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Orlando’s Improved Midfield Faces Its Biggest Challenge Yet



The 2019 MLS season was a rebuilding year for Orlando City. Following a hapless 2018 that saw coach Jason Kreis lose his job, Orlando City gutted the program and restarted basically from scratch.

While several key players remained, the roster was almost unrecognizable by season’s end. Despite the many vital additions, including Nani, Robin Jansson, and Ruan, the team still couldn’t put it all together and compete, missing the playoffs yet again. The biggest weakness was by far the team’s midfield. While the defense took a huge step forward thanks to Jansson and others, the team struggled to score and much of that had to do with the midfield’s inability to link with the forward line.

A 34-year-old Sacha Kljestan was no longer the playmaker the Lions needed and saw little playing time down the stretch, while a combination of young newcomer Sebas Mendez, Uri Rosell, and Will Johnson were incredibly limited going forward. Towards the end of the summer transfer window, however, the team’s fortunes began to change, thanks to the addition of Mauricio Pereyra on a free transfer.

While he didn’t play quite as well as a DP attacking midfielder is expected, he still finished as the team’s leading assister from midfield with three. Going into 2020, Luiz Muzzi and Co. were able to build upon 2019’s successes and construct one of Major League Soccer’s best midfield units.

The big signing was that of Junior Urso. The veteran Brazilian came with a good pedigree, arriving from one of Brazil’s biggest clubs, Corinthians. His physicality, technical ability, and leadership have been massive for a young Orlando City team, solidifying defensive midfield while being excellent in possession and transition. His signature performance against Atlanta United in late August was the best display of his talents, with his energy and fight dominating a mentally weak Atlanta team.

In addition to Urso providing the energy in the engine room of midfield, the play of a healthy Pereyra has been even better than anyone could’ve hoped. When he arrived from Krasnodar in the summer, he was nursing a bit of a knock and there wasn’t enough time to settle in and really contribute. He was just coming off a full season in Russia while also having to adjust to a new team, league, and country. With a full off-season to acclimate and rest, the Uruguayan has become one of the best players in all of MLS.

Despite battling a hamstring injury for a large chunk of the season, he still finished fifth in the league in assists with eight, though his influence is felt far beyond goal contributions. Pereyra’s incredible ability on the ball, combined with elite vision, makes him the single most important player on the entire team. His ability to pick up the ball deep and be a metronome in possession is vital to opening up space for everyone else. He was the missing link that has turned Orlando City from a frustrating side to an elite one.

While Urso and Pereyra are the main men in midfield, a rotating cast of Rosell, Mendez, Andres Perea, and even rookie Joey DeZart have also helped solidify the Lions in the center of the park. Early in the season and during the MLS is Back Tournament, it was Rosell who occupied the third starting spot amongst Pereyra and Urso, playing his best football in years and providing an excellent range of passing to complement solid defensive output.

However, an injury to Rosell challenged the depth of this team. Perea, a Tampa-born Colombian youth international on loan from Atletico Nacional in Colombia, has been supremely impressive as a role player, playing in every single match for Orlando City. When Rosell and later Pereyra were out with injuries, Perea became one of the most important players on the team, starting eight of nine matches since October. He hasn’t been particularly lethal, with only two assists and no goals, but he’s an incredibly solid player who’s improved every game. Similarly, Mendez has also been very solid in a rotational role. After starting 20 games in 2019, the young Ecuadorian has taken a backseat to the more experienced Urso but has still contributed in the minutes he’s played.

As a unit, the Orlando City midfield is the best it’s ever been. When healthy, the trio of Pereyra, Urso, and Rosell complement each other perfectly while providing a commanding veteran presence, with Perea, Mendez, and DeZart giving needed energy and cover off the bench. Not only has this been one of the most competent units in Orlando history, it’s been one of the best in the league. The Lions have been one of the best passing teams in MLS, ranking sixth in passing accuracy at 83.5% and they’ve held possession half the time (although that number is usually much better with Pereyra healthy). With a few weeks off and only one international absence (Mendez), this elite unit will be sitting pretty for Orlando’s first ever playoff appearance. But the competition ahead will be this midfield’s greatest challenge yet.

New York City FC has been a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference for a few years, and that’s largely on the back of the team’s own midfield excellence. Following a failed mix of aging superstars Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard early in their existence, the Pigeons have found immense success with the acquisition of Maxi Moralez and Alexander Ring. The pair of veteran midfielders made their MLS debuts against Orlando City three years ago and have been superstars ever since.

Moralez has been one of the premier playmakers in MLS with 34 regular-season assists with the Pigeons. The diminutive Argentine has been injured for much of the 2020 campaign but has gone the full 90 in the last four games for New York — the team’s best stretch of play of the season, including eight goals in the last two matches.

The return of Moralez leading the attacking charge has also allowed Ring to get back to his best. The Finnish international, who has served as club captain the past two years, is often regarded as one of the best defensive midfielders in the entire league, but is very good box to box. He loves a shot from distance and has shown elite playmaking from a deep position.

With Moralez injured, Ring was forced far higher up the pitch, but with NYCFC’s star playmaker back, it’s brought balance back to the midfield. The two veterans are complemented by an excellent youngster in Keaton Parks. The 23-year-old American midfielder arrived on loan in 2019 from Portuguese giants Benfica, and has been a huge acquisition. He’s proven to be an essential figure in the midfield, starting 20 games this season and bolstering what many consider the best midfield trio in MLS.

The match-up in the middle of the pitch Saturday will be an absolute masterclass. Assuming everyone is fit and ready, a fairly safe assumption by all reports (but this is 2020), this will be an absolute delight. Both units are incredibly fluid and competent going both ways. Ring and Parks will be a challenge to break through when the Lions have the ball, and Moralez will be the most important player to stop the other way.

For Orlando, it will be important to use pressure to disrupt the rhythm of the visitors’ passing and not let this unit assert its will. There will be times when both teams are in command and on the front foot, but the more Orlando is in control, the better. If Pereyra can do what he does best and find the linking balls and combine with Nani, Chris Mueller, and company, it will make things incredibly challenging for Ring and the New York defense.

However, it’s imperative to limit Moralez’s touches. Urso and one of Rosell or Perea will have to be very physical with Maxi before he’s able to create chances for New York’s red hot front three.

There are many match-ups to watch on Saturday, but the battle in the middle will be the most enjoyable. In many ways these are similar units both playing very well that want to assert themselves. It will be an absolute battle for control of this game, and it’s up to the new-look Orlando midfield to set the tone against an elite group. If the Lions want to find playoff glory for the first time in the team’s MLS history, it’s vital they find an edge in the midfield, but that’s much easier said than done.


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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