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Opinion: Dante Vanzeir Punishment Shows There’s Still Too Much Tolerance of Intolerance

These incidents are too frequent, showing that our clubs, our league, and our sport can and should be doing more.



Image courtesy of Orlando City SC

For as long as sporting contests are played by human beings, sports will always serve as a microcosm of society. As racism, oppression, and hate speech have no place in any civilized society, it has no place in sports, and yet we continue to see incidents of it both domestically and abroad. We (the royal “we,” that is) simply tolerate intolerant behavior far too often.

Whether this behavior is truly on the rise, if those who exhibit this behavior are being emboldened to do so lately by something, or if a refusal to put up with it any longer is simply leading to it being called out more often — or if it’s a combination of these things — is a matter for a much deeper study than this post will provide. The bottom line is that such ugly behavior is still being carried onto the pitch and it needs to stop. The vast majority of us are at least rational enough to know it needs to stop, and we want it to stop, but it isn’t stopping and those in a position to stop it or at least reduce its frequency are simply not doing so.

Major League Soccer recently had an opportunity to send a message about the use of such behavior on the pitch, but chose to send the wrong one. Last weekend’s match between the San Jose Earthquakes and New York Red Bulls went through a lengthy delay in the second half, when San Jose striker Jeremy Ebobisse, who is Black, said that a Red Bulls player — striker Dante Vanzeir, as it turned out — used a racial slur. Some pushing and shoving among the team’s players ensued, and referee Ismir Pekmic spent quite awhile gathering information.

During that time, it appeared that Red Bulls goalkeeper Carlos Coronel was informing manager Gerhard Struber what had taken place. Struber opted not to remove Vanzeir from the match. Vanzeir was shown milling about, smiling sheepishly. It’s impossible for people who weren’t on the pitch to know what information was being conveyed, so there was no proof that Struber was aware of exactly what took place, but the video didn’t paint him in the best light with the way things turned out.

The in-game investigation at Red Bull Arena by Pekmic also wasn’t immediately apparent to those in the stands, nor to fans around the league, and a photo of fourth official Chris Penso holding up a sign with more than 20 minutes of stoppage time went viral on social media. It’s simply not normal to see so much stoppage time tacked on. New York’s Tom Barlow scored in the 17th minute of injury time, and the game finished tied at 1-1.

News of why the match was stopped for so long eventually spread, and Vanzeir’s and Struber’s actions fell under intense scrutiny. Vanzeir reportedly owned up to saying something offensive, and the club announced soon after that the forward had “stepped away” from the team so as to avoid creating distractions. On Thursday, Vanzeir was suspended for six games and fined an undisclosed amount by Major League Soccer.

As a minor addendum, Vanzeir also may not play in the U.S. Open Cup, exhibition games or in MLS NEXT Pro matches during his suspension, and he must participate in training and education sessions. MLS purports to have “zero tolerance” for racist behavior on its pitch and in its stands, yet this punishment shows that the league has at least some tolerance for it.

As is usually the case, money is a central factor in this situation. MLS rosters are largely constructed around a small number of talented and expensive players the league calls “Designated Players.” Vanzeir is one of those and, as such, is a major investment by the club’s ownership. Kicking him out of the league or suspending the forward for the rest of the season would indeed send a stronger message, and one more in line with an actual policy of zero tolerance, but it would also likely have a competitive impact on both the Red Bulls and the Eastern Conference.

It would take time for New York to find and secure the services of a roster replacement. On-field results could impact attendance. Jobs could be lost both on the technical side and in other areas. I’m not unsympathetic to the club or its fans, but if this kind of behavior isn’t dealt with in a stronger manner, what is the incentive for teams to improve their vetting process when recruiting potential players? What serves as a deterrent for the next incident?

As for Red Bulls fans, many of them have recognized that there is an issue bigger than soccer at play. The supporters groups have been vocal proponents of harsher punishment for Vanzeir, even though it could hurt their team on the field. Empire SC immediately denounced the punishment as insufficient.

Vikings Army SC issued a statement that its members intend to walk out in protest at tonight’s match.

