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Grueling Test of Orlando City’s Depth Approaches



Orlando City players better be in the best shape of their lives, because they’re going to need every bit of fitness for the Lions’ upcoming stretch of matches. The regular season resumes Saturday night in Miami with Orlando facing a run of five games in a 15-day span.

The Schedule Setup

The Lions will face Inter Miami on the road Saturday night, then will play every third day, on average, for the next two weeks. Three of the five games are on the road, and MLS has new pandemic protocols in place that have teams arriving in market on match day, rather than the traditional day before the game. Additionally, travel out of road markets will happen after the match. This is going to affect recovery.

The shortest period between games is two days. Orlando City will have just two days rest between games twice in the upcoming 15-day window — both times facing Atlanta on the back end. I’m not saying there’s a conspiracy to screw the Lions and prevent them from finally getting their first win against Atlanta United. I’m also not not saying it.

You can draw your own conclusions, but Orlando previously had three days off between the trip to Nashville on Sept. 2 and a Sept. 6 home game against Atlanta. That interval recently shrunk to two days when the game was moved up to Sept. 5. If you don’t believe in conspiracy theories, blame it on FOX for rearranging the schedule for a national broadcast. If you do believe in conspiracy theories well…it’s not like MLS hasn’t fed into those pretty heavily over the last five-plus years — but bear in mind that Atlanta also has two days rest between its previous matches and the games against Orlando. So, from a rest standpoint it’s a level playing field.

The longest duration between matches during the upcoming stretch is three days. This will happen twice. The first will be between Saturday’s game at Miami and next Wednesday’s home game against Nashville. The second will be between the road trips to Atlanta and Nashville.

For comparison, the Lions’ shortest layoff between matches during the MLS is Back Tournament was four days. This happened twice — between the final group match against Philadelphia and the first knockout game against Montreal, and between the semifinal against Minnesota and the final vs. Portland. That’s a pretty good recovery time frame for a tournament setting. But things are about to get real.

Squad Rotation, Positional Breakdown, and Shape

Orlando City’s deep run in the MLS is Back Tournament was facilitated by basically the same starting XI. The only exceptions were when an injury to Junior Urso elevated Sebas Mendez to the starting role and when Dom Dwyer went out for the tournament — and, ultimately, for all of 2020 — with muscle tightness, followed by a torn meniscus.

Oscar Pareja rolled through most of the tournament with Pedro Gallese in goal; a back line of Joao Moutinho, Robin Jansson, Antonio Carlos, and Ruan; a central midfield duo of Mendez and Uri Rosell; an attacking midfield line of Nani, Mauricio Pereyra, and Chris Mueller; and Tesho Akindele up top. There is virtually no way Pareja can get away with that during the upcoming 15-day stretch. Squad rotation is about to become a huge factor for the Lions and we will get to see rather quickly how Papi’s strategy will play out and which games he’ll prioritize.

Gallese may very well be able to handle playing every night in goal, but if he needs a day or two off, backup Brian Rowe has proven to be a reliable option. No real worries there.

The biggest concern is striker. It’s a position that has yet to bear much fruit in 2020, and it’s already thin with Dwyer out for the year. Akindele performed well in relief last season, scoring 10 goals in a season for the first time in his career and adding two assists. Tesho already has two goals this season, but only one that counts on his official scoring record because stats from knockout stage matches don’t count toward the regular season.

When Akindele is rested, where will Pareja turn? Tesho can absorb minutes as well as anyone, but there will have to be rotation for the Atlanta matches, because that’s simply not enough recovery time between game days to throw Akindele out there for 70 minutes every night. That means second-year pro Santiago Patino and rookie Daryl Dike will need to supply some important minutes. The duo have a combined three starts in Major League Soccer.

Both got some mop-up duty during MLS is Back but it was apparent that neither player was polished enough to count on as a first-team starter just yet. Patino has a little more experience and has actually scored goals in this league — two of them, with an assist, last year in 11 total appearances and three starts. Dike has officially played zero minutes of MLS soccer because his appearances came in the knockout stage of MLS is Back.

Benji Michel is a viable option up top and has shown a bit more consistency; however, he’s not a pure striker and he’ll most likely be needed to spell Chris Mueller on the wing, anyway. Robinho could also play that wing spot, but he has pretty much disappeared deep at the bottom of the team’s pecking order. That brings up the next visible problem with squad rotation — the attacking midfield.

Pareja may have no choice but to change shape or play his players out of position. There simply aren’t enough attacking pieces to make a full, like-for-like squad change. He’ll need to protect Nani and Pereyra and their older legs. So, what does that look like? Well, Michel and Robinho are options on the wings, as mentioned. There might be an opportunity here for extremely young and unproven players like David Loera or Jordan Bender to get on the field, or Pareja can shift to a more traditional-looking 4-3-3.

