Recently this offseason I finally managed to read Nick Hornby’s book “Fever Pitch.” You’ve probably heard of it, it’s been on bookshelves since before I was even born — which might make some of you reading this feel a bit old (sorry!) — but I’m starting my 2023 Orlando City season preview with this anecdote about a book on an English man’s experience in life and soccer because there’s a passage in the book that is both simple and true.
“I discovered after the Swindon game that loyalty, at least in football terms, was not a moral choice like bravery or kindness; it was more like a wart or a hump, something you were stuck with. …. There have been many times over the last twenty-three years when I have pored over the small print of my contract looking for a way out, but there isn’t one. Each humiliating defeat must be borne with patience, fortitude and forbearance; there is simply nothing that can be done, and that is a realization that can make you simply squirm with frustration.”Nick Hornby
With the club entering its ninth season competing in Major League Soccer, as with the fresh start awarded to every club at the beginning of each season, there’s a moment of reflection, coupled with looking forward, to how the team we like got to this new season and where we hope it goes from here. Like Hornby and Arsenal, loyalty to Orlando City has been challenging, frustrating, and simply maddening at times. The humiliating defeats, the unsavory moments, and the forgetful seasons have been woven prominently into the story of the club so far. But despite all that, severing ties to that loyalty has never felt like an option, the club will always be there, and at the end of the day, so will its long-time supporters (and writers, even when it becomes a chore to do this).
2023 offers a new hope that feels unlike any we may have felt before. The front office has been working as hard, if not harder than any other club this offseason. Off the heights of winning the first major trophy in club history last fall, Orlando City enters the year with even higher ambitions and plenty of reason to believe it can achieve every goal it will set out to reach this season.
Led by Oscar Pareja, who has guided the club to playoff appearances in each of his first three seasons in Orlando, a roster featuring over 10 new faces looks to make this another record-breaking season with CONCACAF Champions League, MLS Cup, the newly-expanded Leagues Cup, and a U.S. Open Cup title to defend all in front of them.
The Lions ended 2022 with a third straight playoff appearance, falling to CF Montreal in the first round of the MLS Cup Playoffs in mid-October. While the team did manage to punch its ticket into the playoffs with a late-game Decision Day win over the Columbus Crew on the final day of the regular season, it was a bumpy year for Orlando just to get there, with inconsistency haunting the team throughout the season.
Despite being a solid defensive team (minus a small handful of lopsided results sprinkled in throughout the season) Orlando’s lack of strength in front of the goal hampered the team throughout the year, leading to a goal differential of -9, tied with Inter Miami as the worst of all 14 playoff teams, and goals per game average of 1.3, just barely better than Real Salt Lake, which scored just one fewer goal than Orlando in the regular season.
But Orlando enters the year hoping for better success and a re-tooled attack that, on paper, has the talent to change those goal-scoring fortunes. Between new signings, including a new Designated Player No. 10, and returning core pieces like Mauricio Pererya and Facundo Torres, the Lions are set up to at least be in the conversation for a title or two this season if things come together as planned.
Current Roster (as of 2-22-2023)
- GOALKEEPERS: Pedro Gallese, Mason Stajduhar, Adam Grinwis
- DEFENDERS: Antonio Carlos, Robin Jansson, Luca Patresso, Rafael Santos, Kyle Smith, Rodrigo Schlegel, Michael Halliday, Thomas Williams, Alexander Freeman, Abdi Salim
- MIDFIELDERS: Mauricio Pereyra, Cesar Araujo, Felipe Martins, Martin Ojeda, Wilfredo Rivera, Ivan Angulo, Wilder Cartagena, Favian Loyola, Dagur Dan Thorhallsson
- FORWARDS: Ercan Kara, Facundo Torres, Gaston Gonzalez, Jack Lynn, Shakur Mohammed, Ramiro Enrique, Duncan McGuire
As I wrote pretty extensively in my state of the roster rundown earlier this month, Orlando City heads into the year with one of the strongest rosters on paper they’ve had to start a season since entering MLS. The Lions added pieces at almost every position on the field, as well as re-signing key core pieces in the process such as Gallese and Pereyra.
