The Fire are looking to avoid a 26th straight league road game without a victory. A loss or draw against Orlando City SC would place them just one bad result short of equaling the all-time MLS record for consecutive futility away from home. Last season's remarkable 0-12-5 mark away from Toyota Park will be hard to top.
Martin Tomszak takes a look at what's in store on Friday night (6pm, UniMas).
What Are They All About? Orlando City SC
The setting was perfect. It was like getting ready for the prom. Your tux was ready, you rented the limo, you got the most expensive corsage, DJ Step had promised a killer playlist, you even got a table for two at the French bistro that you can’t really afford but hey, the night was going to be special. Then your date stood you up. Not only that, but she went with an Old Italian guy instead. Fire supporters felt a much deeper sense of loss after their heart wrenching defeat to NYCFC this past Sunday. Perhaps the Fire front office and the supporters built the match up too much and invested too much hope in a single 90 minute outing or perhaps the regular season just offers a much different reality than preseason. Either way, it wasn’t good enough and Chicago will look to get back on track against the East’s dark horse Orlando City on Friday.
Orlando is in their sophomore year and is looking to improve on an inaugural MLS season that exceeded most pundits’ expectations. Adrian Heath and company came within reach of a playoff spot, missing the post season by just five points. You can bet they won’t want to fall short two years in a row and they will see Friday’s match as an opportunity to build momentum. Expectations are high for both sides going into this clash and viewers will most likely be in for a high octane, high scoring match. Will Chicago see their first road victory in almost two years or will Orlando plant more seeds of doubt in the hearts and minds of Fire supporters?
OCSC Form Guide: 0-0-1
Previous Match: A 2-2 draw against RSL at home.
Formation: 4-3-3; Bendik; Ramos, Redding, Seb Hines, Boden; Ceren, Carrasco, Ribeiro; Molino, Larin, Shea
Strengths: It is still early in the season but Orlando comes to the table with a few standout categories in the strengths section. We will review some positives from their match against RSL before diving into a few other things to look for on Friday.
The Draw Against RSL: Sure, a draw in your home opener isn’t an ideal result and we’ll get to that below but OCSC has a lot that they can build on from this match. They had a slight edge in possession and a higher passing rate but will take encouragement from what they did with that possession and passing. 274 of the 373 completed passes came in Orlando’s attacking half and a good chunk of their possession came in the final attacking third. Orlando also peppered RSL with 14 shots, 7 on target.
Those statistics essentially back up their game plan of controlling the game at home and pouncing on the counter if necessary. They lined up in a 4-3-3, or a 4-3-2-1 when they got moving (the Christmas Tree!) with the game plan focusing on the speed of Brek Shea and Kevin Molino on the flanks and Cyle Larin’s power and clinical finishing up top. Darwin Ceren, Luke Boden, and Servando Carrasco were charged with stifling play in the middle and getting the ball out wide or dumping it forward to last year’s rookie of the year as soon as possession was regained. They showed that even with Kaka out injured they could execute their attacking instructions well. Their tactics are straight forward but stopping them is not. Shea and Molino aren’t “Accam fast” but they have speed and their comfort in being able to cut inside or outside along with their tactically aware overlapping runs will certainly trouble a Chicago back line whose communication skills have thus far only led to staples in Michael Harrington’s head. Did we mention that Cyle Larin looks bigger, fitter and faster than he did last year? It’ll be tough to repeat a 17 goal season but he’s already on his way with a goal in the opener.
Citrus Bowl Advantage: Not that any team needs extra edge in their home matches against Chicago (the Fire’s last registered away league win was on July 12, 2014 in a 1-0 victory against New England) but OCSC can throw quite the party. With attendance reaching over 60,000 on Sunday even the biggest naysayers of supporter culture have to admit that the crowd had something to do with Orlando’s record breaking stoppage time come back. The noise certainly won’t help Chicago’s backline gel any quicker and it could give Orlando the extra push in key moments.
Mi Scusi: Just when Fire fans jumped for joy with the announcement that Kaka would miss Friday’s clash with a thigh strain, OCSC released some pre-match coverage that hinted at new Italian midfield signing Antonio Nocerino taking part in the match. His fitness probably won’t allow him to start but our guess is you’ll see him for at least 30 minutes on Friday. If he is even a shadow of his former AC Milan self he will bring some calm to the midfield for Orlando and definitely threaten the Chicago goal mouth.