If he uses a 4-3-3, he’ll only need two attacking midfielders who can play on the wing. However, that impacts the defensive midfield, and it means when he rotates out Rosell and Mendez, he’ll have to find someone else to play with Urso and, presumably, Andres Perea. That could be rookie Joey DeZart, who has shown great maturity and growth already.

Defensively, there is little chance to use one of the team’s greatest strengths more than every other game during the upcoming crowded fixture schedule. Orlando City’s fullbacks help drive this team’s attack and both Ruan and Moutinho recover well when they get caught up field on turnovers. The backups give the team a very different look and simply aren’t as dynamic. The likelihood is that Kyle Smith will slot in for Ruan and Rodrigo Schlegel or Kamal Miller can play in place of Moutinho. However, Schlegel may be needed to spell a center back. He and Alex De John are the center back replacements, although Miller can also play there.

Could young fullback Michael Halliday — a recent Homegrown Player signing — be recalled from OCB? The 17-year-old has looked pretty good for the Young Lions but jumping up two divisions would be a lot to ask.

One way to mitigate the unproven midfield and attacking depth is to mix in a little 3-5-2. In this case, the team can use its strength — a strong group of back line players — and remove a midfielder. By alternating this lineup, Pareja can either protect his backup fullbacks by negating some of the space they have to defend, or play Ruan and Moutinho and rest one of Nani or Pereyra, to save them for the next match.

When you consider the backups, it’s natural to be a bit nervous. This team has an excellent starting XI and a lot of question marks on the bench. But it’s more likely that Pareja doesn’t go with a full change from game to game to keep legs fresh. It is more probable that he’ll go with a mixture of starters and backups so that it’s not a complete second-team look against any of the upcoming opponents.


Orlando has been able to press high in 2020 and win the ball back so as not to allow the opposition time on the ball to build up a dangerous attack. The Lions will need to pick their spots to press a bit more carefully during the upcoming stretch of matches. However, Orlando doesn’t play at breakneck speed. The Lions patiently build up from the back and often reset by sending the ball backwards, which can slow the game a bit and eliminate some of the running that the midfielders and attacking players have to do. This can somewhat add to the fullbacks’ workload at times, but there is some natural recovery time built into how Orlando has played so far this season.

Possession will be a premium, because players generally use up more energy defending than attacking. The Lions have done well in possession so far this season, and if that trend continues they may be able to wear down opponents late in games during this stretch.


The good news is that the Lions’ opposition is in the same boat in terms of fixture congestion. Atlanta United’s matches are on the exact same days as Orlando City’s. Miami will have not played a game in more than a month when the two teams meet this Saturday, and both will be on a more normal rest schedule when they face each other again at the end of this first phase of the restart. Nashville will be on the same amount of rest for the Aug. 26 meeting and on one fewer day of rest than Orlando for the Sept. 2 match-up. The Lions play on Aug. 29 before that second game against Nashville, while the first-year MLS side will face Inter Miami on Aug. 30.

If Pareja goes with a “best XI” approach, he could get his first choice lineup (minus Dwyer) for up to (most likely) three of the upcoming five games. This would give him his best chance to get three wins, but the most likely way to do that would be to play his starters Saturday at Miami, then again next Wednesday vs. Nashville, which means rotating to backups at Atlanta. Then he could use the starters in either the second Nashville or Atlanta match, but not both. With a normal week off after the second Atlanta game, he can use his starters for as many as four of the six games in phase one. Any dropped points in the games the starters play would be magnified because of the difficulty of playing such a young and unproven squad in the other two matches.

A split approach would be perhaps less problematic, but also might be more unpredictable. The starters are fairly familiar with each other by now under game conditions. Any mistake by a new cog in the machine could be a fatal one for a team that doesn’t score a lot of goals.

All I know is that I’m glad I don’t have to make these kinds of decisions and that Orlando City has someone trustworthy in charge of making them. It’s also good that the teams will have five substitutions available, because they’ll be needed.

In a few days, we’ll start seeing how this will all play out.


Reflecting on Eight Years with The Mane Land

A look back over my time with The Mane Land (so far).



Nick Leyva, The Mane Land

As of last week, I have been a contributor at The Mane Land for eight years. That’s longer than I’ve ever been at any of my actual jobs in my life. There are literally only a couple of people who have been with the site longer, but I’m still amazed at how long it’s been. This is not to say I’m going anywhere, but rather I wanted to take the opportunity to look back at the past eight years, and look ahead to the future.