The South Ward issued a strong statement as well, calling for harsher punishment of Vanzeir and the dismissal of Struber, who was not punished by MLS. The South Ward also pointed the finger at the club for not doing more.

It is commendable to see fans put the need for social change above the success of their sports team. It’s also a shame that such actions are still necessary in this day and age.

Unlike the messaging from fans, the messaging that came out of this week from those in positions to do something was unacceptable on all counts. The league released a statement saying, “MLS has zero tolerance for abusive and offensive language and takes these allegations seriously.”

As mentioned above, six games looks a lot more like tolerance at a level much higher than zero. If the league truly wants to stamp out such behavior, it needs to do more than mandate some training and force a player to sit out for a few games. Similarly, if the league fails to act strongly enough, there is no reason why its member clubs can’t hold its employees accountable at a higher standard than MLS does.

Vanzeir’s statement Monday said: “I will do everything I can to be part of the change that needs to happen in this sport and our world. I also want to apologize to my teammates, coaches, the organization and our fans. I made a mistake and will take all the necessary steps to grow. While I did not intend to cause any harm or offense with my language, I know that I did and for that I am deeply sorry.”

This seems disingenuous when you consider that hate speech, by its very nature, is intended to cause harm or offense. There is no purpose for using it outside of inflicting harm/offense toward someone. None. While Vanzeir is Belgian and therefore a language barrier may exist to some extent, MLS mandates training for all players that should clearly indicate what is and is not permissible and this includes languages other than English.

Racist behavior, or sexism, or discrimination against others for sexuality, age, physical impairment, or any other reason may never be fully eradicated, but societal intolerance of it can be achieved. That requires widespread buy-in, regardless of monetary or time considerations.

The Vanzeir incident could happen anywhere and it has happened in many places, including other MLS cities. It could affect any club. As such, I reached out to Orlando City to inquire about what the league’s exact mandates are in terms of training players/staff on offensive language and what the club is doing. The club referred me to the league offices rather than get into specifics about what MLS and/or the NWSL require, however, an OCSC spokesman did respond with some insight as to what takes place at Orlando City SC, stating the club’s standards exceed what is required by the league(s).

“Each season, our club holds anti-harassment training and, as part of that, all players and all club staff (front office and technical) are given training on prohibited speech — across a number of languages — by our in-house and outside counsel. For us, this is something we are really proud of as it goes beyond what is required by either league, and we feel we are setting the standard for across MLS and NWSL. Overall, we’ve increased our investment in a number of trainings across the club, which again, all go beyond what is required by the leagues, but something we feel is very important in developing the best culture and expectations for our players and our staff members.”

I had also hoped to gain some insight as to whether there is some vetting process when the club is considering signing players, because that is important. After all, the club’s athletes and personnel will spend a great deal of time inside Exploria Stadium, a venue that includes 49 colored seats in a rainbow pattern. Those seats are in remembrance of the victims of the 2016 terrorist attack at the Pulse nightclub leveled at the LGBTQ community — a tragedy with effects that still ripple through our city.

In the history of sport, there have always been clubs that put more (or less) emphasis on the character of their players than others. The way soccer operates worldwide, and often on conflicting schedules, makes it difficult to perform due diligence to ascertain players’ attitudes, beliefs, and values. While I’m sure that some vetting takes place, it’s difficult to know the extent of that without more transparency.

It’s going to take the global soccer village to eliminate — or at least greatly reduce — these kinds of incidents. It’s certainly going to require leagues and clubs to deal with them more harshly. Beyond that, it’s going to take the entire global community to eliminate such behavior in society.

Progress has been made in many places but there’s still a long way to go. Even the lengthiest journey can be a worthwhile one.


Thoughts from Orlando City’s Open Training Session

What did we learn from an early morning summer scrimmage?



Sean Rollins, The Mane Land

Orlando City opened up the gates of its training facility today for season ticket members to take in a morning training session. The team took the field close to 8:30 a.m. and proceeded to run a first team vs. second team scrimmage for the better part of an hour. The first team was made up of mostly regular-season starters with the exception of those players currently representing their countries on international duty or those rehabbing injuries.

