Soccer in the City Beautiful officially kicks off later this month. In this shortened off-season, Orlando City has lost some key pieces, such as former captain Mauricio Pereyra, defensive stalwart Antonio Carlos, and, most recently, former rookie sensation Duncan McGuire. All departed Central Florida for other opportunities. While there certainly has been some roster turnover, the schedule waits for no one, and opening day of the 2024 MLS season is just three short weeks away.
With all the change that has taken place, and by looking back at the beginning of the 2023 season, which saw new pieces being integrated into the lineup and an offense that struggled to gel as a unit, it should come as a surprise to no one that the offense may take some time to find its form, placing the bulk of the team’s early season success on the shoulders of the defensive unit. We will break down the defensive midfield, back line, and octopus in the net to assess and project just what type of results we should expect throughout the early fixtures this season.
Orlando took a huge step in the right direction earlier in the off-season when it was announced in mid-December that the club signed defensive midfielder Wilder Cartagena to a contract after his loan to Orlando City had run its course. The 29-year-old, in his first full season in Orlando last year, made an impressive pairing with fellow defensive stopper Cesar Araujo. The two players put out so many fires last season that I honestly lost count, and both have a knack for taking the opposition’s best players out of a rhythm by getting in their heads. No greater moment was that ability put on full display than in the first-round playoff matchup from last year, when Cartagena and Araujo took former MLS MVP recipient Hany Mukhtar completely out of his element for two consecutive matches.
These two players project as one of the best position groups on the field for Orlando City and may also wind up as the best defensive midfield duo in the league. If they are able to keep up the quality of play that they provided throughout 2023, then the defensive structure and group are already off to an excellent start. The true diamond in the rough scenario will be if one or both players are able to contribute offensively, and while both players have flirted with offensive success in the past, neither will have that main responsibility on their shoulders. (Really, talking about their offense was just reason enough to include the highlight below.)
The Back Line
If benefiting from one of the best defensive midfield duos in front of you isn’t enough to instill confidence in the quality of Orlando City’s defense, the fact that the Lions are returning a solid and capable back line should put any additional concerns at ease. Orlando will return 75% of its main starting back line from 2023, losing only the previously mentioned Carlos, who transferred out this off-season. Looking closer at 2023, as AC dealt with multiple injuries, you could make the argument that Orlando City is currently returning 100% of its back line. Currently, as the roster stands, Rodrigo Schlegel is slotted in as the second starting center back along with Robin Jansson. There are plenty of reports, but nothing officially confirmed by the club as of yet, about the signing of 25-year-old, Slovenian international center back David Brekalo. This signing, if and when announced, will bring in a starting-caliber center back, which would allow Schlegel to move back to his super substitute role and provide much-needed depth off the bench.
On the outside, both Rafael Santos and Dagur Dan Thorhallsson are returning, and both players grew very quickly into their starting roles throughout the 2023 season. The off-season will have undoubtedly only provided more time for each to get comfortable in their position and in the system. In the case of Thorhallsson, it also provided time to continue to work on the defensive building blocks necessary to be a starting right back in MLS after his position swap. With a projected lineup of Santos, Jansson, Brekalo, and Thorhallsson, the remainder of the defensive unit should be able to do a stand-up job against the competition while the offensive side of the ball sorts itself out. In 2023, Orlando allowed five goals through February and March, and I suspect that this defensive unit will be capable of reducing that goal total throughout the beginning of 2024.
The Last Line of Defense
Orlando City originally signed Peruvian No. 1 Pedro Gallese back on Jan. 17, 2020, and then re-signed El Pulpo to a new two-year contract following the completion of the 2022 season. Known across the league for his electric ability to make stops that others simply cannot, Gallese provides a final line of defense and has proved time and time again that his goalkeeping can be the deciding factor in earning results.
The former MLS Save of the Year winner from 2022, Gallese has been a staple of the starting lineup since joining Orlando City. He is currently coming off of a season which saw him post a career best in clean sheets (10) and his second-best save percentage (70.5%) with the Lions to date. Gallese will look to once again be the final line of defense for Orlando City. If he is capable of replicating his 2023 numbers or improving on them, then Orlando will find itself competitive in a large majority of its matches.
