Early Season Success Hinges on Defensive Efforts

Orlando will draw upon experience and connection early and often across its defensive unit.



Image courtesy of Orlando City SC

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.

Defensive Midfield

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!


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