KISSIMMEE, Fla. — As a left back, João Moutinho will face plenty of competition to see the pitch this season. But after a 2019 season plagued with injury, the key to earning playing time will be staying healthy.
Moutinho showed flashes of potential throughout the 2019 season. He had been traded from LAFC, who selected him No. 1 overall in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft, and at the age of 21 at the time he was vaunted as one of the top young defensive prospects in the league.
But his first season in Orlando was marred by a series of injuries. The defender first battled a hamstring injury, then suffered a quad injury. He returned for the team’s final road game of the season in Cincinnati, only to exit 14 minutes into action with a “grade 2” calf injury that shut him down for the rest of the season.
The streak of injuries left Moutinho feeling out of rhythm in the second half of the season. After starting 11 of the first 15 games of the season, the defender saw the field only four more times following his initial injury at the start of June.
Determined to prevent injuries in the 2020 season, Moutinho stayed in Orlando for most of the offseason to focus on injury rehabilitation and strength training.
“Obviously, it’s something that no athlete wants to go through,” Moutinho said. “Unfortunately, it happened to me last year… I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t [affect] my confidence, but you gotta push through it.”
Outside of injury prevention, the young defender hopes to improve his game this season, specifically focusing on increasing his reaction to the ball and transitioning back to defense more quickly. That improvement will be necessary as Moutinho battles for playing time under a new coach.
Although Moutinho secured the starting left back position at the start of last season, rookie Kamal Miller stepped up into his place when he was sidelined with injury. By the end of the season, Miller was earning call-ups to the Canadian national team, and he will continue to jockey with Moutinho for the starting position this season.
Under new coach Óscar Pareja, Moutinho said the team doesn’t expect to stick to one formation, which means players must also show they can excel at more than one position. Although this pushes him out of his comfort zone, Moutinho believes the competitive nature of the season will help him improve.
“There are no guaranteed spots on this team,” Moutinho said. “You have to prove yourself every day and I think that’s a good thing. I’m thinking game by game, to be honest, because you have to keep proving yourself to the coaches and to the team.”
Players embrace shared language
With the addition of Urso and defender Antônio Carlos this season, the Orlando City roster now tallies six Portuguese speakers in total. Although those players come from different cities and countries — from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Amadora, Portugal — but they’ve found commonality among one another.
During preseason camp in Cancún, the group came together by playing Brazilian funk music on a set of portable speakers. They carried those speakers with them from their room to the beach to the pharmacy in the hotel lobby, blasting their favorite songs and singing along.
It was only a small aspect of a camp full of three-a-day training sessions, but Urso said it helped the small group feel close after only weeks together as a team.
“You can always connect at a deeper level with the guys who speak your mother tongue,” Moutinho said. “It’s always good to be in this type of environment, where everybody is feeling good and relaxed. I think when that’s the case, we can all do our best out in the field.”
That chemistry already started to pay off in the preseason, when Moutinho assisted Urso in the team’s match against the Tampa Bay Rowdies last week.
The goal was something Moutinho believes fans will see plenty of this season — the outside back sent a cross across the face of the goal, where Urso sent it home with the crown of his head.
“We’ve had that connection already from the start,” Moutinho said. “He likes to go in the box for crosses and obviously he’s a big guy, so when I have the ball in those positions, I try to whip the ball in and hopefully it’ll be there.”
That Brazilian soccer connection extends beyond just the Orlando City roster. Urso said he is excited to see Brazilian stars Marta and Camila play this season for the Pride.
Although he hasn’t had the chance to meet the two players yet, Urso said he followed their careers and supports both sides of the game.
“I would love to meet them,” Urso said. “I love to follow soccer — men’s, women’s, it doesn’t matter. If you have a Brazilian playing, I’m watching. I’m looking forward to watching them play here.”