The 2019 season is almost here!
As I sit down to write this, it feels way too early to predict a starting lineup for March 2, and I may come back later in the week and amend or edit some of my predictions based on any news that comes out of the Orlando City training pitch or offices. We are less than 168 hours away from kickoff—in fact we will be less than 144 hours from kickoff when this article posts. Some people would say that’s pretty gross, but I digress.
Last year I made the mistake of way too many others and put a lot of stock in our preseason results. Those turned out to be meaningless as the entire season fell off a cliff at the end of April and never recovered. This year I think there’s even less reason to put much stock in preseason results because we used so many Academy and OCB and SIMA Gold players in matches, and the biggest off-season acquisition is still awaiting full clearance to be able to play now that all preseason matches are over.
At the same time, sitting down and looking at how we scored and who was involved in scoring our goals during preseason gives me some clues as to who Coach James O’Connor may start next week. I think O’Connor doesn’t just pay lip service to rewarding good performance with playing time, so I am hedging my bets on the Starting XI for Orlando City on the side of players who were involved in scoring the 11 goals that Orlando City netted during the five preseason matches that it played against opposing MLS and USL teams. The scrimmage against UCF on Saturday, February 16 was closed, and I never heard or read if any score was announced from that match or who was involved in scoring if there was such an announcement.
Before I look forward, let me look back a little bit and recap the pre-season results for Orlando City SC in 2019:
Feb. 2 vs. NYRB: 1 - 1; Jhegson Sebastian Mendez scored for Orlando City on a PK
Feb. 6 vs. Louisville FC: 1 - 0; Joao Moutinho scored for Orlando City, assist from Tesho Akindele
Feb. 12 vs. Philadelphia Union: 1 - 4; Chris Mueller scored for Orlando City; assist from Tesho Akindele
Feb 16 vs. NYCFC: 2 - 1; 34’ Tesho Akindele scored for Orlando City with assist from Sacha Kljestan; 37’ Chris Mueller scored for Orlando City with assist from Tesho Akindele
Feb 20 vs. NE Revs: 6 - 2; 29’ Oriol Rosell scored for Orlando City on a PK; 32’ Brandon Bye (NE) scored an own goal for Orlando City by deflecting a cross from Oriol Rosell; 47’ Josue Colman scored for Orlando City with assist from Cameron Lindley; 49’ Santiago Patino scored for Orlando City with assist from Oriol Rosell; 50’ Cristian Higuita scored for Orlando City with assist from Josue Colman; 56’ Dillon Powers scored for Orlando City on a PK.
To break it down, Orlando City had goals scored from nine different players in five matches. There were also five players who registered assists in the five matches. The scoring and assist leaders from preseason include:
Goals: Chris Mueller - 2; eight players tied on 1 goal
Assists: Tesho Akindele - 3; Oriol Rosell - 2; three players tied on 1 assist
Involved: Tesho Akindele - 4; Oriol Rosell - 3; Chris Muller - 2; Josue Colman - 2; six players tied on 1
In the list above “involved” simply means they were recorded as part of the score, either contributing an assist or credited with the goal. To me it’s important to know who is consistently contributing to play. Of course, there’s also the contributions that don’t get recorded, and a couple of standout players in that regard have been Josue Colman (who seems to be coming into his own now) and Sacha Kljestan (who seems to be more fit, more focused, and more energetic). It’s important to also note who is NOT listed as being involved in any of the scoring—namely Dom Dwyer.
Dwyer and Nani
When Dwyer plays, it’s nearly impossible to not get caught up in the energy, effort, and intensity he brings to the pitch. But he’s starting to feel to me like he’s absorbed the worst qualities of former Orlando City players Cyle Larin and Kaka. From Larin he seems to have started to develop a bit of an unproductive attitude—his terse responses and blatant disdain for the media recently at an event in Los Angeles seemed petty, petulant, and unwarranted. And from Kaka he seems to have developed glass cannon syndrome. Dwyer started the 2018 season injured with a quad strain suffered in training camp, and he was unavailable for selection for most of the preseason matches in 2019 due to another quad injury. In pro sports potential is irrelevant—the only thing that counts are results. And if Dwyer is incapable of delivering results on the pitch then perhaps he doesn’t belong on the roster.
I’m putting Dom Dwyer squarely on my “prove me wrong” list for now, and he’s going to have to earn his way off of it by consistently turning in vintage Dom Dwyer performances, scoring goals, frustrating opponents, and inspiring his teammates to victory from the top of the formation. Let’s be honest—Dom Dwyer doesn’t need to worry about proving anything to me (and that goes for any critic that is not part of the OCSC locker room). And I also know that it will be very easy for Dwyer to put together two or three great games and I’ll be promoting him for league MVP. It just really annoys me that someone who is supposed to be the team’s best player seems to be unavailable for half the matches due to injury after injury. I got really tired of that nonsense from Kaka and I’m already feeling fatigue seeing it with Dwyer as well.
