What Are They All About? Orlando City SC
They’re here to stay. Last Thursday the Chicago Fire defeated FC Dallas 2-1 to firmly cement second place in the Eastern Conference standings. Perhaps more impressively, Chicago beat a good Western Conference opponent by limiting their chance creation in the final third and dictating the tempo and style of the match. Nemanja Nikolic and David Accam continued their goal scoring form, the backline seems to have gelled since the addition of Matt Lampson, and the midfield speaks for itself. Another test awaits the Fire as they hit the road to face Orlando City this coming Sunday (6:30 PM on FS1), a match which pits together the second and third place teams in the conference.
Orlando enters the match on the back of a strange run of form in their first fourteen matches. Jason Kreis’ side was labeled by many as a strong contender for finishing bottom of the East this season. However, a move to a new downtown stadium, the injection of some fresh faces, and the familiar machinated tactics of the veteran Kreis surprised everyone. They lost only one of their first seven matches and were pushing for the top spot in the East before the schedule generator dealt them a blow with three of the league’s toughest opponents (TFC, Houston, KC) within a ten-day span in May. Prior to their midweek match against DC, their winless spell was at six matches and counting as pundits were sure that the real Orlando had finally arrived.
So, which is it? Will the Fire be welcomed into a fortress and dealt a reality check by Larin, Kreis, and the Purple Wall, or will Nikolic, Schweinsteiger, and Paunovic shine in the Florida sun as OCSC learns that hype can only get you so far? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Orlando Form Guide (last five matches): W-L-L-D-D
Previous Result: A 2-0 home victory over DC United.
Formation: 4-4-2; Bendik; Sutter, Aja, Spector, Toia; Perez Garcia, Johnson, Higuita, Gil; Larin, Rivas
Strengths: If Orlando can find it within themselves to channel their early season form there is perhaps no better side to leap frog Chicago in the Eastern Conference standings. They play direct, physical, and no-nonsense soccer. Flipping a switch mentally isn’t always an easy task, but this OCSC side has the tools to make a playoff run. Let’s see where they might succeed on Sunday.
Mr. Mo’ Money: Much of the talk about Orlando City lately has not circled around their on-field performances as much as it has around the possibility of Cyle Larin leaving for Europe this summer. While Kreis is adamant that no official bids have come in, there are rumors that Everton is ready to splash some cash for his signature and is only one of many suitors from several top European leagues. Larin doesn’t seem fazed by any of the talk and continues to do what he’s always done best, score goals. He notched another superb finish against DC, bringing his total on the season to eight, which ties him for third in the golden boot race. Kreis appeared semi-dumb founded when asked in his post-match presser about how Larin manages to keep scoring before composing himself and coolly replying “everyone that knows Cyle, knows that he’s extremely dangerous in the box”. A simple answer for a simple approach. All eight of Larin’s tallies have come from within the eighteen-yard box with five of them coming from within the six. His ability to find spaces, brush aside defenders, and get on the end of seemingly lost causes is astounding. For once, we’re glad that we’re not the ones who have to figure out how to stop him.
Paychecks Play Defense: The most glaring shortcoming of this Orlando side last season was their head scratching inability to defend. Their sixty goals against was a league high, arguably led to Adrian Heath’s dismissal a little over half way through the campaign, and ultimately cost them a spot in the playoffs. Whatever Jason Kreis was going to do to change the tactics and style of play would obviously have to start with improving the back line. In order to facilitate change, he secured the signature of former US international Jonathan Spector to wild skepticism and speculation. The MLS Players’ Union has him earning just under $612,000 this season and many pundits thought he was too slow, perhaps too old, and too expensive to play right back in MLS. However, Kreis has converted him to a center back to immense success with Orlando conceding just eighteen goals with almost half of the season gone. Spector hasn’t done it alone and the other reinforcements have come with a hefty price tag as well. The acquisition of Donny Toia was a bargain (starting twelve matches and earning a low 70k) but bringing in Swiss International Scott Sutter over from Young Boys Bern was not free and he is listed at 240k by the MLPU. Additionally, center back Jose Aja is on loan from Clube Nacional but is making over 200k and Canadian international Will Johnson–who has also filled in at right back and has a fair share of defensive duties as a holding midfielder–is on 450k. Although those acquisitions necessitated offloading the likes of Kevin Molino, Julio Baptista, and Pedro Ribeiro, for now, the moves seem to be paying off.
