I was scrolling mindlessly through social media the other day when I saw a mildly popular content creator’s post. In it he specified the soccer teams he supported, categorizing them as “Likes”, “Dislikes”, and “Soft Likes”. “Soft Likes” was essentially the group of teams that one supports casually, or has a natural affinity for despite not paying as much attention to or really knowing about. It’s a concept that many fans can relate to, but what struck me was the lack of a “Soft Dislikes” category. A place for a team that simply irks you, not for any particular reason or rivalry, just one that puts a bad taste on your mouth.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Orlando City fit that category for me, and not just because the New York Red Bulls play them this week. Something about the organization just puts me off. There’s an energy permeating every matchup, caused by some mysterious force. Maybe it’s the purple kits. Not many can pull it off. Maybe it’s the logo, one of the more memorable ones in the league but not that great once you look at it. Why is it so simple? A basic crest shape with a simple lining, the club name emblazoned below a judgemental lion? And what is it about that lion? Why is it so symmetrical? Why are its eyes so piercing, so controlling? What are its motives? What does it know? Does it know Orlando City’s tactics? Here they are.
Orlando City are a side that have vastly underperformed for their history, like many MLS expansion clubs they’ve struggled to place a foothold in the league despite a vibrant community backing them. After joining the league in 2015, the Floridian side didn’t see the playoffs for five years, despite having solid MLS talent like Cyle Larin, Dom Dywer, and Kaká. Their offensive emphasis was disrupted time and time again by poor defensive seasons, conceding a healthy amount of goals to ensure their status at the bottom of the totem pole. Nothing seemed to click for Orlando as their league form deteriorated over the years, finishing 7th, then 8th, then 10th, then 11th, and 11th again in the Eastern Conference over those initial five years. Players and coaches alike were shifted in search of a solution to the slump, but in the end a trip to Disney World did the trick.
Halfway through 2020, as certain pandemics sparked nationwide panic and concern, MLS came back, in the form of the aptly named MLS is Back tournament. The one-off tournament designed to remind the public that even in the middle of a national crisis, American soccer still existed, was a strange and forgettable outing for many teams, but Orlando City took full advantage of the unusual circumstances. Backed by new coach Oscar Pareja, the Lions shocked fans and media alike as they stormed to the final, eventually losing to the Portland TImbers. To say this was unexpected would be an understatement, the team held the joint-second longest playoff drought in league history and had finished in the Conference’s bottom two for the last three years. But aside from meeting Mickey Mouse, significant changes had come in 2020 that perhaps could have been a foreshadowing of the eventually 4th place finish and quarterfinal playoff exit, with Oscar Pareja at the forefront of much of it.
New coaches bring change, and their first impression on a club typically comes in the form of new transfers. The organization announced 11 incoming players over the course of the 2020 transfer windows, among them being players like Daryl Dike, Junior Urso, Pedro Gallese, and Andres Perea. The names will sound familiar, because the quartet of signings were all key players for Orlando in 2020, logging almost 6,000 minutes played throughout the 23 game campaign. The four, along with Chris Mueller and Nani, were a large part of the organization’s turnaround. Pedro Gallese and Andres Perea finally steadied the defense, being large factors in the side that dropped their goals conceded per game by 0.44 from the previous season. And the offense was revitalized, scoring the third highest amount of goals in the league thanks to an incredible breakout season from Daryl Dike, a massively underrated year from Chris Mueller, and accompanying heroics from Junior Urso and Nani.
Oscar Pareja’s men trotted out in an increasingly popular 4-2-3-1, a formation well-liked due to its flexibility in attack and rigid structure in defense. The box created by twin defensive midfielders and the two centerbacks, as well as said defensive midfielders easily being able to shift over to support the fullbacks when they’re isolated 1 on 1, makes the system a difficult one to break down. Jhegson Mendez and Oriol Rosell started for most of the year as the double pivots, with the young Andres Perea frequently coming on as a substitute, and the positive performances from the three of them helped Orlando find a midfield balance that had never quite been there for the club. Mendez and Rosell were both in the top 10% of MLS midfielders in completed passes per game in 2020, the duo acting as metronomes, keeping the ball moving smoothly helping Orlando control games. Not only did they aid in distribution, they were fantastic in defense, both also in the top 10% of tackles and tackles won per game, Mendez in particular standing alone in the top 1% of both statistics. Perea was no slouch either, playing in every game in the season either as a starter or off the bench, as a 19 year old, and provided similar defensive resilience and tempo setting. Perea’s efforts earned him a callup to the senior US national team in 2020, and while he has not returned to the USMNT since, his performances on the year earned him “promising MLS youngster” status.
Pareja’s men also thrived on dynamic play from its wingers in 2020, the tactical setup emphasizing 1v1 scenarios where said wingers could burn defenders off the dribble and create shots for themselves or others. Nani and Mueller were first and third respectively in the Orlando side in Shot Creating Actions in 2020, and were both above average in Shot Creating Actions caused by dribbles compared to other MLS wingers that year. The end result of this was goals, for the both of them and for SuperDraft signing Daryl Dike, who established himself as one of the league’s finest forwards before embarking on a trip to Europe and the USMNT. Oscar Pareja provided organization through his new signings and system, a consistent style of play that effectively repaired the issues that had plagued them for years and utilized his players strengths. However the ebb and flow of time and transfer markets has led this golden Orlando team to have to adjust, and not necessarily in a positive way.
