Through four weeks, Orlando City's defense is one of the league's elite. The Lions conceded just twice and have a league-high three clean sheets. The underlying statistics are equally impressive, with the Lions fourth-best in the league in expected goals allowed.
Defense in soccer is a collective effort, relying on the efforts of all eleven players to snuff out chances, but standouts emerge, and Orlando's standout, by far, has been Brazilian center back Antonio Carlos.
For the second-consecutive season, Antonio Carlos played dominant football to start the campaign. He anchors the Orlando defense and cleans up every loose ball into the box. The former Palmeiras defender is third in MLS in clearances and is aerially dominant.
Against the Los Angeles Galaxy, Antonio Carlos had 14 clearances and snuffed out nearly every Galaxy chance in the second half.
These are the types of performances Orlando City needs and expects from the 29-year-old Brazilian. Antonio Carlos among the highest-paid center backs in MLS, and that level of investment means high expectations.
More often than not, Antonio Carlos is worth every penny. His passion and energy are infections and his ability defensively and with the ball make him the bedrock of Orlando's defense. When he plays like is now, AC is a Best XI center back. At his best, his impact is similar to the likes of Walker Zimmerman, Aaron Long and Yeimar.
The first four weeks of the season is another reminder of what Antonio Carlos can provide to the Lions at his best. But now that DPOY production needs to be seen over the course of a full MLS season.
AC started 2021 at a Best XI caliber, but both he and the entire Orlando defense fell off a cliff down the stretch. This season needs to be a more complete year from the defense, especially as the forward line figures itself out with all the new faces.
For Orlando City to compete for silverware, it needs an elite defense. That's the way the team is built, with a strong backline and spine to anchor the defense and provide a strong foundation for special offensive players to build off of. At the center of all of it is Antonio Carlos, and if he can play like he has through four weeks, there's no ceiling to Orlando's performance this season.