SANFORD, Fla. — If there’s anything Orlando City players on the backline have learned this season, it’s to listen to Lamine Sané.
With a rotating cast of outside backs who have constantly shifted due to injuries, stability in the Orlando City defense has come from the center — Sané and Robin Jansson. While both cement the centerback position, Sané is the vocal leader of the backline, shouting out instructions from the first to the last whistle. Sometimes, he’ll yell out a direction for an outside back that goes against their instincts, tugging them in the opposite direction.
For Kyle Smith and Shane O’Neill, who are still adjusting to the position, the key this season has come in trusting Sané knows what’s best.
“There’s a lot of little situations that a guy like him has seen so many times and you just have to trust his word,” O’Neill said. “If you look at the results, it’s been working. It’s a testament to him and his leadership.”
Sané wasn’t always the core of the Orlando City defense. He played intermittently throughout the 2018 season, struggling with knee and quad injuries that kept him benched for months at a time. By the end of that season, it was clear a change needed to be made to the Lions’ defense after the team allowed a league-worst 74 goals while finishing at the bottom of the Eastern Conference with a -31 goal differential.
Orlando City coach James O’Connor brought Sané to the forefront this season, moving to a four-back structure and implementing him alongside Jansson in March. The system stuck ever since, with the duo starting alongside one another in all but four MLS games this season since their first match together.
With the pair at the helm, the Lions have tied their club record for shutouts while cutting the team’s goal differential to zero this season. Sané’s relationship with Jansson has become a cornerstone of the backline’s improvement.
“He helps the player next to him,” Jansson said. “When I came in in the beginning, it was a comfort zone to have Lamine next to me. He helped me a lot and we had a good connection from the start.”
Towering at 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-4 respectively, Jansson and Sané bring much-needed muscle to the Orlando City defense. Sané’s length is often an asset in transition, with the defender stretching to make slide tackles that negate counter-attacks before they start.
Both players are also effective in the air, using their height to cut down corners and crosses. This physicality brings a consistency O’Connor says has continued to build as the season progressed.
The centerbacks are used to a European style of play — Jansson is a Swedish native, Sané is a French national who played in both Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga. That shared understanding has led to a level of trust that allows them to adjust to different situations.
“Sometimes we don’t have to talk at all to know what we need to do,” Sané said. “We have a good relation on the field and off the field. I think we complete each other.”
As he becomes more solid in his place as a starter, Sané has embraced the role of a team veteran, coaching young players like rookie Kamal Miller. He says that working with younger players is the first thing he thinks of during training, remembering his own experience as a rookie and stepping into his more vocal role.
And with the team now chasing a playoff spot in its final games of the season, Sané feels that something is different in Orlando this year.
“I think we are more [of] a team this season,” Sané said. “Of course, last season we had a good team, a good energy, but this season I can say that I can trust my teammates with my eyes closed. We fight for each other.”