On the backline, starting fullbacks Ruan (traded to D.C. United) and Joao Moutinho (left on a free to sign on Italy) are gone, with Luca Patresso (acquired via trade with Toronto FC) and Rafael Santos (signed via out-of-league transfer) taking their spots on the roster. Jansson and Carlos return a year older and carrying in a bit of injury concern as the starting centerbacks, in addition to backup Rodrigo Schlegel returning on a new contract signed this winter. Abdi Salim (SuperDraft) also joins the centerback corps as a young option.
More changes in the midfield saw Junior Urso (mutual termination to return to Brazil) and Andres Perea (traded to the Philadelphia Union) among those leaving the club. Martins (free agent signing), Loyola (Homegrown Player signing), Ojeda (Designated Player signing), and Thorhallsson (transfer) have all brought their talents to Central Florida.
And then within the forward group, Tesho Akindele (retired), Benji Michael (signed in Portugal), Niko Gioacchini (selected by St. Louis CITY SC in the Expansion Draft), and Alexander Pato (out of contract) are all out, with Mohammed (SuperDraft), McGuire (SuperDraft), and Enrique (u-22 Initiative signing) all coming in to battle for minutes up top.
Projected Starting XI
There are a few different ways to put this one together, so I’m not even going to pretend to be throwing down a stone-cold lock there. Setting aside the obvious first-choice names (Gallese, Jansson, Carlos, Araujo, Pereyra, Torres, Ojeda, and Kara) there’s some guessing as to who else Oscar Pareja will go with, in an ideal world.
At left back, Patresso might be the best choice with his age (22), talent, and pro experience with both Toronto in MLS and several years with their Next Pro side. On the right, Smith has the experience to take on the starting role but this seems to be Halliday’s make-or-break moment with the club as their Homegrown talent. Halliday, 20, has only played sparingly here and there since signing with the club as a Homegrown in 2020 and could be primed for his breakout season.
Based on the limited preseason action we’ve seen, Pereyra seems slated to take over the Urso role as the box-to-box No. 8, playing a deeper role behind Ojeda. Torres should be the starter out on the right side, floating in and out as needed, with Angulo starting on the left for at least the early part of the season while Enrique and Gonzalez continue to get their legal paperwork sorted out — which has caused them to miss some critical time this preseason — and they get reintegrated into the group.
In an Oscar Pareja system, having a solid No. 10 is key and can take this team a long way. This season, that role will fall on to Ojeda, the 24-year-old who looked good in the team’s final preseason tuneup against New England this past weekend. There may be an adjustment period, but over time he’ll become someone that Orlando sees as a crucial piece to success this season and beyond.
Orlando makes the playoffs if….
…. they don’t completely implode. Seriously. As of Tuesday, nine teams will make the playoffs in each conference, with the No. 8 and 9 seeds meeting in a play-in game before moving into a Best-of-Three first round, so if this group isn’t one of the top nine finishing teams over the course of a 34 game season then a lot must have gone wrong. I like the odds of that not happening though.
Orlando will miss the playoffs if…
…. injuries bog this team down more than we can see happening. There’s also a fair amount of skepticism that can be placed in this group because there are a dozen new faces, many of them are new to America and MLS, and it could take a longer-than-expected time for them to all gel. On top of that, Orlando will be competing in several in-season tournaments this year, including CONCACAF Champions League right off the bat with two tough games against Tigres in March. There’s no reason to believe the team won’t be all-in on these games, as well as defending their U.S. Open Cup title. If they put too many eggs in those baskets, it has the ability to hamper them when it comes to the MLS regular season — just as the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC how that has gone for them in the past.
I don’t think this team should have any issues making the playoffs. On paper, they’re just too talented to not be one of the top nine teams in the Eastern Conference, and in fact, I think they’ll end up finishing third in the East this season. As far as winning a trophy this season goes, I’m not ready to say they’ll be a favorite to win MLS Cup (they’ve got to prove themselves to me first), but it’s not out of bounds to think that Leagues Cup or the Open Cup will present the best opportunities for this group to bring some silverware back to Orlando again this season. I’d be surprised if they don’t make a serious run in either of those two competitions.
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