Spare a thought for Orlando City’s right back Ruan, who didn’t ask to defend Alexandru Mitriţă.
Imagineer yourself into Ruan’s boots for a minute. You’re a second-division Brazilian fullback who’s been strung out on four loans in the last three and a half years. You missed your one shot at the big time, a six-month stint in the Brasileirão last year during which you didn’t even sniff the field. So when your agent lands you a gig in an American city you’ve actually heard of (if only from your friends’ vacation photos) at a club you’ve maybe sort of heard of (if only from Kaká’s vacation photos), you take it. Your team yawns and lets you walk on a free.
Too bad nobody told you about Alexandru Mitriţă.
Transitions are the hardest part of soccer. Nothing in this game will make your brain sweat harder than trying to think a couple passes ahead while still maintaining a good position to recover the ball if it’s picked off, or timing the perfect tackle without losing track of who you’re going to lay it off to when you win it. This is especially true for fullbacks, who get asked to overlap in the attack without letting their winger get behind them on the counter. Not only are they tracking two phases at once, those responsibilities might be a lung-shredding forty-yard sprint apart.
So when Orlando’s new head of soccer ops Luiz Muzzi called Ruan “a dependable right back that has excellent speed and is dangerous in his transition on the offensive side of the ball,” you kind of had to wonder how much that dependability extends to the defensive side of the ball. Because any attacking danger a right back creates against NYCFC is nothing compared to the $8.5 million worth of danger he’s leaving behind.
Mitri’s going to be a handful for any fullback in the league. He’s fast as hell, he’s a devastating dribbler, and he’s studied his idol Messi’s habit of drifting out of the game in order to pop up in dangerous position. A defender who stays home might get burned but at least he’ll keep the danger in front of him. A defender who doesn’t is tempting fate.
Ruan doesn’t like to stay home.
Sure, it’s opening day. We’ve seen neither of these guys in a real live MLS game. There’s not much video to go on and even less data, few solid points of reference except the yawning gulf in their pricetags. It’s not even clear whether Ruan will be a traditional fullback or a wingback in a five-man line (or whether he’ll be healthy for this one at all). But that’s kind of the point. When Mitri lines up on the left wing against Orlando, he might be the only new name on NYCFC’s teamsheet. His job is to get creative in the final third, to find that offensive spark that flickered and dimmed toward the end of last season. It sounds weird to say about the third-most expensive signing in league history, but he’s almost a luxury.
Not so much with Ruan, who’s part of a drastic overhaul that saw James O’Connor bring in a whole new back line over the offseason. After how Orlando’s defense played last year, this is almost mathematically guaranteed to be a good idea in the long run. But this weekend Ruan’s all alone. He’s barely met the guys he’s supposed to restore order with. None of them speaks his language, which can make it awfully tricky to talk through when and how to hand off Mitri and make one of those heedless upfield runs that caught Orlando’s eye. Transitions are the hardest part—and that’s where NYCFC should win this game. ❧
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