Efforts put in during practice and on the training pitch should always be taken with a small grain of salt, but what follows are my rapid reactions from a hot and sunny training morning.

4-4-2 Formation

The first-team Lions took the field in a 4-4-2 configuration with the likes of Rodrigo Schlegel, Nico Lodeiro, and Luis Muriel on the pitch in their usual positions. Prior to the last match, it appeared as if Orlando might move away from the 3-5-2, but it never changed back from the shape used for the better part of the last month. I do, however, expect that the team will utilize a four-man back line when Orlando City takes the pitch again on June 15 against LAFC with Duncan McGuire and Muriel up top.

The action during the scrimmage period was mostly one sided, but without playmakers like Facundo Torres on the pitch during training, it seemed as if most of the action was funneled through Ivan Angulo up the left side of the field. The back line played well together in the scrimmage but did allow the second-team players to complete several long balls from time to time.

Old Habits Die Hard

One of the things I was most interested to observe during the training session was how the team attacked the goal and how aggressive their shot taking would be. Unfortunately, it does appear that the old saying “you play how you practice” could be seen in full force as several culprits who have shown bad decision-making during matches used the same poor decision-making in practice. I wish that I could say the results were different but they were not. There are still a handful of players who are very touch happy and often missed out on opportunities to take shots by trying to over dribble or by being too cute with combination passes in the box.

For a team that mustered fewer shot attempts than I have digits on one hand during its last outing against the New York Red Bulls, I would love to see the boys in purple pull the trigger from anywhere and at any time. It seems as though some of the offensive issues that have plagued the attack during matches is coming from habits shown on the training ground.

Jack Lynn’s Impressive Scrimmage

With McGuire away with the U-23 USMNT squad and Ramiro Enrique not on the training pitch, Jack Lynn started alongside Muriel up top for the first team. Lynn was easily the most impressive player from the training session today, scoring in a variety of ways that show he has continued to put in effort behind the scenes to improve his quality. While he may be lacking some of the pure athleticism of McGuire or the savvy of Muriel, Lynn continued to press toward goal throughout the scrimmage and I stopped counting after his third goal.

My favorite effort of his during the session was his first shot on frame, which was a beautiful curling ball from outside the 18 into the upper 90. Lynn has shown glimpses of his ability when he has been called upon this year and may be in line for more playing time depending on how the summer transfer window shakes out. Based upon the effort of the training session today, he will be ready when his number is called.

All in all, even under the hot Florida summer sun, it was a really nice event that the club put on for season ticket members of all ages, and I hope to see Orlando City host more of these events in the future. The Lions are on a bye week and will look to get back to their winning ways on June 15 at home against LAFC. Vamos Orlando!

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Switching to a 3-4-3 Could Help Orlando City

Orlando City needs to try something different to unlock the offense, and a formational tweak could be the answer.



Image courtesy of Orlando City SC / Mark Thor

Orlando City has now used a 3-5-2 or 3-4-1-2 formation in its last six matches. The switch has been necessitated by a combination of injuries and suspensions to the team’s fullbacks and center backs, and I spent some time examining the first two games using the 3-5-2 several weeks ago. In that piece, I noted that the Lions looked better defensively when operating with three at the back, and had also done a decent job of creating chances, albeit in a small sample size. Now that we’ve got more minutes to examine, a picture is beginning to form of a team that still looks fairly solid defensively, but is struggling mightily at the other end of the pitch.

In the six games in which the team used a 3-5-2, Orlando recorded Expected Goals of 1.25, 0.72, 1.99, 1.29, 0.82, and 0.42, for an average of 1.08. That’s not great, as only three teams in the league have lower numbers: the New England Revolution (1.02), FC Dallas (0.99), and Sporting Kansas City (0.99). For those of you keeping track at home, the Revs are bottom of the East, SKC is bottom of the West, and FC Dallas is only two spots above Sporting. While the sample size isn’t as big as those other teams, the numbers are suggesting that this isn’t sustainable.

Expected Goals aren’t the holy grail of soccer statistics, but they generally provide a good metric of how well a team is attacking, but the eye test is perfectly useful in telling us that Orlando City mostly hasn’t been an attacking force across its last six matches.

