Three postseasons and a trophy.
A GIF is worth a thousand words:
I’m not going to spend a lot of time in this post-mortem writing about how aesthetically pleasing, or fun or innovative Orlando City were this year – because they really, really weren’t – but that doesn’t mean that this year was a failure. Because folks, Orlando City won their first trophy as an MLS club this past summer when they took home the 2022 US Open Cup title in emphatic fashion, dominating both in the semifinals and the final.
They did it despite having one of the shorter benches in the league, and despite an offseason overhaul that really didn’t add too much at the top end, either. And yet Oscar Pareja threaded the needle.
I don’t know if this was his best single-season coaching job, but it’s probably in the top three. And while there are certain corners of Orlando’s fandom clamoring for more and better (an understandable sentiment in many ways), I think the vast, vast majority remembers where this club was at the end of the 2019 season.
They’ve come a long way since then. After all, who thought Orlando fans would ever feel disappointed at a playoff appearance?
Formation and Tactics
Almost always a 4-2-3-1, and one that varied between a mid and low block. They were middling in basically everything – the fact they were dead even at 50% possession on the year tells a pretty decent story.
The one true wrinkle Pareja threw in there came mid-season, after an injury to Alexandre Pato (who’d been starting as a No. 10) clipped the roster down to about 14 useable players. Instead of pushing Mauricio Pereyra back up into the playmaker role, he kept Pereyra deep alongside Cesar Araujo as a No. 8, slid Junior Urso in as a kind of a false 10, and brought on another winger.
Playing Pereyra deeper gave the Lions more craft and guile earlier in the build-up, which allowed them to make better use of their wingers (it’s no surprise Facu Torres really started to come alive around the time this switch was made), while pushing Urso higher gave the Lions more defense at the tip of the spear.
Because of that (and the addition of winger Ivan Angulo), it became more difficult to build meaningful sequences of possession against them. Not impossible, obviously, but “more difficult” is in and of itself a step forward.
That win over the Crew was a big one, especially coming, as it did, just days after a humiliation down in Fort Lauderdale, and at the tail end of a skid in which the Lions had lost four of five and looked like they’d come up just short of the playoffs for the first time under Pareja.
So it was a pretty huge win, and it came in dramatic fashion with Urso’s equalizer and Torres’s late winner from the spot.
But just qualifying for the playoffs – which is old hat now for this team – doesn’t come close to winning a trophy in front of the home fans:
Packed house, sentimental underdogs in town. Would the soccer gods punish Orlando?
Absolutely not. Instead Orlando were rewarded with a Man of the Match performance from Torres, their young star, and a memorable, game-changing performance from homegrown attacker Benji Michel, who should drink for free in Central Florida for the rest of his days.
Most of the rest of the year, I guess? There was never any moment where the vibes were particularly good, so there’s a lot to choose from. Certainly, if they hadn’t waxed Columbus on Decision Day, then that 4-1 loss at Inter the Wednesday before would be showing up in this space.
But that’s not how it worked out. So I think I’ll just point to the one-win-in-eight stretch from late June to early August as the absolute low point of the season.
Even that, though, had the happiness of a 1-0 win over their SoFla rivals in the midst of it.
I keep trying to tell you how weirdly nondescript this Orlando season was.
I think the closest I can get to calling anyone a revelation is Araujo, who immediately slotted in as the full-time d-mid and was probably one of the 10 best in the league at that spot.
It’s a big ask for any player to adjust to a new league in a new country. Asking a kid to do it, and to do so at the toughest spot on the field (or maybe second-toughest these days, behind CB) while everything was in constant flux around him? Araujo aced his test. He’s a long-term building block for a winning team who has Best XI potential (or would, if d-mids ever made Best XI).
Torres could maybe go here, but I don’t think 9g/10a from a DP hyped up as one of the best young players in South America is revelatory. I think that was in line with expectations.
However, just 11g/3a from DP center forward Ercan Kara was not. It wasn’t a disastrous season, mind you – that’s not a bad return, especially coming in fewer than 1,800 minutes.
But the fact he played so few minutes, and the fact he was such a defensive liability (he works, but he just lacks the gear necessary to close down space), and the fact Orlando were so often so much better in big games when Michel or someone else was out there as the No. 9… that’s a pretty big bummer from the highest-paid guy on the team.
Another big bummer: none of the holdover young players developed at all. Jhegson Mendez was shipped out, as was Silvester van der Water, and Joao Moutinho’s likely next. Andres Perea barely played, and the same goes for Michael Halliday and Tommy Williams.
That lack of development is why Orlando lacked a bench. Which was, in turn, why they just about ran out of gas come September.
Five Players to Build Around
- Torres (RW): As I said, his 9g/10a were in line with expectations in Year 1. In Year 2, could we see 12g/15a? He’s got that in him.
- Araujo (DM): This should end up in one of two ways: They have their Diego Chara to build around for a decade (or more), or they sell him for lots of money in the next couple of years.
- Robin Jansson (CB): His late-season injury was a big, big reason for Orlando’s late-season slide. One of the best in the league.
- Antonio Carlos (CB): Not as dynamic as Jansson, but mostly reliable and very good defending in his box, which this team did a lot of.
- Urso (CM/RM): Still essential no matter where he is on the pitch.
Can they get out of the Kara deal and go in a different direction for a DP No. 9? If so, that’ll be a massive help just from the jump.
After that, it’s just a matter of adding depth and talent literally everywhere. Some of that’s already on its way (we’ll see how healthy Gaston Gonzalez is at the start of camp), but some of it might come down to figuring out how to make the loans of Angulo and Wilder Cartagena, both of whom were very useful, permanent.
The other thing – maybe the first thing – is to figure out what the future holds for Pareja. He’s only stayed longer than three years at one of his prior stops (FC Dallas), and there were definitely some dodged questions at various points this year when it came to his future in Florida.
If that’s really up in the air, then everything else takes a back seat.