The focus on individual performances worked when Pareja got the individual performances in 2020, but in 2021 the screws loosened. The first domino to fall was Daryl Dike, as he was expected to leave the club for greener pastures in Europe (he eventually got his move halfway through 2021), Orlando chose to replace him with experienced Brazilian striker Alexandre Pato, who promptly was injured 80 minutes into the season and played 36 more in the rest of it. Mueller’s influence also dropped in 2021, scoring only 3 times compared to his 10 the last season, before leaving to Hibernian in Scotland at the end of the year. The offensive output plummeted, as Orlando scored 1.47 goals per game in 2021 compared to the 1.74 in 2020. Defensively the squad also struggled, as Rosell fell out of favor with the management and Gallese’s heroics waned, the goals started flying in more and more, and Orlando started to look more like the Orlando of years past. Barely scraping into the playoffs ahead of the Red Bulls, Orlando fell at the first hurdle against a convincing Nashville SC.
In 2022, Orlando’s golden generation has been depleted even further, with Nani, Mueller, Dike, and Rosell all gone. Pareja remains, but the team’s stalwarts from 2020 are either gone or heavily out of form. The season has started brightly regardless, Orlando finding themselves 2nd in the East with an extra game played, and the goalscoring has been respectable, with Urso, Pato, and new signing Ercan Kara each netting twice so far. Defensively the team’s been alright, conceding only 7 times, but with a worrying 9.2 expected goals allowed. The squad has gotten the job done when they’ve had to, but a meek display in a 4-2 loss to LAFC as well as a strange loss to the not great FC Cincinnati show that the reign at the top may be short lived. The biggest move of the offseason for the Southern side was young Uruguayan winger Facundo Torres, signed for a reported fee of about $9 million to hopes of great potential. In light of the young, high upside signings the squad has made it seems that the front office has accepted 2022 as a transition year following the departure of many of their best players. For the Red Bulls, Orlando represents a tough test, with quality players still on the side, but a passable one considering the expectations placed on the young Harrison side. Orlando have been far from their 2020 best, and the Red Bulls can reasonably hope a win against a side that quite frankly, has little to offer in terms of tactical uniqueness or strength.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
The borrowed Englishman has had an eventful start to life in Harrison, arguably costing the team a game-tying goal in a cameo against Columbus, arguably causing a game-winning goal for his team in a cameo against New England, and putting a strong performance in his full debut against FC Dallas. He’s come as promised from Watford, a highly physical striker able to play with his back to goal, hold up the ball while teammates join the attack, and provide layoffs and service for the arriving runners. Most importantly, he got on the ball against FC Dallas, something Red Bulls strikers have struggled with for years as the unique tactical system especially the version brought by Gerhard Struber, can sometimes result in the isolation of strikers during matches. Fletcher’s early promise comes as a massive relief for a fanbase quickly tiring of current starter Patryk Klimala, who for reasons that may or may not be out of his control has struggled in front of goal and with the ball at his feet. The debate over Klimala’s effectiveness will rage on, but the starting job is far from locked down, and with Klimala starting the midweek Open Cup match against Hartford Athletic, the Pole could again be rested in favor of Fletcher. Fletcher will be looking to cement his challenge for the starting job, and against an Orlando defense that statistically has been lucky thus far, he’ll relish the opportunity to add goals to his strengths.
Longtime Peruvian starting goalkeeper Pedro Gallese has quickly become a stalwart figure between the posts for Orlando City since joining in 2019, providing many memorable performances and becoming renowned as one of the league’s better goalkeepers, earning a Goalkeeper of the Year nomination in 2020 and an All-Star selection in 2021. He has a penchant for spectacular saves and moments, and is a solid distributor. The South American has had a Carlos Coronel-like impact on Orlando City, and while statistically he is not that great, he provides leadership and organization to a club that lacked it for so long. Gallese is fully capable of producing spectacular individual performances, and Orlando will need his heroics against a Red Bulls offense that hasn’t quite taken off yet, but statistically promises to be one of the best in the league.
Alexandre Pato has been an enigma for much of his career, but like many South Americans of his age, he seems to have found a home in Orlando. After breaking out in spectacular style as a teenager in his native Brazil, Pato joined an AC Milan side in its peak. Pato thrived in Italy in his first few years, but recurring injuries plagued him and destroyed what was once a highly promising career. From AC Milan he returned to Brazil, and bounced around the globe from there, going to England, Spain, China, and back to Brazil. Pato’s injury record and subsequent lack of confidence and form led him to be a disappointment wherever he went, and after his season-ending injury 80 minutes into his Orlando City career it seemed poised for the same story to continue. But Orlando gave him a second chance and resigned him in 2022 after his original one-year deal expired. This season, the failed young talent has returned with a vengeance, starting 6 of Orlando’s 8 matches, netting twice, and assisting twice. He’s been active, taking more shots per game than 88% of MLS strikers and being clinical with the shots he’s had, hitting the target with roughly half his attempts. Not only has he been back to his scoring best, he’s been on a creative level that he hasn’t reached since his early days back in Italy, being able to give up the ball when necessary for his teammates to feast on. Against a stiff Red Bulls defense, Orlando will be hoping that the good times continue, because at his best Pato can be one of the finest strikers in the league.
Orlando are a plucky side that will cause many headaches for the Red Bulls, but a lack of form in difficult games should be enough for the Red Bulls to capitalize on for a 1-0 win.