Chicago’s Depth: OCSC fans had similar feelings of joy when they saw Gilberto on the injury list for Chicago but without the downside of the Fire having an adequate replacement. The Brazilian left practice with ice strapped to his calf earlier this week and we’re guessing Kennedy Igboananike will replace him in the XI. While he has shown spurts of improvement you’d have to think the City back line would much rather play against Igboananike than Gilberto.
History: While the sides did meet four times last year, thrice in league play and once in the U.S. Open Cup, Chicago did not have much luck against Orlando in MLS. They lost both away matches and only managed a 1-1 draw at home. We can’t ensure that history has any bearing on results, but it might.
Weaknesses: Ok, let’s try to stay grounded here. Orlando needed some Citrus Bowl magic to earn a draw against a RSL side that finished 9th in the West last season, was playing with 10 men for over 70 minutes and was already exhausted and drained from a midweek CCL loss. When we remove ourselves from the exciting finish, that match did not go as planned and there are significant flaws in this Orlando side.
Discipline and Decision Making: If you are Adrian Heath you have to be furious with the tactical awareness and decision making of your backline. After going up a man in the 20th minute Orlando gave away a PK and went down a goal in the 26th. The manner in which it happened makes it even worse. A hopeful long ball over the top from Kyle Beckerman saw Yura Movsisyan take the ball down on the far edge of Orlando’s box and draw contact from Seb Hines even though it appeared that Tommy Redding was covering. It was a needless foul but it would set a trend in the match and conform to an issue OCSC had last season.
Orlando finished the 2015 MLS campaign with a high count of 10 red cards and a ludicrous count of 70 yellow cards. They got off to an appropriate start this season with Ceren shouldering Javier Morlaes in the face and earning a red to restore parity between the two sides in the 45th minute. Pedro Rebeiro was also cautioned and then Seb Hines received a yellow late in the match for persistent infringement. They not only give away needless free kicks, but they also get into depth problems due to suspension.
The second goal that was given away by Orlando was also a product of bad discipline. Burrito Martinez spent most of the afternoon turning the Orlando backline inside and out and on this occasion he drew the attention of both the center back and the outside back leaving Tony Beltran completely open on the flank. A cleverly dished off pass to Beltran resulted in a far post cross to an unmarked Joao Plata who coolly slotted it home. The City back line essentially let three of the biggest attacking threats on the field do whatever they wanted in the goal scoring sequence. Yes, they’re still gelling but there’s got to be a face-palm GIF of Heath out there somewhere and there was definitely a copy of Defending for Dummies overnight shipped to the training ground. Paunovic will be telling Accam to run at Rafael Ramos and Redding all day on Friday and something tells us Orlando doesn’t finish this match with 11 men on the field either.
What Else Have You Got?: If Chicago can manage to shut down Orlando’s possession and can frustrate Larin, two big ifs, then Orlando could run out of ideas quickly. DP striker Bryan Rochez is out injured and the only other out and out striker is youngster Hadji Barry. In a system that relies heavily on the success of the number 9, a stifled Larin leads to a stifled Orlando. If Polster is mentally awake on Friday and the center backs have played enough games of telephone in the hotel lobby to be on the same page then this game is there for Chicago to win.
Suspensions and Injuries: Fan hysteria aside, Nocerino isn’t ready to go the full 90 in the midfield. Kaka has a thigh strain, Carlos Rivas is still out with an ankle injury and Ceren’s UFC antics have earned him a seat in the stands as well. Look for Adrian Winter or Cristian Higuita to slot in as a replacement depending on whether Heath wants to line up with a possession based player or a more attacking minded player respectively. Rochez, David Mateos, and Conor Donovan are out as well. It isn’t an ideal start for Orlando as far as the starting 11 and the Fire might be able to take advantage of the situation.
Prediction: Get ready for an action packed 90 minutes. Paunovic will have to wait one more week for his first victory but he won’t have to wait any longer for his first point. Chicago 3-3 Orlando. Igboananike, Accam and Goossens for Chicago. A Larin brace and a Nocerino wonder strike for Orlando.