Three at the back has worked pretty well from a defensive standpoint, as the Lions’ opponents have had xG numbers of 3.85 (2 actual goals), 0.61 (no goals), 0.62 (no goals), 2.19 (2 goals), 1.00 (1 goal), and 0.79 (1 goal), for an average of 1.51.

That number could certainly be better, as it would tie for seventh-highest in the league, although it’s worth mentioning that the three penalty kicks given up against the Philadelphia Union and Columbus Crew do unfairly skew that total, as each one is worth 0.79 xG. If we remove those and focus on open play, the number drops to 1.12, which would actually be the lowest in the league. To be clear, I’m not suggesting the Lions are actually that good defensively, but I do think it’s fair to say that they’ve mostly done well when defending during open play over the last six matches.

Whatever solution we come up with needs to involve a retention of the defensive improvements that the team has shown over the last six matches, while also helping the Lions become more potent offensively. With that being the case, I’m not opposed to keeping a three-man back line, but making a slight tweak to a 3-4-3 formation in order to unlock the team’s offensive potential. With all players healthy and suspension-free, we could see Pedro Gallese in goal, Robin Jansson, Wilder Cartagena, and David Brekalo on the back line, a midfield of Rafael Santos, Cesar Araujo, Nico Lodeiro, and Dagur Dan Thorhallsson, and a front three of Luis Muriel, Duncan McGuire, and Facundo Torres.

One of the biggest drawbacks of a 3-5-2, and something I noted in Player Grades pieces for the games against Philadelphia, Inter Miami, and the Chicago Fire, is that it burdens Facundo Torres with far too many defensive responsibilities. While availability issues meant there wasn’t much choice other than to play him as a wingback, if the team has a clean bill of health, you need the guy who’s been your best offensive player for the last two seasons to be put in the best possible position to succeed. Simply put, that does not involve him consistently defending at or below his own 18-yard box. A 3-4-3 shifts that defensive responsibility to Thorhallson/Santos, while allowing Torres to operate higher up the pitch, where he does his best work.

It also gets Muriel and McGuire on the field at the same time, as they’ve looked capable of forming a nice partnership when they’ve been healthy, rested, and sharing the field. They can play off each other and shift which one is playing through the middle to give the opposing team some different looks throughout the game.

As for the midfield, I have Nico starting, given the type of creative force he’s capable of being, and he’s also looked to have some good budding chemistry with Muriel. With that being the case, he can be swapped for Ivan Angulo or Felipe if Oscar Pareja wants to line his team up more defensively, and the Colombian speedster can also rotate in at winger or wingback as needed.

I’ve kept Cartagena in the middle center back spot for a couple reasons. For one, I don’t think a central midfield pairing of Wilder and Cesar has enough creative punch in a 3-4-3, and Nico should solve that problem. In addition, Cartagena’s shown well enough as the middle center back to keep running him out there, and that also means that you aren’t starting all three experienced, traditional center backs every game and thereby putting all your eggs in one basket.

For substitutions and rotations, Jack Lynn, Ramiro Enrique, and Martin Ojeda can come in at various positions across the front line, Angulo at midfield, winger, or wingback as previously mentioned, Felipe at midfielder, Kyle Smith at wingback or center back, and Rodrigo Schlegel at center back.

In theory, a 3-4-3 formation maintains the defensive stability OCSC has shown with a three-man defense, while putting enough dangerous offensive players on the field in their best positions to help juice things at the other end of the pitch. Whether or not it would actually work out that way is anyone’s guess, but what the Lions have been doing lately hasn’t worked out particularly well, so I think it’s worth a shot.

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Predicting Orlando City’s June Results

Take a peek into the crystal ball as we predict this month’s fixtures.



Image courtesy of Orlando City SC / Mark Thor

After earning eight points in the month of May across six matches with a 2-2-2 record, Orlando City has a large mountain still to climb in the quest to re-enter the playoff picture. With four of the five teams that the Lions are set to face in June currently ahead of them in the standings, there is no rest for the weary. Last month I predicted that the Lions would go 3-1-2, maybe a bit overzealous on my part but if the midweek fixture with Chicago would have resulted in all 3 points, then I would have been pretty happy with my psychic powers. Let’s see how well I can do for the month of June.

