TML Staff Roundtable: 2022 Orlando City Preseason Thoughts



As we head into the 2022 MLS season this weekend, it’s time to once again get a feel for the hopes and expectations for the campaign that awaits. Orlando City is a strange hybrid team entering the season, because Oscar Pareja’s squad has a solid returning defensive nucleus, but a completely retooled attack.

I reached out to The Mane Land staff to find out what everyone is thinking ahead of the Lions’ eighth season in Major League Soccer.

1. What would you say is Orlando City’s biggest strength entering the 2022 MLS season?

David Rohe: The strength of the club lies with the defense. The core is back with Robin Jansson, Antônio Carlos, Rodrigo Schlegel, Ruan, João Moutinho, and Kyle Smith all in front of Pedro Gallese. Add in Sebas Méndez in the defensive midfield and you have a recipe for continued success.

Adrian Barragan: Orlando City’s biggest strength entering this season is leadership. Head coach Oscar Pareja has shown to be the right man for the club as he has led the Lions to the playoffs the past two seasons. Being able to re-sign Mauricio Pereyra, who has donned the captain’s armband for the club, will be an integral part of assimilating fellow Uruguayan newcomers Facundo Torres and César Araújo to the team. Robin Jansson has stepped up to become the commander in the center of the defensive line as well as Pedro Gallese bringing his starting international experience to the club.

Ben Miller: The experience and continuity in the back line and defensive midfield. Orlando returns every single first-choice starter, and even though things got a bit leaky at the back at times during the back half of the season, being able to bring all those guys back is undoubtedly a good thing. 

Sean Rollins: I think the biggest strength is in the back. The starting back four and Pedro Gallese are all back this year. Rodrigo Schlegel and Kyle Smith provide some depth as well. I think there are fewer questions in the back than up front.

Mike Kennedy: The Lions’ defense leaked too many goals for my liking in 2021, but it still led the team to the playoffs, and I think it will improve. Pedro Gallese is a top tier shot stopper. Robin Jansson and Antonio Carlos reliably snuff out a lot of danger in the middle of the back four. Sebas Mendez leads a strong defensive midfield rotation, and he disrupts plenty of threats as the No. 6. This defensive spine will lead the Lions back to a third straight playoff appearance.

Joshua Taylor: I would lean towards the midfield being the biggest strength for Orlando City SC. The Lions have a good group of veterans, such as Sebas Mendez, Mauricio Pereyra, and Joey DeZart to add some versatility and depth in the midfield. Hopefully, Pereyra can continue his stellar form like last season as he was the top assist leader for the club, and I would expect Andrés Perea to improve this year.

Marcus Mitchell: I believe Orlando will be excellent at set pieces this upcoming season and will catch a few defenses off guard. Mauricio Pereyra, Alexandre Pato, Facundo Torres, and Joao Moutinho are all capable of either delivering good crosses or scoring from dead ball situations. Forwards Ercan Kara and Tesho Akindele are both big targets, and center backs Antonio Carlos and Robin Jansson collectively scored four goals from set pieces last season. Assistant Coach Josema Bazan will have plenty of weapons at his disposal and Orlando’s creative players should make opposing defenders think twice before fouling in the final third.

My Take: I agree with most of the staff here in terms of the defense being the team’s strength. Orlando’s defense was stout with the exception of a few outlier games. Orlando shipped five goals at New York City FC, three at Chicago, three at Atlanta, and three at Philadelphia, even though Kacper Przybylko’s elbow should have prevented the latter from happening. And the team shipped four at home vs. Montreal but played much of that game a man down and some time two men down. Those few meltdown games prevented the Lions from being among the best in MLS in goals against. The back line and Gallese combine to be one of the top back-end quintets in the league.

2. What is your biggest concern with Orlando City entering 2022?

David: Injuries. Orlando City’s season was greatly impacted last season when Alexandre Pato went out for most of the year. Add in all the other injuries to Ruan, Moutinho, Mauricio Pereyra, and others, and it makes everything that much more difficult. I’m hoping they’ve changed whatever they are putting in the water to make the team more durable for an entire MLS season. 

Adrian: The health of the forwards. We already saw Ercan Kara go down with a knock that cut his preseason short, which limited his chemistry-building time with his new teammates on the pitch and he will now have to do that on the fly during regular-season matches. We already know Pato’s injury history with the Lions last season. He seems ready to go for the start of the season but we will see how long his durability will last throughout the season.