Unlike some, I didn’t come to be a supporter of Orlando City until it was announced that the club was joining MLS. At the time, I was contemplating picking a club to follow in MLS, but being in Tallahassee, there were no nearby options at that time. I considered FC Dallas and D.C. United, given the two were geographically closer in proximity to me than any others. Fortunately, it was literally while I was considering my options that the announcement was made regarding Orlando City’s jump to MLS. It was an easy decision.

As I do in many aspects of my life, I immediately started researching my new club, which led me to the content being produced by The Mane Land. There was also an article on the site titled “Join The Mane Land Staff.” I had often over the years internally bemoaned that I rarely used my Bachelor’s degree in English, and the desire to write welled up in me so much that I emailed the staff. 

In response, one of our former editors, Andrew Marcinko, contacted me and said “I think your voice would be a great fit on TML.” He asked me to submit a Fan Post (those went away with our presence on SBN), and then another piece for review. Following that, our founder and managing editor, Michael Citro, emailed me to welcome me to the staff. I had no idea at the time how big a part of my life this blog would become.

I started out writing Monday’s Lions Links — often one of the more difficult days to write — and a feature piece. It’s been many years gone by now, but there was a time when the feature piece was “Pride Pub,” an ongoing series that paired craft beer and good food based on Orlando City’s opponent. I can tell you that the research for that was very enjoyable, and I still use some of the recipes I found to this day.

Eventually, I started contributing more match coverage and analytical pieces. Staff came and went, but I never thought to leave since I was enjoying myself. Sometime after that, I was promoted to senior columnist, for which I’m grateful. I can without reservation say that I’m a better writer thanks to my time with the site, and from working with such excellent staff.

In November of 2016, Michael asked if I wanted to give co-hosting The Mane Land PawedCast a try. My first recording was for Episode 71. We just recorded Episode 354, and with the exception of maybe two or three episodes, I have been on every single one of 283 episodes over the last six plus years. Michael and I have spent a lot of time talking on and off the podcast over the years, and I’m proud of what we have produced and to call him my friend.

We recently added an Orlando Pride-specific podcast called Skopurp: An Orlando Pride PawedCast. For years we wanted to give the Pride the time and attention the club deserves. Now, it is a reality, but one that I ask you to listen to and share. I’ll even put out that although Michael and I are the current hosts, we merely consider ourselves stewards and are hoping to get others to come onboard and eventually take it to the next level.

When I started with The Mane Land, the site had just made the move from a free WordPress site to the SBNation network. It was a big deal, and for many years it was a good partnership. Of course that all came to an end not too long ago, and our blog went the independent route thanks to the incredibly generous support of our readers and listeners. In fact, if you want to be one of those supporting our efforts, please go to our Buy Me A Coffee site to become a member. The move has allowed a flexibility we didn’t have before, but I really want others to have the same sense of joy and accomplishment that I have as a member of our staff. 

At one point we had nearly twice the staff that we do now, and as you know, many hands make light work. The opposite of that is also true. I genuinely believe that there must be others out there with the same passion for Orlando City as I have — with the same desire to have their voice heard, whether through the written word or on a podcast. I promise you there is an opportunity to contribute here with us. Our internal discussions are informative, engaging, and often funny. Please consider joining us, as I did eight years ago. I haven’t regretted it and I know you won’t either.

I want to thank all of those who contributed to The Mane Land over the years. There are many that I am still in touch with, though they are no longer a part of the staff. Of course, the current staff are a pleasure to work with, and I appreciate their dedication to what we are trying to do.

Finally, I want to thank the readers and listeners over the years. From those who regularly comment on our articles, to those that I’ve personally met at matches or even randomly on the street, you are a big reason that we do all of this. You are a big reason why I’ve been doing this for the better part of a decade. it is always a genuine pleasure hearing your thoughts or simply sharing a moment of joy together — U.S. Open Cup final, anyone?

So, thank you. I look forward to many more years of this journey together.

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Orlando City

The Mane Land Announces Membership Program

Maximize your Mane Land experience with our new TML membership program while supporting our independent efforts.



Hello, readers of The Mane Land and listeners of our podcasts. Before you start reading this, please note that the most important part of this post is at the end. So, don’t stop until you get to the bottom.

You may recall that when we left SBNation to become independent, we really weren’t sure the best way to go about that. Many of our readers and listeners generously offered to help us make that transition, but we still weren’t sure the best path forward, so we took a poll.

