashes of potential in their rookie campaigns but didn’t play a large enough role to make an impact.
For the first time since the club came into MLS, it looks like the Lions are heading into 2020 with a good bit of depth at the forward position after bringing back all six names above with the addition of Dike.
Despite the trade rumors, I don’t see any scenario that involves Dwyer being traded right now, meaning he’s going to get the opportunity to redeem himself and get his career back on track in Orlando this season, and the Lions need that more than almost anything else. When you look around the league, the elite teams are all led by elite strikers bagging anywhere from 15-25 goals in a season. If not Dwyer, the Lions are going to need that production to come from somewhere on the roster to be successful this season.
(Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to pick up the phone and see how Bradley Wright-Phillips feels about Florida and being an insurance option on the bench?)
The focus is supposedly going to be on turning Orlando City into an “attack-minded” team in 2020, and if that can mean getting Dwyer back to bagging 15-20 goals a year, at least, then it’s hard to imagine this season being worse than 2019. Not only would that be great for Dwyer, but it would take a ton of weight off Nani’s shoulders and open up the door for him to be a stronger creator for the Lions in the attack.
With Nani, by the way, we’re going to see a well-rested player (remember, this was his first offseason break since the summer of 2018) coming off the best goals-assists season in club history possibly now getting to play in a system that allows him to focus on his strengths rather than spreading him out to be an everything player, which he’s never really had to do before in his career. He, for me, is one of the more interesting storylines heading into the season, as we’ll start to find out if he’s really got more left in the tank and that giving him a three-year contract wasn’t a big mistake.
A new secondary home
On Friday, Orlando City finally cut the ribbon on its own brand-new training facility down in Kissimmee after years of building towards this moment. The 20-acre complex will house the team’s entire development structure with Orlando City B and the development academy being housed there as well. While Orlando is far from the first club in MLS to open training complex of this size and professionalism, it’s a monumental addition for the club and otherwise necessary is keeping up with many of the top-tier teams in the league.
It has the space, the amenities, and the structure that allows Orlando City to operate effectively to reach its potentials on and off the field. MLS is a league of parity, which means more often than not just having the slightest edge can be the difference between three points and zero.
There’s nothing against Sylvan Lake Park, as it served as a quality facility for the last five seasons, but this new facility offers more to the players and could be that minor advantage.
Luiz Muzzi and Oscar Pareja have added a lot of good pieces so far this winter, and with another six weeks left until the regular season starts, there’s still enough time to add some more. For now, I think the team is set at forward — like I said, it’s on Dwyer to be the elite striker right now and if that doesn’t happen then I’d imagine the team will start to look externally for that guy in the summer. Defensively, I think they’re good too — the Lions are bringing back a lot of key players from last season, with a few important upgrades.
That leaves the midfield, where I do believe the team needs to continue to look. I’m not convinced of the attacking strength in this group right now, largely because three of the four midfield signings this winter have all been 21 years old or younger. Mauricio Pereyra is someone to look forward to, but remember, he only played 394 minutes last season so that essentially means he’s still brand new to playing with this club. Adding one more attacking midfielder, maybe a right-side player, could round out this group nicely.
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