Fullback is the Most Interesting Position Battle for Orlando City



As the 2023 MLS regular season draws near, it’s becoming clearer who will start for Orlando City. However, two positions are still very much in the air and the preseason will go a long way in determining who wins the starting jobs.

Out of contract after the 2022 season, starting left back Joao Moutinho left a farewell message for Orlando City fans on Nov. 30, confirming the assumption that he would leave the club. He eventually joined Italian Serie A side Spezia. Less than a month later, Orlando City traded its starting right back, Ruan, to D.C. United for the second overall pick in the 2023 MLS SuperDraft, which the Lions used on Duke forward Shakur Mohammed. As a result, the Lions lost their two starting outside backs from the last three seasons. They also didn’t sign any well-known players to replace them.

Prior to Moutinho’s move to Italy and the Ruan trade, Orlando City acquired Homegrown defender Luca Petrasso from Toronto FC. The 22-year-old Canadian played at left back and in the midfield for the Reds during his lone season on the first team. It was largely thought that Moutinho would move to Europe during the off-season after gaining interest from clubs abroad and Petrasso’s signing further influenced those assumptions.

Despite the signing of Petrasso, it appeared that the club would sign a more experienced left back to play opposite Ruan. However, the team traded its starting right back instead. The Lions did sign Brazilian left back Rafael Santos, providing some competition at the position. However, Santos is only 24 and spent much of his time in Brazil’s Serie B.

Orlando City Executive Vice President of Soccer Operations and General Manager Luiz Muzzi confirmed the job was up for grabs in a press release about Santos’ signing.

“He brings experience from the first division in Brazil,” Muzzi stated. “And is someone we expect to provide competition in that position within our team.”

At right back, the battle is between a young player and a veteran with plenty of first-team experience. Mikey Halliday was signed as a Homegrown Player out of the club’s academy on July 15, 2020. Over the past two-and-a-half seasons, the 20-year-old has played in 15 games with five starts. Meanwhile, Kyle Smith has made 109 appearances across all competitions for the club, starting 68 games.

Since joining the club in 2019, Smith quickly became a key part of the first team. He’s been a backup at both fullback positions and has even filled in at center back. However, the signing of Santos and Petrasso allows Smith to focus on his natural right-sided position.

The only other outside back on the team is 18-year-old Homegrown Alex Freeman. Signing prior to the 2022 season, Freeman has only played for Orlando City B, has yet to make a first-team appearance, and has only been on the gameday roster four times. So he’s unlikely to be considered for a starting role in 2023.

At this point, there’s no clear starter at either position. Instead, the four will be battling during the preseason to determine who will claim those roles. Regardless, it puts the team in a potentially tough situation because only Smith has played regularly with starting center backs Robin Jansson and Antonio Carlos, making communication a possible issue early in the season.

One factor in deciding the starter will likely be the team’s style under Head Coach Oscar Pareja. Orlando City pushes its fullbacks very high into the attack, depending on defensive midfielder Cesar Araujo to cover for them defensively. However, they have to get back quickly when moving up the field, especially if a turnover results in a counterattack by the opposition.

Speed is a key factor in success with this type of system. While Halliday has plenty of speed, which he’s shown in the midfield with OCB, Smith is slower. Since Santos and Petrasso also have above average speed, they can play that role. If Smith ends up winning the job over the inexperienced Halliday, it will likely be due to his defensive play. In this case, the Lions will probably be left with their only attacking defender on the left.

Orlando City’s preseason is well underway, with the first game coming on Wednesday against Minnesota United. It’s unclear who will start at either fullback position, something the front office has made clear. These are two of the most important positions in Pareja’s style of play, making the battles for the starting jobs arguably the most interesting to watch in the coming weeks.


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