Orlando City

In Praise of Wilder Cartagena’s Season

Wilder Cartagena has been a key part of Orlando City’s success this season, and it’s time to give him his flowers.



Image courtesy of Orlando City SC / Mark Thor

Wilder Cartagena has been a vital part of Orlando City’s 2023 season. He was brought in on loan last August following Sebas Mendez being traded to LAFC, and although he only made eight appearances behind Cesar Araujo and Junior Urso, he showed flashes of what he was capable of. Urso’s departure at the end of the year opened the door for him to compete for a starting spot in defensive midfield, and he seized the opportunity with both hands. The Peruvian has appeared in 24 games this year, starting 23 of those and logging 1,909 minutes alongside Araujo in defensive midfield, and he’s looked damn good doing it.


A big thing I want to highlight with Cartagena is his passing, which has been exemplary. According to FBref.com, he’s attempted 1,050 of them, which is fifth-most on the team behind Araujo, Robin Jansson, Rafael Santos, and Mauricio Pereyra. He’s completed 88.2% of those, which is the highest mark on the team aside from Favian Loyola and Alejandro Granados, who have only attempted six and nine passes, respectively. What’s been most important is that those passes have traveled 16,007 yards, and 4,849 of those yards have been in the direction of the opponent’s goal, meaning that 30% of his passes have gone forward, or been progressive passes.

That matters, because playing in a 4-2-3-1 that Oscar Pareja prefers, the formation is excellent when your team doesn’t have the ball. The staggered midfield lines make it hard to work the ball through the middle of the field, and you can get the team very compact. When winning the ball though, it’s important for the two holding midfielders to be confident and comfortable on the ball, since they’ll often be the ones trying to probe the other team’s midfield to find ways to progress the ball into the final third so the attacking midfielders can take over.

If your no. 6 and no. 8 are consistently playing passes backwards or sideways because they aren’t confident playing attacking balls, then it’s going to stunt a team’s offense in the so-called “half-court” of the opposing team’s half. Fortunately, Cartagena and Araujo are both great at playing progressive passes, as 36% of Araujo’s passes have been forward. When not one, but both of your defensive midfielders are playing one of every three passes towards goal, it helps keep the offense humming nicely.


Since you can’t spell defensive midfielder without the word defensive, tackling factors pretty high up the list of something that you need to be able to do well if you’re part of a double pivot. Wilder has the most tackles of any OCSC player, with 57 to Araujo’s 48. Of those, 20 have come in the defensive third, 31 in the middle third, and six in the attacking third. Those 31 middle-third tackles are also tied for seventh in all of Major League Soccer, and it’s worth mentioning that Aidan Morris and Obinna Nwobodo, the only two players who have more than 40, have played significantly more minutes than Cartagena, with 2,490 and 2,492, respectively.

In fact, of the eight players who either have more than, or the same number of middle-third tackles as Wilder, only two have played fewer minutes than him. Basically, he’s one of the very best in the league at winning the ball back in the hotly contested middle third of the field, and once he gets it, there’s a 30% chance that the ball is getting played toward goal.


Unsurprisingly, his offensive numbers have been far from eye-popping this year, as that just isn’t his job. Still, he’s got a goal and two assists in league play, a goal in the Concacaf Champions League, and a goal in Leagues Cup for a total of three goals and two assists in all competitions, which isn’t a bad haul for a defensive midfielder — especially when one of those goals was a 92nd-minute winner against Santos Laguna. He’s also averaging a completed dribble every other game, a key pass every other game, and draws an average of 1.5 fouls per game, which is good for third-most on the team. He’s far from an offensive weapon, but it’s been nice to see him develop that side of his game a little more, which is something we didn’t see at all during his limited minutes last year.

Alongside Araujo, Cartagena has formed one of the best defensive midfield pairings in the whole league. He excels at not just winning the ball back in midfield, but at then accurately distributing it toward goal and into the feet of Orlando City’s chance creators. His consistent level of play has been a big reason for the Lions sitting pretty as the second-best team in the league. If he can be signed on a permanent deal at the end of the season, he absolutely should be. He’s more than earned it.


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