That is how I see Orlando City’s defense. It will need to hold fast to start the season, and without a doubt it is the group in which I have the utmost confidence to start the year. There is a real chance that, from defensive midfield to goal, this unit may become recognized as the best defensive group in club history.
Let us know which defensive players you are most excited for as the season is about to get underway in the comment section below, and as always, vamos Orlando!
Three Bold Orlando City Predictions for 2024
Here are three specific bold predictions for the MLS season ahead.
Orlando City kicks off the 2024 MLS regular season this evening at home against Eastern Conference foe CF Montreal. After having disposed of one Canadian team already this week with the Concacaf Champions Cup victory Wednesday night in Langford, B.C., the Lions will look to continue the opening day success that they have enjoyed throughout their years at the expense of some other friends from the great white north.
You can catch up with all of our pregame coverage here at The Mane Land, but prior to the season officially starting this evening, I thought it was the perfect time to cover my three biggest and boldest predictions for the squad this year.
Oscar Pareja Wins Coach of the Year
While the 2023 MLS Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year recipient was the much deserving Pat Noonan for the work that he did somewhat unexpectedly with former wooden spoon winning, FC Cincinnati, there were grumblings that Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja should have been the coach to take the award home. Doing more with less and boasting the league’s best road record, as well as one of the best overall records throughout the final months of the season, it would have been easy to make the argument that Papi deserved the award. What is even more impressive with the coaching job that Pareja did last year was that after an up-and-down beginning to the campaign, many (not yours truly included) thought that the team should move on from the head coach.
After signing a new contract with the team in the off-season, Pareja returns a strong lineup, and the players without a doubt would run through a wall for their manager. Papi brings a distinctly South American flair to the Orlando City sideline, which resonates with his players, and if the end of the season form from 2023 can be reached just a little earlier this season, then Orlando and Pareja should find themselves at or near the top of the table. Playing with a target on their backs as favorites to end this season with hardware may be a new position for the Lions, but Pareja is seasoned enough to help his players drown out the noise and hunt for results. For those reasons, I think he will be named the 2024 Coach of the Year.
Multiple Players at the MLS All-Star Game
Orlando did not have anyone selected to the 2023 MLS All-Star squad last year, nor the 2022 version a year prior. But that trend ends this year, as I predict that a minimum of two Lions will see their names selected for the annual all-star matchup. Captain Robin Jansson, long recognized as one of the top center backs in Major League Soccer, will be selected to represent the purple and gold, and Designated Player Facundo Torres will also see his name selected, based upon what is going to be a stellar start to the season.
This feels less like an incredibly bold prediction, but it makes sense both on the surface and when you break down the caliber of both players. It will probably wind up being my safest of the bold predictions. Jansson has already been called upon as the new team captain and he will be the instrumental piece in keeping the Lions’ defense organized and efficient. Add in the ability for him to find a goal or two from some set pieces this year, and he becomes an instant need on the All-Star squad. Torres, on the other hand, has put up All-Star quality numbers in each of his first two seasons with Orlando City. The main problem is that he has gone on heaters to put up those numbers after the All-Star Game has come and gone. If Torres has the start to the season that everyone is projecting that he is capable of, then there is no denying his name on the ballot.
Orlando City Finishes the Year Third Overall in MLS
Success of any kind in professional sports is incredibly hard to achieve, which is why teams like the 1990s-2000s Yankees, the Tom Brady-led Patriots, and the last two decades of the Alabama Crimson Tide have been so special to witness. In a seller’s league, where top talent often finds its way across the pond, it becomes even more difficult for MLS squads to put up multiple successful years back to back as they deal with continual roster turnover.
Orlando benefits this year from bringing back a large majority of its seasoned players and has had the chance to build chemistry and continuity on and off the field. That fact alone should do wonders for the early season results. I suspect Eastern Conference teams like Cincinnati or Columbus to push towards the top of the table, as well as a team like New York City FC, which fell off last year. And there are several top quality squads out west, which will continue to pile up results against a somewhat weaker conference. With all of that said, Orlando has already proved that it can play with the best talent in MLS, and if the Lions can start the year stronger than last and continue to hunt for results on the road like they did a year ago, then they should find themselves near the top of the table come the end of the year once again.
