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Orlando City broke its two-game losing skid with a 1-1 draw in Toronto on Saturday night, coming back from a second-half deficit to equalize the game with a penalty kick from captain Luis Nani. Here are three things we learned from the match:
Smith handles top assignments
Fullback Kyle Smith is the only defensive player to play every single match of the 2021 season for the Lions, and his ability to handle top assignments is becoming a key to the team’s backline.
On Saturday, the defender’s work to blanket explosive midfielder Yeferson Soteldo helped the Lions to limit Toronto’s offense.
Smith’s plan for the assignment was simple — stay close enough to put a body on Soteldo any time he received the ball. Smith knew the midfielder tends to juke out defenders with a fake cross and a cut into the box, so he countered this tactic by bumping Soteldo and hedging him toward the end line every time he feinted a pass.
Although he doesn’t provide the same offensive spark as Ruan, Smith has become competitive defensively with any of the top fullbacks in the league. He won nearly 45% of his duels on Saturday and leads the league in tackles (30), with an ability to shift to the left or right side of the pitch when needed.
While previously preferred starters Ruan and João Moutinho both are on the mend from season-long injuries, Smith will be tough to oust from the starting lineup even when both are healthy.
“Every day he just sends the message how important he is for this club and this group,” coach Oscar Pareja said. “He is a player who adapts to any kind of role that you toss at him. Today was a difficult job on marking one of the more skillful guys in Major League Soccer ... and I think Kyle did a good job.”
Pereyra searching for creative spark
With one goal and four assists in 11 appearances, Mauricio Pereyra still has contributed to the team’s offense this year. But the Lions need their designated player to be a game-changer, not just a role player, and Saturday’s match reflected the difference.
Pareja noted that Pereyra’s assignment against Toronto was defensive as well as offensive. The midfielder was expected to mark Michael Bradley and drag him out of position on both ends of the pitch, which opened up different channels and minimized one of the important glue players for the Reds.
But Pereyra didn’t provide the same offensive spark going forward. When the midfielder is healthy and on his top game, he’s a threat to set up a goal at any given moment, breaking back lines in two with elusive passes.
For Pareja, the goal for the next third of the season is to bring this quality back out of Pereyra.
“Today, I saw him actually more clear with the ball,” Pareja said. “The actions that he got on the ball just shows the character that he brings to the team. I know Mauricio is going to keep finding his best out there soon because we need him, and he knows that.”
Lions’ adaptability necessary
Pareja has voiced some frustration with his own game-planning after several matches this season, but Saturday’s game showcased a true adaptability for the Lions.
When Sebas Méndez exited the match in the 14th minute with an apparent ankle injury, the game changed for the Lions. Andrés Perea had to enter the match, burning one of the Lions’ substitutions. But Perea slotted smoothly into the position, ultimately serving as a comfortable replacement — 91% passing, five interceptions, 50% of duels won — in the defensive midfield despite not being game-planned into the position.
The Lions coaching staff showed similar flexibility at the half when Pareja and assistant coach Josema Bazan decided to remove Tesho Akindele for Chris Mueller.
The pair felt the switch would give the Lions more speed and fluidity at the top of their formation, improving their diagonal runs to break through into more dangerous positions.
Mueller and Michel provided a different type of chemistry, nearly connecting for a handful of scoring plays.
In turn, Michel once again moved from a winger position to the central forward spot, melding the two roles he was expected to play in 2020 and 2019, respectively.
At this point in the season, this is the most important aspect for the Lions to succeed — being able to change on the fly.
Injuries continue to hound the team, and players could come and go in the coming months for international breaks and potential transfers. But if Orlando City can continue to make in-game adjustments with this level of efficacy, the team could avoid the stagnancy that has previously hindered the team at midseason.