Orlando City State of the Roster: After a busy offseason, the Lions look as strong as ever


Courtesy of Orlando City

The calendar has turned to February, marking both the end of the longest-feeling month of every year and meaning that Major League Soccer games are on the horizon for the first time in 2023.

We’re just three weeks shy of Orlando City‘s season-opening contest against the New York Red Bulls on Feb. 25, making now as good a time as ever to take one last look at the state of the roster and where things stand heading into the midway point of preseason training.

Let’s dive right in.

GOALKEEPERS: Pedro Gallese, Mason Stajduhar, Adam Grinwis

Not much debate or analysis to get into here. Grinwis and, more crucially, Gallese returned to the club on new contracts this winter. There was some doubt starting to creep in about Gallese’s return as time dragged on, and the two sides struggled to come to terms on a new deal, as the Peruvian goalkeeper was looking for a larger salary, but an agreement was finally reached in December that locked him down in Orlando for at least another two seasons.

Gallese heads into 2023 for his fourth season with the club, cementing himself as one of the toughest shot-stoppers in the league since 2020, and the Lions will be counting on him to deliver again as they chase more trophies this season.

Behind Gallese, Grinwis and Stajduhar will compete for the backup job. Grinwis re-signed on a one-year contract in late November, although he hasn’t appeared in a game since 2021. Stajduhar, the longest-tenured player with the club, saw action twice last season (with three U.S. Open Cup starts) and is currently the likely candidate to be the backup.

DEFENDERS: Antonio Carlos, Robin Jansson, Luca Patresso, Rafael Santos, Kyle Smith, Rodrigo Schlegel, Michael Halliday, Thomas Williams, Alexander Freeman

Antonio Carlos and Robin Jansson return as the team’s starting centerback pairing for the fourth year in a row. Together, they managed to create one of the strongest pairings in the league. Health is the one main concern between these two right now, with Jansson having undergone surgery to repair a stress fracture of the right navicular bone in October. He’s back on the field for Orlando in preseason, though it remains something to keep an eye on as he tries to return to full strength before the start of the regular season later this month.

Should he, or Carlos even, need to miss any time this season, Rodrigo Schlegel has emerged over the years as a reliable No. 3 centerback for Orlando. A fan favorite for a piling number of reasons now, Schlegel signed a new two-year contract through 2024 this month to keep him here even longer.

The main questions with the backline right now center on both of the fullback spots. On the right side, Kyle Smith is the most experienced player in the competition for the start gig after the club traded away Ruan for a SuperDraft pick back in December, but Homegrown Player Michael Halliday could be in a position to step up and earn the role as the promising young defender the club believes him to be. Halliday, 20, has appeared in 15 games across all competitions for the Lions since signing his first MLS contract back in 2021 but has yet to make any big breakthroughs with the first team. Now is his opportunity.

Over on the left side, it comes down to Luca Patresso and Rafael Santos, a pair of under-25 fullbacks with high upside and long-term contracts with the club. Patresso came to Orlando in a trade for GAM from Toronto, and Santos signed from Brazil, both bringing the Lions technical ability and depth to that side of the field. This will be a key position to watch in the early months of the season to see who can establish themselves first.

MIDFIELDERS: Mauricio Pereyra, Cesar Araujo, Felipe Martins, Martin Ojeda, Wilfredo Rivera, Ivan Angulo, Wilder Cartagena, Favian Loyola, Dagur Dan Thorhallsson

The Lions have a lot of depth in the midfield now and on paper have set themselves up well for a schedule that could easily run up to nearly 45 games this season if they make any sustained runs in non-MLS competitions.

Junior Urso‘s departure leaves a big hole to fill in the middle of the field, both in terms of his level of play and the general presence he brought to the team. He’s a figure that’s tough to match. But Oscar Pareja and staff are hoping that Wilder Cartagena, the 28-year-old Peruvian midfielder that started four games after signing with the club in August of last season, could be the answer alongside the emerging force in Cesar Araujo.

All of this largely depends on how Pareja wants to play the team this season though. Typically, he uses two defensive-midfield type players, but the Lions are much more stacked with attacking players now, with new Designated Player Martin Ojeda joining the team alongside Mauricio Pereyra, who re-signed on a non-DP contract this season to remain a central piece of the puzzle in Orlando. Ojeda will presumably be the new No. 10, but how Pereyra fits in now alongside him will be interesting to watch, especially in regards to Facundo Torres, Gaston Gonzalez, and Ramiro Erique, all forwards/wingers, fit in around them on the wings. Pereyra could play in a deeper role, similar to what we saw from him at times in the middle of the season last year, but he can continue centrally with Ojeda pushed out wider. All remains to be seen.

Beyond those names, Felipe Martins and Thorhallsson bring quality depth as new additions, along with Wilfredo Rivera and Favian Loyola, who was promoted from Orlando City B this offseason.

FORWARDS: Ercan Kara, Facundo Torres, Gaston Gonzalez, Jack Lynn, Shakur Mohammed, Ramiro Enrique, Duncan McGuire

So much attacking prowess, and so little space on the field to actually deploy it all.

Kara and Torres return for the second season as DPs with the club. Kara had a good, not outstanding, campaign in 2022 while Torres was the club’s breakthrough player of the season. Another standout season for the Lions surely seals his next move abroad, but for now, he’s in Orlando and expected to be a key factor as a goal scorer and chance creator both out wide and in the middle of the field.

Service into Kara will be a big key to fully unlocking his potential this season, something that the Lions weren’t able to do in 2022. With better service from the overlapping fullbacks and more technical skill pushing the wings with Torres, Gonzales, Enrique, Ivan Angulo, or whoever is in those roles, and the playmaking abilities from Ojeda and Pereyra in the middle, it’s tough to think the Lions won’t be able to make this work better in 2023.

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