Baer: How Orlando City's roster is taking shape after big moves

Justin Meram - Columbus Crew SC - Running

Playoffs or bust.

It seems like that’s the case for Orlando City SC in 2018, a club that has failed to reach the MLS Cup Playoffs in each of its first three MLS seasons.

The latest example of why that axiom is the case comes on Monday, with the club trading $1.05 million in total allocation money ($750,000 in Targeted Allocation Money, $300,000 in General Allocation Money) and an international roster slot to Columbus Crew SC for attacker Justin Meram.

That chunk of change is the same that Portland got for midfielder Darlington Nagbe last month, and $150,000 less than Philadelphia paid for David Accam. What the Lions are paying for is a player whose 38 goals and assists are the ninth-most in MLS over the past two seasons.

The Meram acquisition is just the latest in a string of big moves for Orlando, after they signed young Paraguayan attacker Josue Colman to a Designated Player contract and made a trade with the New York Red Bulls for midfielder Sacha Kljestan. Just how these pieces will fit alongside striker Dom Dwyer, with Cyle Larin still absent from preseason training, will be something head coach Jason Kreis will have to figure out over the next month.

How the pieces fit

Baer: How Orlando City's roster is taking shape after big moves -

Dom Dwyer | USA Today Sports Images

Kreis made his bones as a coach in MLS by playing a diamond midfield with Real Salt Lake. With the players who are now on his roster, playing that formation seems unlikely. As always when talking about formations, it’s important to note that soccer is more about how and where you apply pressure and where you set up your defensive line. You could see Kreis try and play Dwyer up top with Meram or Colman, with the other playing as the No. 10, and Kljestan as a player on the side of the diamond. But that doesn’t seem like the best use of anybody’s skills.

In reality, we will likely see Dwyer up top by himself flanked by Meram on the left and possibly Colman on the right. Kreis has said that Colman’s longterm position is as a No. 10, but with the addition of Kljestan, he will likely be viewed as a complementary piece on the wing this season.

Meram has turned into one of the most dangerous wing players in MLS, scoring a career-high 13 goals in 2017. His development has included the ability to take on and beat players in 1v1 positions, as evidenced by his 6.5 dribbles attempted per 90 minutes. That was the third-highest average among players who played at least 1,500 minutes and his 42.77 percent success rate was slightly above the league average among players who attempted at least 50 dribbles (42.06%).

Dribbles Completed per 90
Dribbles Attempted per 90
Dribble Success Rate

Kljestan has been one of the top chance creators and assist men in the league since coming back home. His chance creation and assist numbers may dip in Orlando, as the Lions are unlikely to press as high or win the ball back in the same positions as the Red Bulls did, but a 10-assist season should be in the offing.

That front four, if Colman can fit in on the right, should be one of the most formidable in MLS. The problems come when trying to decipher what will happen behind them.

Unanswered questions

Baer: How Orlando City's roster is taking shape after big moves -

Yoshi Yotun | USA Today Sports Images

Orlando were one of the worst defensive teams in MLS last season, conceding 58 goals. That total was tied for the sixth-most, and the additions in the attack aren’t exactly the answers to those issues.

Yoshi Yotun is locked in at one spot in the midfield, as the Peru international showed well in his 10 starts. The 27-year-old is likely headed to the World Cup in June with his cultured left foot, an asset that should come into use at Orlando City Stadium. Next to him is a question mark. Antonio Nocerino and Servando Carrasco have left central Florida, with Cristian Higuita and Will Johnson seemingly battling it out for the final spot in the midfield.

Yotun is more of a No. 8, meaning a pure defensive midfielder should be what would work best next to him. Neither Higuita or Johnson have shown that they can be that player.

Higuita is better when he’s allowed to chase down the ball rather than being a disciplined player in front of the backline. Johnson has built a career off playing as a box-to-box midfielder and a switch to the No. 6 would probably be misguided. Ultimately the answer could come from a player who is not currently on the roster.

Three of the four spots along the backline seem set, with Scott Sutter on the right, Donny Toia or new signing Mohamed El-Munir on the left and Jonathan Spector occupying one of the spots in the center.

Next to Spector seems to be Jose Aja. The 24-year-old Uruguayan has mostly struggled during his time here, but there are some signs of hope. While Orlando conceded 1.7 goals per game in his 15 starts last season, many of the issues cropped up when he played next to Tommy Redding or Leo Pereira.

In Aja’s 12 starts next to Spector, Orlando conceded a respectable average of 1.3 goals per game. In the three starts he did not start next to Spector, he had a hand in conceding nine goals.

Orlando fans would be uncomfortable heading into the 2018 season with Aja in the starting XI and general manager Niki Budalic probably feels the same way. Filling that potential hole and figuring out who will play next to Yotun (likely by using discretionary TAM) are two issues they will need to solve for all their attacking pieces to truly flourish.

UPDATE: Tuesday, 4:30 pm ET

Well right after this piece was published on Monday, freelance soccer reporter Paul Tenorio reported that Orlando were closing on getting that No. 6 to fit next to Yotun in the form of former Sporting KC midfielder Oriol Rosell. On Tuesday, the move was finalized with Orlando moving up in the allocation order and parting with $400,000 in Targeted Allocation Money to grab the 25-year-old.

Rosell was one of the top defensive midfielders in MLS during his one season as a full-time starter in Kansas City and helped lead Sporting to the 2013 MLS Cup. He has bounced around on loan since being transferred to Sporting CP but joins Orlando as the presumptive starter in the defensive midfield.

In addition to lacking a player to play the position, Rosell brings a particular skillset to the team in that he can control a match with his passing ability. He owns the record for most passes, passes completed and touches in a match since 2010, when he dominated a match against Montreal. That was not all that different from the rest of his 2013 season, as he led his team in usage rate.

This should be a player that the Lions can play through in position, as he helps connect the backline to the midfield. His relationship with Kljestan will be key in helping Kreis' team build from the back.