2022 was Orlando City’s best-ever season for one reason: they won the US Open Cup. That was their first piece of hardware as an MLS team, and it redeemed an otherwise pretty frustrating and forgettable year.
2023 was Orlando City’s best-ever season. Period. Full stop.
Oscar Pareja’s side set a single-season team record for points, wins and goal differential, and tied the single-season team record for goals scored. They qualified for the Concacaf Champions Cup by virtue of having the second-best regular-season record. They put in a memorable performance in Leagues Cup against Lionel Messi and Inter Miami, and they put in a memorable performance in the Concacaf Champions League against André-Pierre Gignac and Tigres.
They saw new left back Rafael Santos and new right back Dagur Dan Thorhallsson develop into two of the better options in the league at those two spots. They saw Robin Jansson put in a Defender of the Year-caliber season (he got my vote). They saw Duncan McGuire become one of the best young forwards in league history. Even when he struggled to find the game in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, he still produced moments like this:
And now here’s the count in four years under Pareja:
- Four straight playoff appearances (Orlando had none before him).
- US Open Cup title (Orlando had no trophies before him).
- Two straight Concacaf Champions League appearances (Orlando had none before him).
- Multiple young players developed and sold with more on the way.
There is, nonetheless, an element of frustration in all of this because of how the Lions went out in the playoffs against an open, attacking, free-wheeling Columbus Crew side. The element of frustration stems from the fact Orlando were none of those things in any of their three playoff matches this year.
In the first two games, against a Nashville side that is ultra-defensive and tries to kill any open-ness, that is understandable. Tip the cap to OCSC for a pair of 1-0 wins and a job well done.
But at home against a Crew side who can be got at defensively? Pareja’s penchant for having his team too tight and defensive in big games reared its head, and this one has to go down as a missed chance.
Nonetheless, the Orlando fans I’ve seen are mostly high on the season they just witnessed and hopeful for the future. They are right to be so.
Formation & Tactics
They almost always played out of a very basic 4-2-3-1, and there are only two distinguishing features of Pareja’s best sides:
- They don’t make mistakes. If you were going to beat this Orlando side, you were going to have to freaking earn it with relentless pressure or a moment (moments) of magic.
- They got the fullbacks up on both sides.
That second bullet point isn’t at all unusual for 4-2-3-1 teams, but for Orlando it was hugely important they find a right back who could add value endline to endline, because doing so meant Torres could scoot inside and become more of a goalscorer than a playmaker. And when he did that, this team really hit its stride.
I’m of half a mind to drop that Tigres CCL series here, because the Lions were this close to eliminating the best, most dominant team in the region. They were brave and stolid and unafraid to get a 0-0 out of El Volcan in the first leg, then didn’t collapse when giving up an early goal at home in the second leg.
They instead bided their time, held the 0-1, then poured it on starting with 15 minutes left. Ercan Kara found an equalizer in the 90th minute on a freaking bicycle kick, and then, on the last kick of the game, McGuire missed banging home the winner by about a yard.
Tigres advanced on away goals, but damn, I don’t think people appreciate how impressive that series was from Orlando.
The real answer, though, was the post-Leagues Cup run. With a spot in next year’s Concacaf Champions Cup (the successor to the CCL) on the line, the Lions blazed out of the gates and went 8W-1L-2D down the stretch with wins over – among others – Cincy, St. Louis, Nashville, New England and Columbus.
That Crew game, in particular, was a landmark result as Orlando came back from 3-1 down to win 4-3:
It felt like something special was going to happen.
As mentioned above, the Cardiac Cats were too defensive against the Crew in the playoffs. They were never able to get on the ball and thus never really made the game happen.
Their worst performance in months came at the worst possible time.
There is some understandable worry that McGuire significantly overperformed his underlying numbers:
I will point out, though, that he was in the 56th percentile for non-penalty expected goals, which is excellent for a young forward. Plus there’s how his nose for goal translated to games with the US U-23s (he scored on his debut) and against Tigres (it was a rebound off of his header that Kara biked home) and in Leagues Cup (two goals in 200 minutes).
Most importantly, though: McGuire did this despite Orlando lacking a true, top-end chance creator. If they add one of those this offseason – and they have a DP slot open – I don’t think 20 goals is out of reach next year.
All from a four-year college kid who fell to them with the sixth SuperDraft pick. Nobody saw this coming.
I don’t think there really was one from a player/personnel standpoint.
Maybe you could point to DP attacker Martín Ojeda, who came in last winter with big expectations and delivered from a boxscore perspective (6g/10a in regular-season play), but was never quite as influential as those numbers suggest. The Argentine started just 16 times in the regular season.
I’m picking nits, though. It really was a wonderful year for this team.
Five Players to Build Around
- McGuire (FW): It’s all there for him to be a 20-goal scorer, an Olympian and a $10 million transfer out after next season.
- Angulo (W): They need to bring him back full-time after a successful loan from Palmeiras. And then sharpen up his instincts around the box.
- Araújo (DM): One of the best young d-mids in the league.
- Jansson (CB): They must get him more rest next year as he hits his mid-30s, but he’s still the foundational piece.
- Thorhallsson (RB): Elite attacking instincts at RB.
I could’ve gone 15-deep with that “players to build around” list. Orlando are deep and good.
Here’s what they need to figure out to be deep and great:
- Do they sell Torres? He’s ostensibly their best player, but a productive, 23-year-old full Uruguay national team attacker will have a significant market in Europe. And Ojeda looks to me like a ready-made replacement, so if the price is right…
- Go out and get an elite No. 10 who can be the best player on the field multiple times in a long playoff run, and who can be a force magnifier for the other attackers.
Mauricio Pereyra is a very good player and they should keep him, but the delta between Pereyra and guys like Luciano Acosta, Thiago Almada, Carles Gil, Hany Mukhtar and Emanuel Reynoso is large. Adding someone in that tier – someone who can just grab a game like Saturday’s playoff exit and make it his own – should be their top offseason priority.
I say “should be” instead of “is” because Pareja is still, somehow, out of contract, and GM Luiz Muzz and technical director Ricardo Moreira are heading into option years. Orlando have been one of the best and most consistent teams in the league over the past four seasons. They have climbed out from under the doormat, won a trophy, hurdled over 60 points, and are set to make two straight continental appearances – and they did it all this year with the lowest payroll in the entire league. Think about it – Colorado spent more than Orlando did!
I know there are questions about Pareja in big games, but give this man a No. 10 – give him this generation’s version of Mauro Díaz – and I think those questions go away. I think this team cooks.
Bring them all back. Use that open DP slot to go extremely freaking huge on a 10. Add maybe one more young center back.