The poll was pretty much split down the middle between those who preferred a one-time, Kickstarter-style campaign (which we did, and those of you who stepped up to help completely blew us away!) and those who favored a Patreon-style, subscription-based membership with extra perks. In fact, the member subscriptions option got a few more votes in our poll.

The folks who took part in our GoFundMe fundraiser were fantastic and are now immortalized on this very site on the “Our Founders” page. But we had always planned to give folks the option to choose whichever method of support they preferred and we tried to communicate that throughout the process. It took a little longer than expected to get up and running, but our membership subscription program is now in place! (You may notice the fancy new banner ad about it on the home page, echoed below.)

Supporting TML helps build a better TML for you to enjoy, so you’re really subscribing to your own Orlando soccer fandom.

Part of that delay was thinking up something that didn’t encroach on the benefits we gave our Founders. Those folks helped us get started and deserve the exclusivity of the perks they got. The other part of the delay is that there just aren’t enough hours in the day. (However, for you guys, I’m willing to be cloned.)

We have utilized the popular Buy Me a Coffee platform to run this program. You can find the basics here. The Mane Land premium membership program includes three tiers of membership, as well as the option to click on the “Support” tab for those who just want to help us out whenever, without joining the program or adding any recurring “appointment-based” payments to their budgets. We love that feature of Buy Me a Coffee (or “Buy Us a Beer” in our case…you drink what you like).

For those who do choose to become members, we hope we have provided value and we are planning to add benefits along the way, in addition to providing special giveaways, events, etc. (more on that below). We have also provided subscription options — with monthly or annual memberships. The annual cost essentially gives you 12 months for the price of 10.

Current Benefits

The current membership benefits depend on which level of support you choose — Homegrown Player, TAM Player, or Designated Player level. Each level includes all benefits from the lower tiers, with additional benefits for each higher level.

Homegrown Player: This is a basic set-it-and-forget-it level of support for The Mane Land, providing a way for our readers and podcast listeners to contribute to the success of TML‘s independence goals. We want to compensate our current volunteers, replace lost income of those who previously received small stipends from being part of the SBNation network, add photographers, attract new writers, and expand our coverage. Additionally, each Homegrown Player Level member will be recognized in a Lion Links column, which is still typically our most widely read post of each day and one of the top daily links columns among soccer sites. Homegrown Player Level members will also be included in any future prize drawings we have or events we host and may be subject to future benefits as they are added.

TAM Player: In addition to Homegrown Player benefits, TAM Players will receive a new weekly e-newsletter in their inbox (unless you opt out…some people hate email). These will be informal missives from myself, other TML writers, or a combination, discussing what’s on our mind regarding Orlando City, the Pride, OCB, or soccer in general. Think of it as an extra post from our site that may cover multiple topics. Additionally, you’ll get a 10% discount from our web shop items that we control (presently, that means everything except our listed MLS Shop items). We will definitely have more benefits coming for this level soon and will look for opportunities to include additional benefits as they become available.

Designated Player: This limited availability level of support includes all perks from the Homegrown and TAM levels, but it goes beyond. Your discount at our webshop (for items we control) will be 15% off. Additionally, we’ll send you Zoom links to watch us “make the doughnuts” whenever we record the podcast. This includes when we interview guests. You’ll see how the sausage is made behind the scenes and everything that we say, some of which will end up on the cutting room floor before the final podcast is sent out. This includes both The Mane Land PawedCast and SkoPurp Soccer: An Orlando Pride PawedCast. And after two months of membership you can commission a bonus episode of either podcast simply by letting us know what topic you want us to cover. Think of this as an extended Ask Us Anything. We’ll do a whole show about your topic and you can even join us to discuss it if you wish.

The DP Level will certainly have additional benefits tacked on as we move forward. It is currently limited to 40 members but could be expanded slightly depending on demand and our Zoom attendance.

Future Benefits / Benefits Under Consideration

While we won’t be able to schedule these due to the random nature of items falling into our hands, there will be periodic prize giveaways in drawings that include all of our members, regardless of level. The catch is that you get one entry per level of support, meaning Homegrown Player Level members will get one entry per prize drawing, TAM Player Level members will get two entries per drawing, and Designated Player Level members get three entries for prize drawings. Some of the kinds of items we have come across in the past include match tickets, trinkets, posters, scarves, and so on.

We are planning to add a message board to our website, well…soon-ish is the word that comes to mind. The plan for the message board is to build our community and further the discussion about the club. As part of this, we’re planning an exclusive, members-only area of that message board that TAM and DP members can access. This will be a place our staff can share informational nuggets we can’t necessarily write stories about for various reasons and interact with our members on a daily basis.

