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Orlando City

The Great Pretenders II: For the Second Straight Year Orlando City Squandered an Outstanding Start



For the second consecutive season, the promise of a great start to the MLS campaign devolved into a relentlessly brutal summer and fall that saw Orlando City set new club marks for futility since joining the top flight prior to 2015. The Lions began the season with injuries and suspensions, then put together a club record six straight wins before setting a new club mark for consecutive losses, with nine, and ultimately finishing the year in a 2-20-3 free fall.

A year ago I wrote about how the Lions squandered a 6-1-0 start to the 2017 season and eventually collapsed and it was nearly the same story in 2018 — only worse. So how did it happen (again)?

Orlando City GM Niki Budalic and then-coach Jason Kreis overhauled the roster in the off-season and nearly every move seemed like a good one. The club brought in a variety of players who seemed to offer improvement across every position group. The attack was bolstered with the additions of veterans Sacha Kljestan and Justin Meram from top Eastern Conference rivals. A Young Designated Player was signed in the person of Josué Colmán, who was expected to be ready to step in and play right away despite being a teenager.

The SuperDraft brought in exciting rookie Chris Mueller and the Lions took a chance that Brazilian Stefano Pinho could translate two NASL Golden Boot-winning efforts to the MLS level and that another year of pro soccer would have Richie Laryea and Pierre Da Silva ready to contribute when needed. Additionally, the club took a flier on promising former LA Galaxy Homegrown Player Jose Villarreal. The lack of striker depth was obvious behind Dom Dwyer, but, through some combination of Pinho, Mueller, Meram, and Colmán, it seemed there were players who could fill in as a second striker in Kreis’ 4-4-2 or a shape change to a 4-2-3-1 could mitigate the issue.

In the defensive midfield, the club signed former MLS star Oriol Rosell, a standout on a championship team with Sporting Kansas City, who seemed to be the perfect player to play the bottom of the diamond midfield or partner with Yoshimar Yotún in central midfield. With Will Johnson, Cristian Higuita, and Tony Rocha on the roster, defensive midfield seemed set with both talent and depth.

The back line, a problem area for the club since joining MLS, was given a lot of attention. Fullback strength was added through presumed new starter Mohamed El-Munir and depth was added in RJ Allen on the right side. Donny Toia could slide into a backup role on the left in a battle with PC behind El-Munir. The club brought in multiple center backs in Bundesliga starting caliber defender Lamine Sané, MLS veteran Chris Schuler, and journeyman Amro Tarek — a player with international experience with Egypt. It seemed some combination would partner well with Jonathan Spector and Scott Sutter to form a solid MLS back line.

Even more depth was added by re-signing former MLS Rookie of the Year Dillon Powers and trading for promising rookie Cam Lindley. The roster seemed formidable, but the obvious problem was getting all the new faces to jell.

But nothing seemed to go right in 2018. It began with late arrivals and key preseason injuries — notably to Dwyer and Rosell — along with a two-game suspension for Kljestan due to an incident in the previous year’s playoffs while he was with New York.

Despite that, Orlando earned a dramatic late draw in the season opener on a Pinho goal while the Lions were down a man for a significant portion of the match. A close loss to Minnesota United and a road defeat at New York City were concerning but not overly so.

Then things started to click. Players began to return to the lineup and the club went on a six-game run from March 31-May 6, beating four eventual 2018 playoff teams in that span. The loss that snapped the streak was a well-played match against Atlanta United that saw an iffy penalty on Higuita and a few other questionable decisions figure heavily in a 2-1 final. Then came another narrow 2-1 loss — this time on the road at Toronto on late mistakes by El-Munir and Johnson that allowed the Reds to steal all three points near the end of normal time. The third consecutive 2-1 loss was a late dagger from distance by Alan Gordon against the Chicago Fire in another match in which Orlando mostly performed well, but couldn’t quite finish.

Those results weren’t good but at least the performances were there. Then the wheels fell off.

By this time, Meram’s struggles to find his form were coming to a head and injuries started to pop up again en masse. It got so bad that the club’s fourth center back, Chris Schuler, played through a broken arm and Kreis was playing a center back pairing of Allen and Rocha. In addition, Yotún departed for World Cup duty with Peru. It was the perfect storm, and Orlando lost by multiple goals in six consecutive league games, including scores of 3-0, 5-2, 3-0, 2-0, 4-0, and 4-1. Before that streak ended, Orlando had run Kreis out of town while the club still lingered above the playoff line and just as some of those injured stars were returning to either form or the lineup.

