Return of Orlando City central defenders offer promise for next head coach

BOYDS, Md. – Whoever assumes the reins as Orlando City SC’s new coach will be charged with forging a more consistent defense than the one that has conceded a league-high-tying 31 goals to date.

Just maybe, the successor will look at the personnel he inherits and take inspiration from interim boss Bobby Murphy’s approach in the U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 on Wednesday.

In Orlando’s first game since the dismissal of coach Jason Kreis late last week, Murphy fielded three center backs in a surprise 3-4-3 formation on Wednesday night against D.C. United, an evening that ended with the Lions triumphing on penalties following a 1-1 draw.

“We had to stop the bleeding in terms of giving up goals,” said Murphy of Orlando, which had conceded 17 times during the six-match losing skid that ultimately led to Kreis' departure. “And so that was the primary thing: How do we give ourselves a chance to win the game?”

So Murphy turned to his “three international center backs” in Jonathan Spector, Lamine Sane and Amro Tarek to field a squad that defended more like a 5-4-1.

It was a choice rarely available to Kreis this season, with injuries limiting former Premier League back Spector and Bundesliga veteran Sane to just one league start together.

If that trio are more often healthy through the remainder of the season, however, Wednesday’s approach may be an appealing one to Orlando’s next full-time boss.

“I don’t know that anyone else in the league has the caliber of center backs that we do,” said goalkeeper Earl Edwards Jr., who made five saves to help Orlando force penalties. “We’ve been leaking goals. To throw those guys in front of us seemed a little obvious at this point.”

Of course, such a shift would mean the loss of a starting spot elsewhere on the pitch, and some nuanced shifts in roles for regular starters.

Due partly to Wednesday’s shape shift and partly to Yoshi Yotun’s absence with Peru’s World Cup squad, Sacha Kljestan found himself playing a slightly deeper role than in his usual spot just behind the forwards.

“I’ve played five years there for Anderlecht, so it’s nothing new for me,” Kljestan said. “I actually came to Bobby and asked about me playing a little bit further back when Yoshi is gone because we kind of lack what Yoshi brings to the table when he plays in the middle of midfield. Bobby was already two steps ahead of me and had the lineup ready.”

That’s not to say it was a perfect evening, with United looking the more likely to break through toward the end of regulation, Luciano Acosta coming within a goal post of snagging a late winner.

And it wasn’t the jogo bonito associated with Orlando majority owner Flavio Augusto da Silva’s native Brazil, a background that may shape the ongoing coaching search.

“It wasn’t as pretty as what we’d like to be playing,” Edwards admitted. “And it’s one we had to grind out.”