Beyond the Scoreline: Behind a struggling attack, Orlando City’s defense continues to carry their results


Courtesy of Orlando City

You wouldn’t know it by the online discourse, but Orlando City is undefeated with four points through their first team games of the 2023 season.

An opening day win over the New York Red Bulls and now a scoreless draw against FC Cincinnati — both results at Exploria Stadium, a place that wasn’t necessarily the home-field advantage you would think of it to be last season — have Orlando off to a solid points start.

The attention will promptly shift to the CONCACAF Champions League opening on Tuesday night in Monterrey, but first, let’s dive into Matchday 2.

Starting XI

Orlando City has begun a rather grueling stretch to begin their March slate of fixtures, with five games crammed into a span of 15 games starting with Cincinnati on Saturday and then Tigres three days later. For that reason, Oscar Pareja‘s lineup saw a heavy rotation of starts just five starters carrying over from Matchday 1.

While Pareja admitted after the match that it was been a tough task this past week keeping the focus on Cincinnati and not the Champions League match right behind it, this lineup showed a clear reminder that the Lions do in fact have their eyes on the biggest stage the club will take this season.

Abdi Salim and Gaston Gonzalez were both given their Orlando City debuts, while Dagur Dan Thorhallsson, Wilder Cartagena, and Kyle Smith each made their first starts of the new campaign.

Key figures like Facundo Torres (59 minutes), Mauricio Pereyra (45 minutes), Michael Halliday (70 minutes), Rodrigo Schlegel (45 minutes), and Ercan Kara (64 minutes) all started and played roughly a full hour or less, while others such as Martin Ojeda (59th minute sub), Robin Jansson (halftime sub) and Cesar Araujo (halftime sub) all saw condensed action in the second half.

Orlando City’s strength: defending

We spend enough time talking about the flaw in Orlando’s attack right now and trust me, we’ll probably continue to talk about it moving forward until that picks up, but not enough focus goes into acknowledging the defensive performance by Orlando through the first two games of the season.

The Lions have yet to concede a goal through 180-plus minutes of soccer, and that’s against a pair of talented, well-coached teams in New York and Cincinnati.

This game was a challenge from the outset however mostly because Cincinnati has a load of attacking talent in its lineup, and it was getting to face an Orlando backline that again saw two new starters from last week and a first-time center back pairing in Schlegel and Salim.

With Orlando under Pareja, defending has almost always been a strength for this group, and in more games than you could probably count it has been the reason why the Lions have been able to grind out more results than they’ve probably deserved over the last few seasons as the offense as been less-than-dangerous.

Here against Cincy, the Lions were able to use good coaching to overcome the talent gap between the side.

On paper, Orlando ran a 4-2-3-1 that played much differently on the field. In attack, mostly throughout the first half before Jansson came in and gave them better passing ability from the back, Halliday pushed high down the flanks while Smith stayed back, relying on Thorhallsson and Gonzalez to do the work on the left.

In defense, Smith shifted significantly towards Schlegel, helping back up that centerback pairing to essentially play as a back three with Gonzalez dropping as the defacto left back.

With Gonzalez covering the space out wide, it allows Salim and Schlegel to lock down the middle of the penalty area and Smith to patrol the edge of the box, acting as a secondary defense if the attacker beats Gonzalez or another body to block any low crosses.

Defensive rotation plays a big role for the Lions and it’s something they’ve been able to do incredibly well over the years. A centerback stepping forward off his line or a fullback caught out of position on a counter is always saved by a midfielder, typically the No. 6 like an Araujo of in this game Cartagena, dropping in to cover the role.

Two more quick examples of just that.

Because they know their space is sure to be covered, the centerbacks are comfortable stepping out of line to force pressure on balls into the midfield and halt quick movement into the middle.

Salim doing so in the 16th minute:

And Schlegel in the 22nd:

For a team like Orlando, having talent on the backline is obviously important, but it also speaks to why guys like Schlegel and Salim can step into the role and play together with each other like they’ve been doing it for years because the team is coached well enough to know where they need to be in certain moments.

Closing notes

  • A very positive first start for Thorhallsson. 41 touches, 86 percent accuracy on 29 passes, two tackles. High-energy guy, brings a lot to the field and covers a lot of ground. Still looks to be less than 100 percent in sync with the group (who isn’t?) but appears to be gaining confidence.
Thorhallsson’s touches chart
  • An up and down MLS debut for Abdi Salim. Saw plenty of positives throughout the night, but also probably more moments of, well, just basic rookie mistakes that you would expect from a guy straight out of college. It’s clear that the scouting department found another talented player, but he certainly has some more maturing to do before he’s ready for a full-time role in the professional game. Here’s a moment from early in the match, a 1v1 with Brenner; Salim is trying to push Brenner out wide, keeping him from getting a good look in the middle, but the Brazilian gets what he wants anyway with a shot of his preferred right foot.

  • At the end of the day, a point at home with a heavily-rotated lineup is a good thing. Like I said above, there’s plenty of discussion over the performance from this one, but jumping off of what we talked about a lot last week, these early season struggles are to be expected from this new group, especially when there’s still little consistency in the starting lineup from one week to the next between preseason and this early schedule congestion. Ultimately, the one and only thing that Orlando should be focusing on right now is the Champions League — not the playoffs, not the Shield, just CCL — and until the second leg against Tigres concludes next week (win or lose), nothing is changing until then. I wouldn’t expect much things to look totally different this coming weekend in D.C.

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