Since there was no immediate replacement, the Lions struggled under interim coach Bobby Murphy, falling further off the pace. By the time James O’Connor took the helm, Orlando was below the line and the losses were piling up.

O’Connor had to quickly deal with a Meram situation that had become untenable and figure out what the players he had could do and which ones were willing to buy in. A 2-1 win over Toronto FC in O’Connor’s home debut on July 14 offered promise, with only a consolation goal conceded at the death marring a complete performance.

That was it. From that point on the club finished on a 1-11-3 skid and lost in every way imaginable, and at least two that weren’t fathomable at all (at D.C. and Columbus). Meram was shipped back to Columbus, the club added center back Shane O’Neill and defender/midfielder Carlos Ascues, and did nothing to address the attack, possibly owing to being up against the cap or just not being able to land the players the Lions wanted.

Nobody seemed to have the answers. The front office assured fans and media that the roster was not the problem, hence the firing of Kreis. The assurance was that the next coach could win with the players in place and no major rebuild would be necessary. Either the front office vastly overrated the work done in the off-season or hired a coach who could not, in fact, win with the roster in place. But it’s difficult to see how O’Connor could field a workable lineup with such a dearth of attacking talent — because by then it was obvious that Pinho had not adjusted to the MLS level, Mueller had been struggling after a promising start, no replacement for Meram was brought in, and Colmán was obviously not ready to play significant minutes.

O’Connor was playing interesting lineups comprised mainly of defensive midfielders with the hope that Yotún and the fullbacks could replace the missing creativity. They certainly tried (Yotún reached double digit assists and Sutter scored three goals) but usually Dwyer seemed on an island, stranded far from his service.

As I write this, we’re awaiting the news of which Lions will have their contract options picked up and which will not. Budalic has stated there is some roster flexibility but the top end of the roster seems etched in stone. Rumor has it that El-Munir won’t be retained, and while I feel he could be a good wingback in a 3-4-3, his defensive lapses don’t translate well to a four-man back line and he’s pricey, so his might be a sacrifice with both another move in mind and with an eye on spending his salary elsewhere. But that’s all conjecture at this point.

What we do know is that Orlando City is coming off a historically bad season and that change is needed. O’Connor has been hired, so it’s only fair he have an opportunity to build a team in the mold he envisions. Whether that will ultimately be successful remains to be seen. This off-season will be another busy one and it’s unlikely O’Connor can fix everything that was broken in just one transfer window, so we’re likely in for another long season in 2019. Whether ownership and the front office will allow O’Connor the requisite time or blow everything up by midseason again if things aren’t going well…time will tell.

Lion Links

Lion Links: 12/2/23

The Pride sign a new keeper, the MLS playoffs continue, the USWNT is in action, and more.



Dan MacDonald, The Mane Land

Salutations on this satisfactory Saturday, Mane Landers. We’re heading for the home stretch of 2023, and what a year it has been. Make sure that you are catching all of our Season in Review articles for both the Orlando City and Orlando Pride players. Things tend to happen personnel-wise in December, so be prepared. Until then, let’s check out today’s links. But first, let’s wish a happy 26th birthday to Orlando City goalkeeper Mason Stajduhar.

Pride Sign a New Keeper

The Orlando Pride signed Finnish goalkeeper Sofia Manner from FC Honka of Finland’s top flight, the Kansallinen Liiga. With the addition of Manner, the Pride have four keepers on the roster heading into 2024. Manner is expected to compete for the starting job, though the same could be said of both Anna Moorhouse and Carly Nelson. It is unlikely all four netminders will be on the Pride once the season starts. Manner has international experience and was the best keeper in the Kansallinen Liiga.

MLS Conference Finals Tonight

I wouldn’t blame you if you decided not to watch the remainder of the MLS playoffs after last weekend’s disappointing result. However, if you are going see how it all sorts out, you might want to study up on the matches. We’re all too aware that the Columbus Crew will be facing FC Cincinnati to see which club wins the Eastern Conference. Over on the other side, LAFC will take on the Houston Dynamo to determine the Western Conference champion.

MLS Player Moves

As the playoffs come to a close, the signings and transfers around the league are ramping up, but who will stay and who will go? New York Red Bulls midfielder Dru Yearwood is heading to Nashville SC as reported by The Athletic (paywalled) since Dax McCarthy is out of contract there and won’t be returning.

The Philadelphia Union have signed midfielder Jesus Bueno to a new three-year contract through 2026 with an option for 2027. Meanwhile, Gustavo Bou won’t be returning to the New England Revolution. So, um…maybe he’d like to come south and score goals for Orlando City rather than against the Lions? Before anyone gets too crazy, it should be on a non-DP deal.