The biggest off-season acquisition for Orlando City was announced just a day too late to be a huge Valentine’s Day present for Orlando City fans, and that is, of course, the signing of Portuguese superstar Nani. Due to paperwork and details of the contract, Nani was unable to play in any of the preseason matches. Of course, it’s exciting to see how he can help the team and what our roster of young and less experienced players could learn from someone of Nani’s caliber, experience, and soccer IQ.
Players to Watch
I’m going to focus on NYCFC Players to Watch in this section, as my Starting XI prediction will pretty much sum up my feelings about which players to watch for the Lions. In the Orlando City Invitational match against NYCFC on February 16, Orlando City played a lot like we all hoped the team would play in 2018, and also displayed a few weaknesses.
The always dangerous Maxi Moralez proved that Orlando City can sometimes lose focus on one end of the pitch. During the first 30 minutes, it was the NYCFC defense that was doing the bulk of the defending, and UCF product Sean Johnson in NYCFC’s goal was making a lot of saves. But that allowed Orlando City’s defense to get a little lazy and a little sloppy, and Morales made them pay at the 30’ mark. His 30-yard shot that sailed into the goal on the fly was a thing of beauty, and it’s a reminder that there are good players in MLS that have to be marked and defended no matter where they are on the pitch. Then Jesus Medina appeared to score a second goal for the pigeons, but the AR’s offside flag was up and the score was not allowed. Medina is young and fast, and he will be someone to watch for sure next Saturday.
A familiar name to Orlando City fans has played a role in all five of the NYCFC preseason matches, with Tony Rocha logging minutes in each of them, although mainly as a second-half substitution. It’s clear, however, that the NYCFC coaching staff can appreciate what Rocha brings to the squad and they are finding reasons to put him into the game. I would not be surprised to see him on the pitch at all. Other players who have appeared in all five of NYCFC’s preseaon matches include Sebastien Ibeagha, Valentin Castellanos, Anton Tinnerholm, Ben Sweat, and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi. Like Rocha, however, Sweat and Tajouri-Shradi seem to play most often from the bench in those matches. I would not be surprised to see any of them making an appearance in the match on Saturday.
There is another player to watch—a newcomer to NYCFC who was signed after the team started training in preseason and has already scored two goals for them. That player is Romanian Alexandru Mitriță. The fact that NYCFC signs international players that make an immediate impact should be no surprise—they have history with players like David Villa and Andrea Pirlo, who helped NYCFC reach the playoffs very quickly as a young club. If there’s not an injury situation, I would be really shocked if we don’t see Mitriță, Moralez, and Medina all in the Starting XI next week, and we are likely to see Rocha figure in the game against his former club as well. Alexander Ring was named as the Captain by NYCFC during the camp, so he will probably be in the Starting XI also, barring injury.
Below I am pasting my Starting XI prediction for March 2. I’m not saying it’s the best lineup possible, but I think it is the lineup we will see for several reasons.
And on my bench I have the following Substitutes for next week:
Jhegson Sebastián Méndez
Given my earlier comments, you may think I am keeping Dom Dwyer out of the lineup from spite, but I am not—I simply am concerned that despite what has been reported he may not be ready to play next week. And while I am as excited as anyone to see Nani take the pitch for the Lions, we all have to remember that this is Orlando City, after all. Somehow the Keystone Kops running the front office just seem to find ways to screw up paperwork, fail to get the right form signed by the right officials, and bumble, fumble, and stumble their way through transactions in ways that make them take three times as long as they should. So I’m just counting on some kind of administrative screw-up that keeps Nani from being able to play in the first match.
As for the players I have on the pitch to start the match, I am basing a lot of that on who has been productive in preseason. Chris Mueller shows signs of being even better in his second year than he was as a rookie, and he and Tesho Akindele have developed an on-pitch chemistry that is exciting and dynamic. Sacha Kljestan seems revitalized and energized, and Josue Colman and Oriol Rosell also both looked improved. Rosell finally is starting to look like the solid contributor we hoped he would be, and Colman is starting to show more signs of his potential to develop into a truly special number 10 player.
I think Brian Rowe gets the nod in goal for his veteran leadership, and that’s a similar reason I have sprinkled Will Johnson, Lamine Sane, and Shane O’Neill into the back of the formation. Ruan and Acosta, along with Moutiho and Higuita and Ascues may give us a better chance at pushing the ball forward, but Orlando City’s first job in 2019 has to be to raise the standard of defending. We can’t allow three goals a match and pray that somehow we can find a way to score four goals to beat the other team.
Those are my thoughts as of today, at least. As the week goes on and we get reliable injury and availability updates from sources like Jordan Culver at the Orlando Sentinel and ProSoccerUSA.com, I may have to revisit this and update my thoughts on a Starting XI.
How closely does this align with your thoughts on who we will see next week? Do you think Coach O’Connor will play most of his veterans, or do you think he will have a younger lineup? Let me know in the comments below!