Other things in the works include meet-and-greets/watch parties where you can chat with TML staff members and catch a road match with a bunch of like-minded Orlando City/Pride fans while we all cheer on the team together. There may also be other informal outings with one or more members of the staff, organized fantasy leagues, random Zoom calls for Q&A sessions, and perhaps even some organized group outings for Orlando City / Pride matches, national team games, etc.

The Most Important Part of This Post

Remember at the top of this post, when I said the most important part is at the bottom? Well, that seems like a long time ago, now, so it’s OK if you’ve already forgotten.

The most important part of our membership program is you. We want your feedback so we can make this program something that interests and excites you. We want to know what you like and dislike about this program. We want to know if there are some things we didn’t think of that interest you. If you like what we’re offering, tell us! If you hate what we’re offering, we want to know what you’d prefer instead or in addition. If you want to go drinking with Dave, we can probably arrange that, but it’ll be a unique tier and we’ll have to figure out the cost of that.

No idea is too crazy to suggest, even if it’s too insane for us to actually offer. Let us know what you want from your subscription and we’ll see if that’s something we can do. We’ll make it easy for you by putting the form right here below this post, which is now concluded.

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Welcome Home!



Where do I even start? When we were told in January that SBNation was pulling its support of The Mane Land and other MLS and NHL blogs — and many podcasts — I was devastated. The site had become my new baby in September of 2014 and after eight and a half years, I wasn’t ready to let it go.

I was in a pickle. I couldn’t afford to lose the monthly stipend I had been getting from SBNation to manage the site and provide a steady stream of content. It wasn’t that it was a huge monthly sum, but it mostly covered my car payment. That car was purchased when my salary was higher. The pandemic hit my day job like it did to many, and after a four-month layoff, I got my old job back but not at the same rate. So, imagine taking a pay decrease at work and then, on top of that, losing the amount you spend per month on your car payment. There was simply no way to launch The Mane Land independently, I thought, because I simply couldn’t cover the startup costs. Even with some generous offers from the staff to pitch in, there simply wasn’t a way.

Once we took the news public, there was an outpouring of support on social media. We appreciated both the pledges to help out that we got from the community and the signal boosting that the national media gave blogs like ours. Those national folks rely on local reporting for background.

Encouraged by this outpouring of public support, I met with the TML staff and we threw some ideas around. We polled our Twitter followers to see how our community would prefer to show their support. We got pretty close to a 50/50 split between those who wanted to provide a one-time donation via a Kickstarter or GoFundMe crowdsourcing effort, and those who would prefer some sort of premium subscription add-on service like Patreon or Buy Me a Coffee.

We didn’t get a lot of responses to that poll, but we decided as a group that since the results were so similar, we would offer both and let the public choose one path, the other, or even both. (Stay tuned for news soon-ish on the premium subscription level, but rest assured, everything you’ve been getting for free at TML will remain free!)

I was, admittedly, skeptical that we could raise enough startup money to create a private business, pay for hosting a new site and two podcasts (having long wanted to give the Orlando Pride their own unique show), registering a domain, paying for some design work and consulting, and any unexpected expenses that might come up. However, I thought we’d at least give it a try.

Then the amazing Orlando City, Orlando Pride, and TML community got involved. You guys pushed us past our bare minimum goal in just four and a half hours when our fundraiser went live on March 1. We reset our goal and you met that by midnight. We reset our goal again, to the dream total we discussed on our initial staff Zoom chat and you met that by that first weekend.

Stunned. Humbled. Amazed. Touched. All of these words apply to how that made us feel, but they don’t quite cover it. I think we all felt an enormous responsibility, as well. We felt a mandate to provide you the best site and the best coverage we can.

We got everything we needed to run the site for two years, even if we don’t earn a penny after our launch — and we plan to try, via advertising, a Patreon (or similar) program, an online shop, affiliate links, and anything else we can think of. But we decided to leave the GoFundMe open through the end of March, just in case there were folks who wanted to contribute but needed to wait for payday, or if more people wanted to become founding members of this new site.

Now, here we are. You guys did this. We’re here because of you. And this site isn’t quite what it will become. I’m still learning my way around WordPress, after being away from it for years. There’s more to build, and some of the things you’re seeing on this site now will be improved in the future. We’ll continue to tweak it, add things, and upgrade as we go.

For now, I just want to welcome you to your new online home. On behalf of our entire staff, I thank our founding members, who are now immortalized on this site in our founders section. If you weren’t able to contribute to our transition from SBNation’s network to an autonomous and independent, new version of The Mane Land, you can thank the folks on our founders page, because without them, we wouldn’t be here. And if you still want to help out, we’ve got more things on the way.


Michael Citro
Managing Editor

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