Orlando City SC: Time to move to a back four

ORLANDO, FL - APRIL 06: Orlando City forward Nani (17) celebrates after scoring his first goal with Orlando City during the soccer match between the Colorado Rapids and the Orlando City Lions on April 6, 2019, at Orlando City Stadium in Orlando FL. (Photo by Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FL - APRIL 06: Orlando City forward Nani (17) celebrates after scoring his first goal with Orlando City during the soccer match between the Colorado Rapids and the Orlando City Lions on April 6, 2019, at Orlando City Stadium in Orlando FL. (Photo by Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

Orlando City SC prevailed with a late victory over the Colorado Rapids. Yet, it still has reason to be concerned over the defensive struggles. It might be time to move to a back four.

Orlando City SC prevailed with a late victory over the Colorado Rapids on Saturday evening. For the better part of the match, Colorado were the superior team. And yet, Orlando capitalized on the opportunities that came their way. James O’Connor was forced to alter his tactics after Carlos Ascues’ injury in the 30th minute. When Oriol Rosell entered the match, Orlando utilized a back-four formation with Lamine Sane and Robin Jansson as the central defenders. The lack of notable change in the handling of the Rapids’ attack, accompanied by Orlando’s ability to remain threatening in the final third, strongly suggests the need for O’Connor to abandon his aspirations for three at the back.

The back-three formation has been a trend in soccer over the past few years. And for good reason. The formation offers teams the capability to be not only resolute in defense, but also create opportunities for wing-backs to push forward in attack. The three central defenders’ goal is to stymie a striker’s propensity to break down the backline and instigate attacks from deep by stepping up into the midfield.

Still, there are considerable flaws with the system. Opponents can exploit the wide areas to create easy crosses or dribbles into the box. Defenders must know when to cover the spaces out wide as defensive midfielders drop in to cover the middle of the pitch. Simply stated, a team needs the right players to get the best out of a back-three-based shape. Unfortunately, Orlando does not have such players.

Orlando City SC has given up 11 goals through six matches this season. It is not the worst record in MLS, but it certainly does not put them among the best. Far too often, Orlando has been opened up by the opposition and left to claw their way back into a match.

Colorado’s Cole Bassett took advantage of the right side on two occasions that resulted in goals last weekend. In each instance, Bassett was wide open with the nearest Orlando player almost ten yards away. Bassett’s assist came from an easy cross to Nicolas Mezquida with little to no pressure, while Mezquida was then given little trouble with his header.

MLS, James O'Connor, Orlando City
KANSAS CITY, KS – SEPTEMBER 08: Orlando City head coach James O’Connor in the first half of an MLS match between Orlando City SC and Sporting Kansas City on September 8, 2018 at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, KS. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

Bassett’s goal was the result of an easy one-on-one against Jansson, in which he curled a shot with his left foot. João Moutinho, who would normally have been responsible for tracking Bassett’s run, decided to attempt to close down Benny Feilhaber further up the pitch. His positioning was then exploited.

Orlando City SC won the match, but they did so with a formidable offense. Chris Mueller again came on as a ‘super-sub’ and drastically altered the energy of the match. Nani was finally able to open his scoring record for Orlando and showed the potency of the collective unit.

The wing-back players were also quite impressive in attack. Both Moutinho and Ruan again made threatening runs out wide. Moutinho crossed a perfectly weighted ball leading to Nani’s opening goal to tie the match up in the 32nd minute. But, and this is crucial, for all of the attacking threat, the defense remains a concerning liability.

The inevitable collapse of OCSC’s defense was seen just last season. The Lions got off to a solid start to the 2018 campaign under then manager, Jason Kreis. However, when the goals dried up for the offense, they kept pouring in for the opposition at the other end. The same issue will eventually rear its ugly head again this season if O’Connor cannot straighten out the backline.

Kei Kamara was thoroughly in charge of the Orlando defense in the opening minutes of the match. For a formation that is known for its ability to render the lone striker useless, Kamara claimed his first goal with ease, while Jansson and Sane failed to clear a relatively simple cross. The two men were attempting to cover Kamara, yet the striker easily notched his eighth career goal against Orlando City SC.

The Lions have clearly been training with a focus on the back-three formation, as seen when Ascues was forced off through injury. When Rosell was subbed on, the formation took on the look of a four-man backline. But Ruan and Moutinho continued to play as if they had an extra central defender assisting with covering the opposition, even though they didn’t.

The two wing-backs could hardly be at fault in this instance. Each player was influential in moving the ball forward in attack and have only been with the club for six regular season matches. But it was clear that they naturally tended towards a wing-back role, rather than a more traditional full-back one.

Orlando City took the lead in the 33rd minute, but up until the end of the match, they continued to play with little regard for their defensive duties. They came out flat in the second half and paid the price. Two goals by Colorado in the 61st and 71st minute put them on the back foot, ultimately demanding yet another comeback performance.

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Quite frankly, O’Connor has created a very one-dimensional side. There was an incessant inability to slow the game down. The match was constantly wide open, which benefited the Rapids’ relentless attacking pressure. Even when Colorado were losing, it looked like an equalizer would eventually come.

Orlando has been down in every match this season, except for the impressive 1-0 victory over the New York Red Bulls. And that, not coincidentally, is the only match they have kept a clean sheet in. That statistic is not a recipe for success.

The current formation is preventing Chris Mueller, who has arguably been Orlando’s best player this season, from finding a place in the starting eleven. Dom Dwyer, Nani, and Sacha Kljestan need to start every match. Tesho Akindele has also proven himself as a threat alongside Dwyer. The only way to thereby squeeze Mueller into the starting XI is to move to a formation that accentuates his talents. This could come from a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation, but it is difficult to fit him into a team with three center-backs. However O’Connor chooses to do it, Mueller should not continue to be a late-game substitution that gets the Lions back into a match.

There is no denying that Orlando City SC is flush with quality in attack, but if the players hope to reach their first-ever postseason, the defense will need to get in order. O’Connor does not need to purchase more defenders. He should instead shift the focus of the team and abandon the back three. He does not have the players that can properly implement the system.

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The only short-term solution available to O’Connor is to implement a back four that allows for the occasional run by Moutinho or Ruan and does not leave the defense bereft of cover. It may take a few games to work out the growing pains, but it will go a long way to help the club prevent the constant capitulations restricting their success.