USWNT Hosts China

The USWNT is back in friendly action against China this afternoon in Ft. Lauderdale at 3 p.m. and then on Tuesday, Dec. 5 at 8 p.m. in Frisco TX. Interim head coach Twila Kilgore will be in charge since newly-named Head Coach Emma Hayes doesn’t start until the 2023-2024 Women’s Super League season in England is over. Hayes is the current head coach of Chelsea FC Women’s. This is the first match between the two teams since 2018, and a lot has changed. The USWNT has been very solid on defense in 2023, allowing only two goals back in the SheBelieves Cup.

Free Kicks

  • If you haven’t heard of a “sin bin,” think of it like a penalty box in hockey. The idea has been getting a runout in lower league matches in English football by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) with some good results. It’s not yet confirmed, but MLS may institute the change in 2024. The idea is to reduce dissension by having a player sit for 10 minutes during a match. Tottenham manager Ange Postecoglou has spoken out against the idea. What do you think of the concept?
  • Real Salt Lake has promoted Kurt Schmid to sporting director and interim chief soccer officer.
  • Cristiano Ronaldo will have to deal with a $1 billion class-action lawsuit for his role in promoting NFTs for Binance. Maybe that’s why he signed for Al-Nassr in the Saudi Pro League?
  • Speaking of the Saudi Pro League, it looks like Mohamed Salah may not be leaving EPL side Liverpool anytime soon. The prolific striker is looking for a new contract to stay at Anfield.
  • I’ll take things Pedro Gallese would not do for $400, Alex.

That will do it for today. Please go forth and enjoy your weekend!

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Orlando City

2023 Orlando City Season in Review: Kyle Smith

Let’s look back at The Accountant’s fifth MLS season.



Image courtesy of Orlando City SC / Mark Thor

Fullback Kyle Smith was originally signed on Dec. 21, 2018 when James O’Connor was Orlando City’s head coach. He proved to be a valuable Swiss Army knife-type player and earned a new contract on March 29, 2021 through the 2022 season with a 2023 club option. Orlando City picked up his 2023 option at the end of the 2022 season but then signed Smith to a new one-year contract for 2023 just weeks later with an option for 2024.

Let’s have a look back at The Accountant’s fifth MLS season.

Statistical Breakdown

Smith appeared in 25 matches during the 2023 regular season, starting 17 times and logging 1,501 minutes. It was his third-most appearances but his second-most minutes since making the jump from Louisville City to MLS ahead of the 2019 season. He scored one goal and assisted on three others, setting a new career high in the latter category. Smith attempted seven shots, putting two on target. He passed at a 78.7% clip, including nine key passes, five successful crosses, and 36 successful long passes. Defensively, Smith recorded 35 tackles, 16 interceptions, 40 clearances, and two blocked shots. He drew eight fouls while committing 20 and was booked five times on the year.

The 31-year-old appeared in all three of Orlando City’s three playoff matches — both off the bench — and logged 65 minutes. He did not score a goal or assist on one, attempting one shot, which he put on frame. He passed at an 82.5% rate in the postseason. He posted two tackles and a clearance defensively. He did not commit a foul or draw one and he wasn’t booked.

In the 2023 Concacaf Champions League, Smith came off the bench in the first leg at Tigres, playing minutes, passing at just a 25% rate (small sample size), did not attempt a shot, did not draw or concede a foul, and was not booked.

During Leagues Cup play, Smith appeared in all three of Orlando’s matches (all starts), logging 150 minutes. He did not contribute to a goal or attempt a shot in the tournament, committing four fouls and earning two yellow cards. Smith did not play in Orlando City’s lone U.S. Open Cup match.

Best Game

Smith’s best match of 2023 came in Orlando City’s 1-1 home draw against Atlanta United on May 27, and not only because that’s when he scored his lone goal of the season, although that doesn’t hurt. El Soldado started and went the full 90 minutes. He fired two shots on the night, putting one on target (and in the net), and passed at an exceptional 90.3% rate on 31 attempts, which was his third-best passing night of the season. He completed two successful long balls on two attempts, chipping in four clearances (second only to Antonio Carlos), a tackle, and an interception on the night. His big moment came in the 30th minute, when a well-worked attack up the left kicked out to him on the right side. Smith was perfectly positioned and made no mistake in putting the Lions ahead 1-0.

Although the match was spoiled by a late equalizer, Smith turned in one of his best performances since joining Orlando City and if not for his goal, the outcome might have been a lot more somber than a 1-1 draw.