Those are my three bold predictions for Orlando City as we start the 2024 MLS season. Do you agree with my hot takes or do you think I am riding too high on the team to start the year? Let us know the answer in the comments below. If you see me in the stadium tonight then don’t be afraid to say hey, and as always, vamos Orlando!
Wide Players Made the Difference in Victory Over Cavalry FC
Orlando’s fullbacks and wingers had great games against Cavalry, and it helped propel the Lions to victory.
Orlando City began its 2024 season with a resounding and confident 3-0 win over Cavalry FC on the road up in Canada. The Lions grabbed control of the game with an early goal and never let up, and now go into next week’s home leg in excellent position to advance to the next round. Everyone who played out wide for OCSC can and should take a well-earned bow for their performances, as it was their excellent games that pushed the Lions to a big advantage after the first leg.
The first goal looked easy enough, but it was a product of good vision and better execution. After collecting the ball near midfield, Wilder Cartagena turned into space and played a quick ball out to Ivan Angulo on the left wing. Martin Ojeda began his run in a fairly central position, but recognized that there was space behind fullback Shamit Shome, and immediately went to it. He was rewarded when Angulo took one touch to collect the ball, another to settle it, and used his third to play Ojeda into the space behind Shome, with defensive midfielder Jesse Daley coming back to cover. However, the pass from Angulo was perfectly weighted and Ojeda was able to use his first touch to play a cross into the box, preventing Daley from getting in the way of his delivery. Ojeda laid the ball on a plate, and Duncan McGuire made no mistake from close range.
The second goal also came as a result of play out wide, although it was more a goal of individual brilliance than team skill. Dagur Dan Thorhallsson drove at the heart of the retreating Cavalry defense, and pulled three players to him before releasing the ball at precisely the correct time to Facundo Torres on the right wing. Once there, the man defending Torres, William Akio, made the cardinal sin of allowing Facu to cut in on his left foot, and Orlando’s new no. 10 made the opposition pay with a shot to the near post that skipped off the turf and beat Marco Carducci, who admittedly maybe should have done better with it than he did.
The dagger came as a result of more excellent play down the left-hand side. Nicolas Lodeiro, Angulo, and Ramiro Enrique used some slick one-touch passing that resulted in Enrique sending Angulo in behind on the left. Enrique’s ball to free his fellow Colombian was perfectly weighted, and Angulo was able to use his first touch to play a perfect lofted cross to the back post, where Torres dispatched it with a beautiful diving header for his second of the match.
Numbers don’t lie, and they back up the assertion that the wide players had good games. Thorhallsson promptly picked up where he left off at right back, finishing with 81% passing accuracy, one key pass, one assist, one clearance, and one interception. If he keeps this up, then Mikey Halliday is going to have a fight on his hands when it comes to the starting job. Kyle Smith quietly had a good game on the opposite side of the defense, completing one dribble, winning a tackle, and recording four clearances, although his 72% passing accuracy could have been better.
Ivan Angulo was an absolute terror, and looked even more dangerous on the slick turf than he normally does on grass fields. He gave the Cavalry defense fits, and completed four dribbles, recording two key passes, a cross, two long balls, an interception, a tackle, and an assist while completing 84% of his passes. As in seasons past, the big question for him this year surrounds his decision-making in the final third and his finishing. If both of those attributes continue to improve, then he’ll be an almighty handful for opposing defenses.
Torres was, well, Torres. He’s been the straw that stirs Orlando City’s drink for two years now, and Wednesday night was no different. Facu took three shots and scored with the two he put on target, completed 86% of his passes, logging one key pass. He also completed a dribble and chipped in with a clearance and an interception on defense. Time will tell if he’s managed to add the use of his right foot to his game yet, but he was a pleasure to watch, as usual.
I also want to take a moment to shout-out Ojeda. While he was deployed through the middle in the no. 10 role, rather than out wide, where we’re used to seeing him, he was excellent. The Argentine repeatedly drifted into the half-spaces between center back and fullback and had a field day pulling the strings, as he finished with a whopping five key passes. If he can translate that sort of performance to MLS, then a lot of pressure will be taken off the aging legs of Nico Lodeiro.
