Orlando City assistant coach CJ Brown summed up the competition for starting jobs in one word: “Fierce.”
“I think we’re going to have some really hard questions to answer come [Opening Day],” Brown said Monday after training. “It’s been very intense.”
For Brown, the more defensive-minded of City’s assistant coaches, it’s the competition along the back line that captures his attention, especially at outside back. Scott Sutter and Donny Toia were mainstays for City in 2017 - each started at least 29 games and played over 2,500 minutes - but their spots on the starting XI are anything but secure.
RJ Allen, acquired from New York City FC in December, has three MLS seasons under his belt, including one with Jason Kreis in 2015, and will push Sutter in a way he hardly was last season. Across the pitch at left back are pacey Brazilian PC and dazzling Libyan Mohamed El-Munir, each trying Toia for his job.
“On the ball he’s very special,” Brown said of El-Munir, who arrived at the tail end of training camp in Jacksonville. “He’s got good feet, he can dribble himself out of pressure, he can whip in a great cross, he’s a great passer out of the back and he likes to get up and down the flank.
“I don’t think we’ve seen much from him yet. He has so much more than what we’ve seen so far.”
And then there’s center back, which admittedly is still a work in progress (Brown says the team will sign a fourth center back “soon”). Alongside veteran Jonathan Spector are the new-and-improved José Aja and newly acquired Amro Tarek. Brown was especially complimentary of both, lauding Aja for his tireless work during the offseason and calling Tarek a “full package.”
“He’s got great size, great speed, is physical, communicates, and he can pass out of the back,” Brown said of Tarek. “Now it’s a matter of if he can do that day in and day out in MLS.”
Regardless of who gets the nod on Opening Day, that doesn’t mean the job is theirs. Acquiring deployable depth was a huge point of emphasis for the staff this offseason, and squad rotations figure to be a staple in 2018.
“We need enough guys to alternate quite a bit because the heat here is so strong, guys can’t be playing three, four games back to back,” Brown said. “You need special guys to come in and do that and then keep alternating, be fresh the whole year.”
But there are still 18 days until Opening Day, which leaves plenty of time for the guys to get to know each other on and off the pitch. What’s encouraging about this group, though, is that even as they continue to mesh, a culture of accountability is building.
“Everyone’s really putting the work in,” Sutter said. “If someone drops it’s quick for someone to get them back up and say, ‘Come on, work a bit harder, mate.’”
After a long winter of identifying areas needing improvement and finding players that fit the profile, the air of accountability offers the first sign that GM Niki Budalic and the coaching staff got it right.
“We’re happy with the guys that we’ve got so we think we accomplished the competition part of it,” Brown said. “I think we have the right recipe.”