Ben: I’m worried about depth at center back and left back. There is no natural left back behind Joao Moutinho, and after Rodrigo Schlegel the level of experience for the center backs falls off a cliff. The Lions are in a better place financially to make summer additions should they wish to do so, but the cupboards are dangerously close to empty in those two positions.

Sean: My biggest concern for 2022 is the health of the strikers. Alexandre Pato has a history of injuries and was out most of 2021. Then Ercan Kara got injured early in preseason. I think striker health could be a problem.

Mike: Orlando City fans are understandably excited to see Facundo Torres and Ercan Kara contribute bundles of goals and assists this season. I’m concerned we’re expecting too much of them in their first season in MLS. Many players need significant time to adjust to this league. New teammates and coaches. New culture. Long-distance travel. Let’s not forget the stifling heat and humidity at Exploria Stadium for a large stretch of the campaign.

Joshua: I’m still worried about who will be carrying the attack up front for the Lions. With Dike, Nani, and Mueller moving on to Europe this off-season, Benji Michel, Tesho Akindele, and Silvester van der Water will be counted on to score some goals. Alexandre Pato will also be looking to redeem himself after missing most of last season. We’ll have to see how new arrivals Facundo Torres and Ercan Kara adapt once the regular season begins. It may take some time for them to gel, but it will be interesting to see who will finish as the club’s leading goal scorer at the end of the season.

Marcus: I’m pretty worried about a slow start by the Lions. The offense was overhauled this off-season and it may take some time for the goals to come as new players settle in. Orlando has difficult road games against the LA Galaxy and Portland Timbers late in March and the team could be without Torres, Kara, Pedro Gallese, and Sebas Mendez due to World Cup qualifying. If the Lions have trouble finding their footing early on, they could find themselves clawing for points when summer rolls around.

My Take: I have several concerns and they’ve been brought up by my colleagues. The two DP additions have to adjust quickly. Two center back injuries could wreck things pretty quickly. Not extending Emmanuel Mas (or replacing him) left no coverage behind a brittle Moutinho. I’ll add that no adequate replacement for Mueller was added and even if the Gaston Gonzalez reports come to pass, he’s another young, unproven player who will need to adjust to a new culture and league. But my chief concern is that Orlando was already slightly behind a few teams in the East and those teams got better while Orlando struggled to replace what it lost. Did the Lions lose ground to the top teams? We’ll see.

3. Which new Orlando City player are you most excited about seeing this year?

David: I know that there was a ton of attention given to Facundo Torres during the weeks-long drama of bringing him in, but I’m most excited to see what Ercan Kara can do. Like Daryl Dike, he’ll need some service but I expect him to be a potent striker, scoring 15 goals in his first year in MLS.

Adrian: I’m really looking forward to seeing what Facundo Torres can bring. Seeing his goal highlights from Peñarol showed me he can be a dynamic goal scorer at any range. And by the way Peñarol fans are reacting to every tweet Orlando City including Torres shows how much they miss him already, especially when they just won a championship with him. Hopefully the Crow will bring that championship experience with him here to Orlando, even if it is a different league.

Ben: It has to be Facundo Torres for me. A young South American talent the front office clearly believes in? Sign me up. He already showed some promising moments in the preseason match against Colorado, and I’m looking forward to seeing how he does in his first year stateside. 

Sean: I’m excited to watch Facundo Torres this season. From the time I saw him during preseason, Torres looks comfortable and skillful on the ball. I think he’s going to be crucial in the midfield and should be fun to watch.

Mike: Although I’m concerned about how quickly we’re expecting to see Facundo Torres perform at a top level, I am very excited to see what he can do on the pitch. Some eyes widened when Luiz Muzzi labeled him one of the top three young talents out of all South America. Will El Cuervo live up to the hype? I can’t wait to see.

Joshua: I’m very excited about seeing how new Designated Player Ercan Kara will do in Orlando this season. The offense has been off to a slow start in the preseason but Kara did manage to get an assist in a preseason match against Minnesota United. Despite only playing parts of two preseason matches, Kara has shown he can create scoring chances and produce. If he can find his form early on in the regular season to score goals, it will help ease the pressure on the club from relying too much on the defense.

Marcus: I’m excited to see Kara in action! He’s one of many forwards joining MLS from Europe this season and I think he is a good fit to come in and score. In his interview with Miguel Gallardo introducing himself to fans, he was a nice blend of soft spoken and confident. He’s a proven scorer who will have plenty of service over the course of the season and could wind up winning the Golden Boot or an award at the end of the season if things fall his way.