Saturday, June 1 — at the New York Red Bulls

A trip to face the Red Bulls on short rest and without at least the services of Captain Robin Jansson, who will miss the match due to yellow card accumulation, sounds on paper like a recipe for disaster. The good news for Orlando is that the game is played on the field and not on a notepad. The New York Red Bulls have been a surprising storyline to follow this season so far, with the resurgence of Lewis Morgan and their unbeaten record at home to start the season. In the first meeting, Orlando City needed late-match heroics to salvage a draw at home, and with an offense that is as currently anemic as Orlando’s, this will be the match where they score early, take the lead, and then hold on for dear life. Something about this squad currently just screams it will win the match it certainly has no business winning.

Prediction: Orlando City 3-2 NYRB.

Saturday, June 15 — vs. LAFC

LAFC is certainly counting down the days until later in the summer when Olivier Giroud joins from AC Milan. Initially struggling out of the gates this season, LAFC has turned its season around in a big way. LAFC is currently riding a six-game winning streak across all competitions, with its last defeat coming back on May 4 against the San Jose Earthquakes. During those six victories, LAFC has scored multiple goals in all but one match, and so I assume that goals will come fast and furious in this East vs. West matchup. Despite Orlando’s struggles, I like this match to be close until the very end, when Orlando will be caught chasing the match and give up an extra goal to the visitors from the City of Angels. A tough one to swallow for sure as Orlando City’s home woes will continue.

Prediction: Orlando City 1-3 LAFC.

Wednesday, June 19 — at Charlotte FC

Orlando will head north to take on Charlotte FC for a midweek clash during the middle of yet another spell of three matches in eight days. Charlotte, much like the Red Bulls, has been somewhat of a surprise player in the Eastern Conference so far this season. Before being bested by the Red Bulls on May 29, the club had kept five clean sheets in a row, earning 11 points throughout the month of May. My favorite thing about this match is the recent news that Enzo Copetti, ever the thorn in the side of Orlando City, has now departed the Queen City. It will be at least one less weapon that Orlando will have to deal with. Despite the team’s recent form, I am not overly sold on Charlotte’s ability to stay above the playoff line, and I like Orlando City to flip the script and be the team to walk away from this match with a clean sheet.

Prediction: Orlando City 1-0 Charlotte FC.

Saturday, June 22 — vs. the Chicago Fire

Call it a rematch, revenge game…I truly don’t care as long as Orlando City avenges the disappointing draw that happened a few days ago in the Windy City. There are certainly multiple reasons as to why both teams find themselves near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, but if I had to pick one to actually figure it out heading into the meat and potatoes of the season, it would still be the Lions. Orlando has created plenty of chances at home, and while finishing those chances is another issue entirely, I like City to build some momentum towards the end of the month.

Prediction: Orlando City 2-0 Chicago Fire.

Friday, June 28 — at New York City FC

Orlando will ride that momentum directly into a baseball stadium. One of the most embarrassing fields in MLS is still allowed to be called a soccer pitch in the outfield of Yankee Stadium. Historically, teams struggle with the dimensions and space that this specific field presents, and Orlando is no stranger to those struggles, as the Lions have lost the last three matches played in the Bronx by a combined score of 9-1. History alone gives me very little hope that this current iteration of Orlando City will be the squad to finally buck the trend, and I suspect that Orlando will once again leave the outfield without much to show for its efforts.

Prediction: Orlando City 0-2 NYCFC.

The month of May went fine for Orlando. It could have been a little better. It could have been a little worse. I predict that that is exactly the way that June will go as well. As I mentioned before, there are no “easy” matches on the slate this month, and everyone except for Chicago is currently sitting on a better record than OCSC at this point in the season. If what I have predicted comes to fruition, then Orlando will earn nine points out of a possible 15 and will still be sitting just shy of the playoff line.

Check back at the end of the month to see just how close I came to predicating the correct results. Vamos Orlando!

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