With "world-class" Alexandre Pato, Orlando City seek another gear at Columbus Crew

Orlando City SC forward Alexandre Pato's 2021 MLS season fell short of expectations, mainly thanks to an early-season knee injury. The former Brazilian international played in just five matches, notching a hair over 100 minutes without recording a goal or assist.

But round two for the 32-year-old ex-AC Milan star is off to a much-improved start, with two goals and two assists through the Lions’ first seven games. In fact, he’s their joint-leading scorer alongside midfielder Junior Urso.

Seeing this improved form, head coach Oscar Pareja said before a Saturday evening visit to the Columbus Crew (7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+) that Pato's leveled up.

“I think he started on the right foot with being connected with his teammates on the training [ground] and the effort and the connectivity we all aim to have in the team,” Pareja said. “His talent is there, his experience is there and I think he has a lot to contribute to the team.

“The second aspect is so far it has worked that we have been rotating him and giving him confidence, but at the same time giving him time to recover well, to get the energy back and select in what game he can be part of and help us and which one is another player. I think that will be really useful for us until he gets the rhythm he will get.”

Pato’s improved 2022 is a key element in Orlando’s new-look attack, which includes two new Designated Players in Uruguayan international winger Facundo Torres and Austrian international striker Ercan Kara. They respectively joined from Peñarol and Rapid Vienna in their home countries, making No. 10 Mauricio Pereyra their DP mainstay after he, just like Pato, re-signed during the offseason.

Their collective efforts leave Orlando figuring out final-third life after US men’s national team striker Daryl Dike and wingers Nani and Chris Mueller all departed this winter. Dike’s now at English Championship side West Brom after a club-record transfer, while Nani (to Serie A’s Venezia) and Mueller (to Scotland’s Hibernian) both exited on free moves.

But is that a net-negative loss? Not in Crew head coach Caleb Porter’s opinion.

“They’re more talented than they were last year,” Porter said. “That’s the most talented front four that we’ve faced and I think it’s the most talented front four that I think Oscar’s had.

“They have a true No. 9 [in] Kara who’s 6-foot-4, strong, nice feet, good hold-up player. Pato’s a world-class player, so you lose Mueller but you get Pato back who was injured last year and is a world-class player. In the box, he’s got as much quality as anyone in our league in and around the goal. Torres is a very nice payer, really direct, left-footed, provides a lot of width. And Pereyra’s really come into his own, really smart, good rhythm player, likes to overload wide, works in the half-spaces.”

With that praise, Porter hints at a belief that Orlando’s attack will come good in due time. Their 65 chances generated are the fourth-most league-wide, per Opta, making it a case of being more clinical.

With Pato and his teammates forming “new connections,” Pareja stressed that consistent breakthrough is coming.

“Patience with us is the road right now,” Pareja said. “With them, it’s just [getting] back the confidence, let our players, our offensive players who are normally in the box, that they get that momentum of scoring. We really need it.”