ORLANDO, Fla. – The addition of one player doesn’t usually mean a major shift in playing style for any team, but Orlando City SC could be the exception to the rule following Antonio Nocerino’s feted touchdown in Central Florida on Friday.
The keenly-awaited arrival of the versatile Italian midfielder has been held up first by a Discovery Rights wrangle with DC United and then with visa paperwork in Milan, where it took almost two weeks to get the necessary stamp in his passport.
But his eventual appearance at Orlando International Airport promises to mark a distinct evolution in the way the Lions play, with head coach Adrian Heath experimenting with different systems in their final two preseason games, including the notable 6-1 win over Brazilians Esporte Clube Bahia last Saturday.
In signing a player who can fill any midfield role across the full width and length of the field, Heath has admitted his favored 4-2-3-1 system could quickly become a thing of the past.
Not only that, Nocerino’s skill set gives him opportunities to deploy existing players in different ways, setting out a fast-moving five-man unit that can adapt on the fly and suddenly morph from one formation to another with great dexterity.
The 30-year-old Italian has been ruled out of any participation in Sunday’s big season opener against Real Salt Lake (2 pm ET; MLS LIVE) as he will have barely had time to take his medical examination and be introduced to his new teammates, but the lineup Heath sends out for another packed Citrus Bowl occasion will almost certainly look as if Nocerino is already in place.
In the absence of Kaká’s former AC Milan teammate, Pedro Ribeiro has staked an early claim to a new role in a defensive midfield trio that will start out as a 4-3-2-1 but can switch to 4-2-3-1 at any moment, or even 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 as Ribeiro, Kevin Molino and Kaká reposition in defense and attack.
Livewire winger Carlos Rivas is likely to be confined to the bench, at least initially, to make way for Nocerino, but the Colombian could become an even more valuable weapon in the last half-hour of games, either to stretch tiring defenses or as the striker to take some of the load off Cyle Larin. It is a flexibility Heath is quick to acknowledge, and it all stems from the Italian’s acquisition.
“We have to integrate him as fast as possible,” said the head coach. “There are a lot of things we can do with him in the side. For example, do we play three in the center rather than two? We have certainly been looking at that in pre-season and we can make ourselves less predictable with this change, especially on the road.
“Pedro has been very good in the role so far – in fact, he was probably the best player on the pitch against Bahia – and we also have Cristian Higuita to come back from his one-game suspension, so we have plenty of depth at this position.”
Nocerino is firmly penciled in as a starter once the coaching staff deem he is fully fit, which leaves Ribeiro, Higuita, Darwin Ceren and a highly-motivated Servando Carrasco battling for the two places alongside him, but Heath is convinced the competition can only be good for the team.
“We wanted starting-quality competition in every position and I think we have that in midfield now,” he insisted. “It was one of the areas where we were a little short last season, but we now have the necessary depth and quality.
“We have added somebody [Nocerino] who will play in the starting 11 and unquestionably make us better and it is another experienced player for us. He is used to playing under pressure; he has played for Italy and has played in one of the most demanding leagues in the world. This is not going to be a problem for him.”
How much of an impact Nocerino makes in the first month of the campaign will depend on his physical state once he joins full training in the build-up to next Friday’s home game with Chicago, but Heath is sure it won’t take long.
“I have been speaking to him regularly,” he added. “He has continued to train with Milan and he thinks he is in very good condition. The chances are he is not far away from being match-fit, so we should be able to get him in the starting line-up sooner rather than later.”
Even without Nocerino in the starting 11, Heath is sure his team will be ready to go in what should be a testing encounter against a revitalized Salt Lake team on Sunday afternoon.
“We’re at that stage where we want to get playing,” he said. “For some of them it’s been eight, nine weeks of training, so they’re ready to go now. There is a good atmosphere within the group and I’m really pleased where we’re at.”
The one blow for Orlando is the hamstring injury in training this week to David Mateos, who has commanded one of the two centerback roles in pre-season. Heath must decide between Aurelien Collin and young tyro Tommy Redding as Seb Hines’ partner in defense.
Honduran striker Bryan Rochez, who made a big impact as a sub late last year, scoring three goals in four appearances off the bench, is out for at least another week as he recovers from a thigh injury, leaving Larin as the man most responsible for grabbing the goals after his rookie-record 17 in 2015.
“I fully expect Cyle to score 20 this season,” Heath insisted prior to training on Friday. “I think he is certainly capable of doing it and I am confident that a goalscorer like him will keep scoring.
“He is bigger, stronger and quicker than last year and his understanding of the league is better. When you look at the chances he had last year, he might have had closer to 30, so I don’t think it’s unrealistic to see him scoring 20 this time.”