Orlando City’s Back Line Has Rare Question Marks Ahead of the 2023 Season.



For the first time in awhile, the back line of Orlando City has some question marks surrounding it. From who will be starting, to depth, to the style of play we’ll see on the field, there are several unknowns surrounding the part of the team that had been the most stable and consistent for the last several years.

The most obvious questions start at fullback, where Sean Rollins noted this week that the most interesting position battle takes place. With Joao Moutinho now at Spezia in Serie A, and Ruan traded to D.C. United, the Lions’ fullback corps consists of Luca Petrasso, Rafael Santos, Kyle Smith, Mikey Halliday, and Alex Freeman. The first two look set to duke it out for the left back position, while Smith and Halliday will compete for the right back spot. Freeman has yet to make an appearance for the first team, and looks to be the third man on the depth chart at right back.

Each of the four main contenders comes with pros and cons. At left back, Petrasso has a year of MLS experience under his belt with Toronto FC, and seems to be a solid defender who chipped in four assists in 1,684 minutes. With that being said, one solid or even great season doesn’t make for a consistent body of work, just ask the 2020 versions of Benji Michel and Chris Mueller. Santos, on the other hand, has 92 appearances to his name, and provided five goals and eight assists in that period of time. The thing to remember is that a lot of those appearances came in the Brazilian second division, and it’s impossible to know if he’ll translate that type of play to MLS.

On the right, Kyle Smith is the known quantity. He gives Orlando solid, reliable defending, but not much contribution going forward. Halliday is the younger player with more upside, and he’s flashed plenty of it in performances with the U-20 USMNT. His downside is the 500 professional minutes he’s played, and whether or not he can make the jump from youth play, albeit at a high level, to the professional game.

Then there’s depth concerns. The Lions have Antonio Carlos and Robin Jansson as starting center backs, with Rodrigo Schlegel perhaps the best backup center back in the league. After him though, the situation gets alarmingly murky with Thomas Williams the only other guy on the roster with professional minutes, and he has less than 300 of those. Both Jansson and Carlos spent extended periods of time sidelined by injury in 2022, and both missed the team’s first preseason scrimmage on Wednesday. While Smith can deputize as a backup center back when needed, if the central defense starters go down at the same time, then things are going to get interesting very quickly.

The final question concerns what we’re going to see from the defense this year, and the sort of style that Oscar Pareja will want to use. For several years, we knew exactly what we were getting. Namely, Ruan bombing up and down the right flank, with Joao Moutinho being more cautious but still not at all shy about getting forward on the left, and Robin Jansson occasionally getting involved in the attack while Antonio Carlos stayed home. Presumably, the dynamic with Carlos and Jansson won’t change, but what will we see out wide?

This is where we have to factor in the firepower that Orlando City has at its disposal. Ercan Kara, Facundo Torres and Martin Ojeda make up the front three and it’s entirely possible that Maurico Pereyra will be deployed in a deeper role similar to what happened later in the season last year. If that turns out to be the case, will Papi continue to ask his fullbacks to get forward into the attack to the extent Ruan and Moutinho did, or will he opt for a more conservative approach and trust Orlando’s considerable midfield and attacking talent to do the brunt of the heavy lifting?

Last season, OCSC became dreadfully predictable in that most dangerous attacks came down the right side through Torres and Ruan, with defenders able to clog the middle and stymie Pereyra and Kara due to no true threat on the left wing. Will Ojeda keeping defenders honest mean that the Lions try to play through the middle more, or will heavy emphasis still be placed on the wide areas?

These aren’t questions that I necessarily have the answers to, and at the moment I don’t think there are right and wrong answers to them. Two starters leaving the team always meant that there was going to be a degree of uncertainty, and three of the four players who are in line to replace them being largely unknown entities means that those questions only loom larger. It also feels odd to be having these conversations about an area of the field that was pretty clear cut for the last three seasons, but that’s what happens with change.


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