In short, the Lions made their living on Wednesday by stretching the field, getting the ball to their dangerous players out wide, and then making and executing the correct decisions once it was there. There were a lot of things to like offensively about the performance, and it provided plenty to build on when OCSC opens MLS play against CF Montreal tomorrow. Vamos Orlando!
Orlando City’s 10th Anniversary is the Time to Remember the Club’s Originals
Orlando City’s 10th year in MLS should be used to honor the players who built the club.
The 2024 season is Orlando City’s 10th in Major League Soccer. The club has scheduled several events throughout the year to celebrate having been in the country’s top division for a decade, but the season should also be a time for fans to reflect on the people who made it happen without getting to experience the result.
Orlando City arrived in Orlando in 2010 with the goal of reaching MLS. However, it was the first professional soccer team in the city since the 1990s and resides in a football hotbed, leaving many to wonder if the team would be successful. The most famous doubt came at the team’s inaugural media day, when longtime WESH 2 sportscaster Pat Clake told club founder Phil Rawlins and inaugural Head Coach Adrian Heath that, while he wished them luck, a professional soccer team in Orlando would never work.
The Orlando project got off to a much better start than the Austin Aztex, Rawlins’ former project. During the team’s first season in 2011, Orlando City substantially outdrew its predecessor, proving there was an appetite for soccer. But there was another factor to the team’s popularity. The Lions won…a lot.
The success of a team at home has a significant impact on the enjoyment of attending games. In four USL Pro seasons, Orlando City was 40-3-9 (W-L-D) at the Citrus Bowl (now Camping World Stadium) and Walt Disney World’s ESPN Wide World of Sports, winning three regular season titles and two USL Pro championships. Seeing the local team win and score frequently is much more likely to result in people returning for more games. That’s exactly what the Lions did, and it helped to create a following.
When MLS considered Orlando City for expansion, the league looked at average attendance, season ticket numbers, and community involvement. All of these factors were directly related to the team’s success on the field. For this reason, the key players on those teams are responsible for Orlando City being in MLS in the first place.
In addition to their work on the field, the players from the USL Pro era worked in the community to build a following. They spoke with local groups and were active throughout Central Florida, convincing people to attend games. It was all about the effort of getting the team into MLS. Unfortunately, many of those players didn’t get to experience the results of their labor.
The core of Orlando City’s team from 2011 to 2013 remained the same, with Miguel Gallardo in goal, Luke Boden at left back, Rob Valentino at center back, Kevin Molino and Jamie Watson in the midfield, and Dennis Chin up top. The success they had resulted in the club being announced as the newest expansion side on Nov. 19, 2013. However, of those six stalwarts, only Boden and Molino continued with the team into MLS.
Over the past 10 years, Orlando City has had several star and fan favorite players come and go. As the club’s USL Pro era gets further in the rearview mirror, the players who built the organization are forgotten or unknown by a large portion of the fanbase that didn’t experience the early seasons.
To the club’s credit, Orlando City worked to keep the memory of the team’s foundation alive in recent years. This preseason, Chin, Lewis Neal (a 2011 original who returned to the team in MLS), and Dom Dwyer (who was on loan with the team in 2013 and returned in 2017) were involved in the popular away jersey unveiling. Additionally, Chin signed autographs and took part in a Q&A session during the Society XXI preseason game against the New England Revolution. They’ve had other events, like the 2022 U.S. Open Cup games against the Tampa Bay Rowdies, when former players have been invited back.
Additionally, the club raised banners last year for the 2011 and 2013 USL Pro championships and announced this year that it will display the trophies in a new permanent exhibit called “The Vault.” The club also released an updated version of the three-lion USL Pro logo from those first four seasons.
When people consider the factors that resulted in Orlando City joining MLS in 2015, the fan support during the USL Pro years is the first thing that comes to mind. But without the success of those teams and the work the players put into building the following, the club likely never would’ve made it to the top division. This 10th anniversary season is a good time to remember those club legends.
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