My Take: Facu is the one who will bear watching. He’s dynamic and even when he wasn’t providing goals or setting them up in the Colorado preseason match, he was still fun to watch. That said, he’ll need to produce or Nani’s shoes will go unfilled and Orlando will lose ground in the conference.

4. Which of the following players will be the most difficult to replace: Daryl Dike, Nani, or Chris Mueller?

David: It has to be Nani. The level of experience and leadership he brought to the club is not easy to replicate. Assuming that Torres is his replacement, he might be younger, faster, and potentially more dynamic, but that isn’t all Nani brought to the pitch. If you go back and look, you can see him teaching and coaching during matches. That will be lost. 

Adrian: I believe Nani would be the most difficult to replace. Not only will his goal scoring and assist abilities be missed, but his playmaking style of play to take on defenders with his dribbling skills caused defenders to focus on him, which in turn allowed openings for his teammates. Also, his impact off the pitch with jersey sales and even bringing in casual fans to fill seats at matches as Orlando is now without a big European name.

Ben: This was tough for me, as I was split between Nani and Dike, but ultimately, I have to go with Nani. He had 18 goal contributions last year and carried the offense for the first third of the season when Daryl was on loan. Dike’s presence and gravity up top will be missed, as will his goals, but Kara didn’t have trouble scoring with Rapid Vienna and his profile is similar to Daryl’s. If he can adjust, then he should be able to provide similar goal numbers at the striker position. Torres is a bit more of an unknown and has far more pressure on him, given his fee and how reliant Orlando was on Nani for large stretches of his three years in purple. I’m not saying Facu won’t be able to fill those shoes, but it’s a much tougher task.

Sean: I think the most difficult player to replace will be Nani. Daryl Dike had an excellent 2021 but I think Kara can play that target role well and in the same way. Nani was a threat in the midfield that opened up chances and scored a lot of goals for that position.

Mike: Mueller will be the toughest to replace. Sure, he struggled last year. But he improved every season until last, and his hustle and intensity made him a leader on the field and a fan favorite. Kara will offset Dike’s production. El Cuervo will do the same for Nani’s. Unless we bring in a winger soon or during the summer transfer window, we’re asking Silvester van der Water and/or Benji Michel to consistently provide what Mueller did for most of his time in Orlando. I’m not convinced either is the answer on that wing.

Joshua: Daryl Dike will be hard to replace at striker. Dike was the club’s leading goal scorer last season (regular season plus playoffs) with 11 goals. He is also a physical player and was a handful for defenders to try to slow down. Kara, Torres, and the rest of the forwards will have some big shoes to fill this season.

Marcus: I’m going to go with Mueller. While I think Nani and Dike made greater impacts in 2021, Torres and Kara should fill those gaps nicely. Trying to find a way to replace Mueller’s production without breaking the bank could prove difficult for the Lions. Silvester van der Water and Benji Michel have shown flashes of brilliance and Argentine winger Gaston Gonzalez could join the team in May, but Mueller gave the club plenty of production over the years after being selected in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft. Designated Players will fill the void left by Nani and Dike, but another winger will need to step up to replace Mueller.

My Take: This was a trick question. All will be hard to replace, but it is especially tough to replace double-digit goal scorers in MLS and Orlando lost two. Nani and Dike each scored 10 times in the regular season in 2021 and so they’ll both be extremely hard to replace. Nani also amassed eight assists while Dike recorded just three, so it would seem logical to say he’s the toughest to replace, but I’m going to say Dike because Nani played in 10 more games than Daryl. Had Dike not gone on loan and played the full season in Orlando, he might have spent much of the year in the Golden Boot discussion and the Lions certainly would have finished higher than sixth. Being extremely conservative, Dike likely turns two draws into wins and two one-goal losses into draws, giving the Lions 57 points and a second-place finish in 2021. Kara has a big job to do.

5. What position in the Eastern Conference will the Lions occupy at season’s end?

David: It’s not going to be easy, and a lot will depend on how healthy the team stays, as well as how quickly the newcomers integrate into the culture of the club, but I’m predicting that the Lions will finish seventh in the Eastern Conference and make the playoffs. I’m iffy on this, but Óscar Pareja is a very good coach, and until he proves me wrong, I’m going to assume he gets the job done.

Adrian: Fourth is a good spot for me. Orlando City was only in the sixth seed last season because teams multiple teams were tied on points. The Lions were able to replace key players such as Nani, Daryl Dike and Chris Mueller this off-season while keeping a good balance of youth and experience. I can see Orlando making the playoffs comfortably, which isn’t too unrealistic.