2023 Final Grade

Smith received a composite score of 6 out of 10 for his 2023 performance from The Mane Land staff. This is an improvement over the 5.5 he earned last year but slightly below the 6.5 he earned for the 2021 season. Previously, Smith was given a 5.5 in 2020 and he got the same score after the 2019 season. The staff awarded Smith for his effort, versatility, and willingness to do whatever it takes to win. He is the quintessential team player. But beyond all of the above, he simply played well most of his minutes on the pitch. At his age, he’s going to struggle to contain the league’s speediest wing players, particularly when playing on his weaker left side, but his ability to adapt is unquestioned. The perfect example of that was when he was tucking inside from his fullback spot earlier in the season to add an additional player to the midfield and freeing Facundo Torres up to have more space in which to operate on the right side.

2024 Outlook

Smith’s return may ultimately rest with whether or not Oscar Pareja stays on with the Lions, although a decision might need to be made earlier than that, as the club must make a decision on his option. Pareja has valued Smith’s versatility and work ethic over the last few years, and with more competitions and matches than ever before, it’s always good to have a depth player who can plug and play in multiple positions. He played his second-most MLS minutes in 2023, so he’s still seeing the field plenty.

If I had to guess, and this section is for exactly that, I’d say the club will either exercise his option or sign him to a new one-year deal with an option year for 2025. However, what complicates matters is that Smith is over age 24 and has played five MLS seasons, which means he’s eligible for free agency. If he’s back in 2024, I would expect him to again be a key backup at both fullback positions, getting some spot starts in U.S. Open Cup or when fixture congestion is heavy.

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2023 Orlando City Season in Review: Abdi Salim

We continue our Orlando City player retrospectives with a look at one of the Lions’ 2023 draft picks.



Image courtesy of Orlando City SC / Mark Thor

Orlando City used its third pick of the 2023 MLS SuperDraft to select Abdi Salim with the 17th overall pick. Salim played his college soccer at Syracuse and the Lions picked up the center back to help with depth at a position that didn’t really have a ton of established bodies behind Antonio Carlos, Robin Jansson, and Rodrigo Schlegel. He was then signed to a one-year deal in February that contained three option years for the 2024, 2025, and 2026 seasons.

Let’s have a look at Salim’s first season as a professional.

Statistical Breakdown

Salim made his Major League Soccer debut at home against FC Cincinnati on March 4. It was Salim’s only start of the year and he went the full 90 minutes as the Lions drew 0-0 against the eventual Supporters’ Shield winners. He made two other appearances in away games against D.C. United and Charlotte FC, both of which ended as 1-1 draws as he finished with 148 MLS minutes on the year.

Defensively he recorded four tackles, four interceptions, three clearances, a block, and won two aerial duels. He did not record any offensive statistics, but was solid with his distribution as he averaged 87.3% passing accuracy and completed one cross and one long ball each.

Given that it was only his first season as a professional, he spent the bulk of his time in MLS NEXT Pro with Orlando City B. With the Young Lions he played in 16 matches, starting 14 of them and racking up 1,162 minutes. He finished with 11 interceptions and a tackle while committing seven fouls and drawing 11 and picking up one yellow card. Salim took nine shots, put two of them on target, and scored a goal on each one he got on frame. He passed very well, finishing with a 90.2% success rate, two key passes, and 18 long balls.

Best Game

The honor of his best game goes to his first ever professional appearance, when he started and played the whole game in the aforementioned 0-0 draw against FC Cincinnati. Salim finished with three tackles, three clearances, and an interception while passing with 87% accuracy, completing a long ball on his only attempt, and helping the Lions keep a clean sheet at home. He was a bit shaky at first, as he was deployed as the third center back in a three-man back line, but he settled down in the second half and finished with a grade of 5.5 out of 10 from Nic Josey.

2023 Final Grade

Given that Salim didn’t crack 200 minutes and we require a minimum of 450 to award a grade for the season, he receives an incomplete for the 2023 season. He did some good things when down with Orlando City B, and filled in well enough with the senior side when called upon, but we simply need to see more of him in order to figure out what he’s really able to do.

2024 Outlook

It’s likely that Salim will spend more time with Orlando City B next season, but with no one seemingly laying claim to the fourth center back position, he should have a chance to show what he’s capable of during preseason. He seemed to be in competition with Thomas Williams for the back up spot not occupied by Rodrigo Schlegel, but he may have moved past him in the pecking order as he made more appearances than the Homegrown signing, both with OCSC and OCB. Regardless, as an inexpensive young player with potential, there’s no reason to think he won’t be here next year.

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