San Bendik: No analysis of a squad’s defensive prowess would be complete without examining the Marshall between the posts. Joe Bendik has been a rock at the back for Orlando in terms of shot stopping. Aside from Bill Hamid (55) and Luis Robles (47) no other keepers have made more saves than Bendik (46) on the season and he is in the top five of keepers for save percentage. Goalkeeping statistics tend to ruffle feathers but the truth of the matter is Bendik’s play backs up his stats. He’s slowly made a name for himself as a shot stopper and has a commanding presence of his box. With Chicago relying heavily on Nemanja Nikolic for goals this season, a good match from Bendik in the six-yard box could spoil the party for an in-form Fire side.
Weaknesses: We like when teams are forthcoming. For as easy as it was to pick out their strengths, it’s equally as easy to see OCSC’s faults. Aside from NYRB, no other playoff positioned team has a lower goal differential than Orlando, scored fewer goals, or picked up less road points than Kreis’ side. Additionally, their over reliance on Cyle Larin is as clear as the Florida sky and their resolutions to the struggles of last season are reminiscent of putting scotch tape on a leaking dam. Let’s see where they might struggle on Sunday.
Single Dimensionality: We’ll start with the elephant in the room. Jason Kreis cannot get over the tactics that brought him success with RSL in MLS 2.0. His trademark 4-4-2 diamond has been taken with him everywhere he goes and he doesn’t seem to be concerned with its functionality or adaptability based on rosters. Don’t let the MLS match center drawings fool you with their cleverly drawn flat 4-4-2s or 4-2-3-1s that they’ve scattered throughout their evaluation of Orlando’s matches. When the whistle blows Kreis still favors Nocerino or Johnson in the holding role with Kaka serving as the creative 10 underneath Larin or Rivas. The wingers seem to rotate and injuries to Kaka have seen Perez Garcia (and even Barnes) slot into the middle of the diamond but you always know what you’re going to be facing. In a perfect world, Kreis would have his holding mid dominate the middle of the pitch and win the ball back, dish it off to the creative mid who plays a first-time ball into the feet of Rivas to go at the oppositions back line or ahead of Larin to run onto.
The problem with Sunday’s encounter is that even with Dax McCarty missing (USMNT duty), Schweinsteiger and Juninho will not allow that to happen. Additionally, Michael DeLeeuw’s work rate defensively and Accam’s recent revelation that he too can track back means that Kreis is going to have to think outside the box (pun intended) if he is to get any traction moving forward. If Chicago sets their line deeper than usual and trusts their midfield to win their battles, Larin’s danger on the counter could be largely muted. Furthermore, it forces Orlando to take shots from distance, something that Rivas loves doing but is statistically terrible at (two goals from forty-one shots is the lowest haul from any player in MLS this season).
I’d Like to Apply for a Part-time Position at Epcot to Fill the Time: The biggest question surrounding OCSC’s signing of Kaka was his fitness level and ability to stay healthy. Heading into this season those worries were exacerbated as he was helped off the field in Orlando’s season opener after just seven minutes. Team doctors announced the Brazilian would miss the first six weeks of the campaign due to a severe ham string strain. After returning in late-April against Colorado he’s featured sparingly (starting just three matches). He was rested against Minnesota over fears of aggravating the hamstring on a sub-par surface only to pick up a calf knock in training the following day and missed out against DC as well. He has not trained with the starters heading into Sunday’s encounter. Should he not feature against Chicago we don’t think the likes of Perez Garcia or Barnes have shown they have what it takes to serve as formidable creative outlets. But more worryingly, the man that has endeared himself to the league and become an icon in Orlando is not making the case for a contract extension.
Prediction: Beating a poor DC side is not enough to cover up some glaring issues for OCSC. They will be further exposed by a Fire side that is on the ascendancy. Chicago 2-1 Orlando. Nemanja Nikolic and Michael De Leeuw score for the Fire.