Ben: Fifth. I expect the Lions to be solid defensively but struggle at the other end of the field, at least at first. Kara and Torres will likely need time to gel and adapt to a new league and the grueling travel that comes with it. I think we’ll see the best of this team after the All-Star Game once the new faces have time to bed in, and it will end up in fifth.

Sean: I think Orlando City will finish in sixth this year. The team has a lot of new and young pieces that could take some time getting used to MLS. I think the East will be really close again this year, and it could be one or two games that separate sixth from second again.

Mike: The Lions will just miss a home playoff game in the opening round by finishing fifth in the East.

Joshua: I don’t see Orlando City as one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference this year, keeping up with Philadelphia, New York City FC, and New England. I do believe that the Lions will fight for the playoff spots and will finish in fifth place in the East this year.

Marcus: Orlando will finish fourth in the Eastern Conference, securing a home playoff match by the skin of its teeth. There’s been an injection of offensive talent throughout the Eastern Conference this off-season so I’m imagining quite a bit of scoring and more parity across the board rather than teams like the New England Revolution and New York City FC running rampant. Every Eastern Conference team will likely have something to play for come Decision Day.

My Take: I would love to be as optimistic as most of my colleagues. I don’t think Orlando will finish higher than seventh in an improving Eastern Conference after opting to see if a trio of Pato, Michel, and van der Water can replace Mueller on one wing and tabbing a (yes, very talented) 21-year-old to immediately replace Nani’s production. I feel that Kara will be able to provide double-digit goal totals, but he may start slowly in getting there. Among 13 of SBN’s MLS bloggers, Orlando City’s average predicted finishing position is seventh, putting me right in line with them. Two of my colleagues picked them to finish as high as fourth, while two others had them finishing in 10th and 12th. I think 12th is exceedingly pessimistic, although possible if there are key injuries as I spoke about in my concerns above. I think fourth or fifth is the absolute ceiling but I would love to be proven wrong. (Go on, Lions, make me look bad here!)

6. Hit me with your boldest prediction for Orlando City’s 2022 season. Make ‘em extra spicy!

David: The Lions shock the league as all the new pieces come together perfectly and Orlando City scores a club-record 60 goals to win the Eastern Conference. Both Pato and Kara score 18 goals, and there are no significant injuries to be seen. Pareja is finally awarded the Coach of the Year award with Orlando City that he should have received two years ago.

Adrian: Pedro Gallese wins 2022 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. It’s no debate that Gallese has been the best Orlando City goalkeeper so far. Since joining the Lions, the Peruvian international has not only been consistent, but has been getting better each season with the club. Gallese was named to the MLS All-Star squad in 2021 and I look for him to be even better this season as El Pulpo is looking for that contract extension. 

Ben: Andres Perea gets six goals from defensive midfield while coming off the bench. A complicated one I know, but the 21-year-old bagged two down the stretch last year and had another chalked off in the Halloween Heist against Nashville SC. There are signs of the offensive side of his game starting to flourish a bit, and he’s so young that I think there’s plenty of room for it to grow further with him knocking in a few more this year. 

Sean: My bold take is that Pato won’t get injured this year. That seems almost impossible but the optimist in me thinks he could remain on the field all year.

Mike: Because he’ll need to play more than we expect and he’ll re-discover some old form while on the pitch, Pato will edge out Seattle’s Jordan Morris for MLS Comeback Player of the Year.

Joshua: Orlando City will win the 2022 U.S. Open Cup and qualify for the Concacaf Champions League next year for the first time.

Marcus: Orlando City will win the MLS Cup. Does it get much bolder than that? After some growing pains and Gaston Gonzalez’s (reported) arrival in the spring, the Lions will survive the dog days of summer and claim a playoff spot for a third consecutive year. The trio of Torres, Kara, and Gonzalez helps carry the Lions through each round of the playoffs and into the MLS Cup final, where the Lions beat whichever Cascadian team comes out on top in the Western Conference this year. There will be concerns about depth, particularly along the back line, but Pareja will end up with his first-choice starting XI by the time the postseason rolls around. Despite winning the MLS Cup, no Lions will win an end of season award, even though Pato will spend most of the year as a frontrunner for MLS Comeback Player of the Year.

My Take: There are some good ones here. I’m going to go with Benji Michel making the leap and finishing with eight goals and eight assists in his best MLS season yet, with this run of form earning him a call-up to a USMNT camp.

If you made it to the end of this roundtable discussion, wow. Good job! We can be a verbose bunch sometimes, but we’re all excited for the MLS season to get going. Let us know in the comments where you agree and disagree and give us your own bold predictions.


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