Commentary: What we’re watching for from Orlando City in preseason

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Soccer is back! Well, kinda sorta. Orlando City began preseason training this week, with about six weeks to go until opening day. Between now and then, there will be plenty of training, a solid handful of close-door scrimmages, and an open-to-the-public friendly.

The front office staff has been busy this offseason re-tooling and, to some extent, rebuilding the squad for a fresh new run at the MLS Cup in 2023. Much of what the Lions do in preseason will be behind closed doors, unlike other sports that generally welcome everybody to see every moment of action they feel comfortable with. But, naturally, we’ve got a lot of lingering questions to be answered and things we’re looking out for over the next month and a half.

Here are some of the top storylines we’re watching in preseason.

Who’s playing right back?

The sudden dealing of Ruan to D.C. United before the MLS SuperDraft last month, left a surprising vacancy on the depth in the final weeks leading up to the start of preseason training. The Lions have added a pair of fullbacks this offseason already in Luca Patrasso and Rafael Santos, joining veteran role player Kyle Smith, who also returned to the club this offseason on a one-year deal. Both Patrasso and Santos are typically left-side players, and one could argue that Smith isn’t the top option to be an everyday starter if you can help it.

Is Orlando betting on Smith to provide that stability? Are they looking at making one more backline signing? Is this 19-year-old Michael Halliday’s big opportunity to prove himself? Alex Freeman is coming into his second season after signing a Homegrown deal last February, meaning he could be in the mix for playing time as well. The Lions have until February 25 to figure that out.

Where the new faces line up

Arguably the biggest signing of Orlando City’s offseason to date is Designated Player Martin Ojeda. Ojeda’s arrival adds yet another punch to an attacking dynamic that looks incredibly strong on paper. The key question now is just how Oscar Pareja plans to implement the 24-year-old Argentine into the lineup with the pieces already around him. Like Gaston Gonzalez and Facundo Torres, Ojeda is primarily a left-side player, but he can also slide in comfortably in the midfield or across the field on the right. Mauricio Pereyra’s role in the midfield this season will also be key to this. If Pareja decides to use Pereyra in a deeper midfield role like we saw before Alexander Pato’s injury last season, it would be reasonable to see either Torres and Ojeda in the middle and the other on the wings with Gonzalez. Not exactly a terrible problem for Pareja and his coaching staff to have.

To this point, Ojeda spoke to the media for the first time on Monday and said he hasn’t yet had a full conversation with the coaching staff and, more specifically, hasn’t been told where he’s expected to play yet.

How the midfield adjusts without Junior Urso

Junior Urso’s abrupt departure at the beginning of the offseason left a giant bear-sized hole in the middle of the field. Additionally, the Lions sent Andres Perea to the Philadelphia Union, which coupled with trading Sebas Mendez to Los Angeles FC in the middle of the season, completing a full exodus of Orlando City’s midfield enforcers. Cesar Araujo remains and will likely continue on in that No. 8, where he excelled in 2022.

The question here comes off the back of the previous situation above. What helps here is that Pereyra, like Urso, is a strong ball-winner in the midfield. His work rate shows little limits despite his age, leading us to believe that the Lions might just be okay in this area of the field, but health is a big concern here at the moment just because the midfield depth is still pretty thin. Felipe Martins is on the roster now, alongside Wilder Cartagena and Jake Mulraney, but it’s hard to be overly confident about where things stand.

What can we expect from Gaston Gonzalez?

Gaston Gonzalez was supposed to be an additional marquee signing to add alongside Facundo Torres last season before a torn ACL in his final game for Club Atletico Union in May sidelined him for the remainder of the 2022 season. Fully healthy and ready to go, Gonzalez is set to make his long-awaited debut on the field with Orlando as a key player in a newly built attacking front for Pareja to deploy. With so much hype and the unknown around the 21-year-old, it’ll be interesting to see just how quickly he’s able to settle himself into the team and just how much rust has built up over the course of the long layoff.

New faces take time, especially when those faces are leaving their home countries for the first time at a young age to come to MLS, but for the sake of Orlando’s attack, there will be plenty of hope that Gonzalez hits the ground running similar to Torres last season.

What remaining work gets finished

As I’ve mentioned previously, while there’s enough Starting XI talent to carry the Lions through this season, depth remains a big weakness for the group.

Depth behind Robin Jansson and Antonio Carlos remains mostly just Rodrigo Schlegel — 18-year-old Thomas Williams is also there but lacking experience. Jack Lynn is most of the depth behind Ercan Kara on the depth chart at forward, with reports emerging on Tuesday night that Orlando is closing in on signing 21-year-old Argentine striker Ramiro Enrique from Banfield for around $2 million. That would be a big boon for the position, as well as more depth on an already-strong wing.

Between the 34-game MLS schedule, CONCACAF Champions League, U.S. Open Cup, Leagues Cup, and a likely expanded playoff schedule, having quality depth across the field will be critical to navigating the next nine months. Opening day isn’t for another six weeks, leaving plenty of time for the front office to fill out the back end of the roster, but once the games begin, the Lions are going to need the entire roster, from top to bottom, to be ready.


For more up-to-date Orlando soccer news, follow the Soccer Journal on Twitter: @OSJSoccer

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