Fire v Orlando City match preview

What Are They All About? Orlando City SC

Positive negative. This past weekend the Chicago Fire lost their season opener away to LA Galaxy by a score of 2-1. Although the result continues a ten-year trend of failing to secure all three points in their opening fixture, the match against LA was not one in which the score line tells the full picture. The Fire came out of the gates at full speed with continuous forays down the flanks from Przemyslaw Frankowski and Aleksandar Katai while the likes of Djordje Mihailovic and Dax McCarty controlled the midfield. Chicago’s lone goal came from opportunistic poaching and clinical finishing from CJ Sapong but the visitors could easily have been up by three goals at halftime had they been just a bit sharper in the final third. Ultimately, LA targeted the fullback pairing of Jorge Campos and Diego Campos to excellent effect, running at both repeatedly to expose their lack of quality. The Fire return to the Windy City this Saturday knowing that they have the makings of a good squad and they will be looking to capitalize in front of the home faithful against Orlando (Noon CT on ESPN+).

Orlando City enter the match on the back of a home draw against NYCFC in their home opener, a fixture which pitted the former expansion class of 2015 against one another. Orlando’s journey in that time has been much different than New York’s as the Lions have failed to qualify for the playoffs in any of their MLS seasons. Orlando’s disastrous 2018 campaign saw them finish dead last in the league amidst a toxic locker room atmosphere and a failed maiden half season for head coach James O’Connor. Perhaps most worryingly, Orlando splashed quite a bit of cash heading into last season (again). Righting the ship is not going to be an easy task and will take time, belief in O’Connor’s system, an airing of grievances, and perhaps yet more spending. However, Flavio da Silva has not exactly been the definition of a patient owner in recent years and his constant tinkering on the soccer side of things could well doom Orlando in a Southern market that is quickly growing. Will OCSC shock the hosts, or will the Fire fulfill their strange role as favorites in this one? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.

Orlando Form Guide: D

Previous Result: A 2-2 home draw against NYCFC.

Formation: 3-4-3; Rowe; O’Neill, DeJohn, Miller; Smith, Johnson, Mendez, Acosta; Kljestan, Akindele, Mueller

Strengths: When you have hit rock bottom there is nowhere to go but up. Additionally, O’Connor led Louisville to three consecutive conference finals, won the 2017 USL Championship, and the team he built repeated the feat after his midseason departure last year. He has grit and hard work built into his DNA. If given the time and support, there is hope for him to truly build something special in Orlando. Let’s see where they might succeed.

Onde esta o Mickey Mouse?: One thing that Orlando has not failed in is the expenditure column. After shelling out $200m for an expansion fee, they hit the ground running with Kaka as the club’s first ever designated player, a move which showed their major league intent and put Orlando on the map. His signature was followed up with the breaking of the intraleague transfer record on Dom Dwyer ($1.6m in allocation monies) and spending TAM on failed players like Spector, Sane, Meram, and Rossell. All of these expenditures are of course in addition to constructing a $160m stadium that is among the best in the league.  They followed that up with a new training facility estimated at $50m. As Orlando enters yet another rebuilding phase, da Silva has once again opened his checkbook to bring in Portuguese winger Nani, a move which hopes to relaunch Orlando on and off the field.

Nani certainly isn’t without his faults—both of his last two clubs, Valencia and Sporting CP, have let him go on a free to reduce wages, his work ethic has been questioned everywhere he has gone, and he never quite lived up to expectations at Manchester United—but the Portuguese still has plenty left in the tank. He’s won the Champions League, leagues in England and Portugal, and the 2016 European Cup. That pedigree does not disappear overnight. His involvement as a substitute this past weekend not only got fans out of their seats but his thru ball to Dom Dwyer was the catalyst for Tesho Akindele’s goal. He will occupy the attention of opposing defenders and will create space for the likes of Dwyer, Klejstan, and Mueller to operate in all while possessing the capability to produce a moment of magic. Paunovic will have an extra headache as he prepares his defensive game plan without any MLS caliber fullbacks at his disposal.

Adaptability: While MLS has been blessed with coaches named Tata Martino, Jesse Marsch, Caleb Porter, and Bob Bradley in recent seasons, James O’Connor has shown that he can maneuver the Xs and Os himself. This past weekend saw him switch formation, tactics, and personnel in the final twenty minutes to salvage a draw. With Nani and Dwyer unavailable to go the full ninety (travel and a calf injury respectively), O’Connor sat in a very low block for seventy minutes and organized Will Johnson and Sebastian Mendez in deeper-lying roles to cope with what was going to be an NYCFC onslaught.

They were one misstep from de John to let Alexander Ring in, and a wonder strike from Ebenezer Ofori away from succeeding in their plan. O’Connor gambled to fix the situation, however. When the allotted twenty minutes for the two DPs rolled around, O’Connor sacrificed Mendez and Smith in terms of defensive coverage to line up with essentially a front five. Dwyer and Akindele played as central strikers as Mueller was shifted to the right wing with Nani on the left, all with Kljestan pulling the strings underneath. It will be interesting to see what the lineup looks like on Saturday given the availability of both Nani and Dwyer, but there are a lot of potential forward options to try to combat Chicago’s heavy presence on the wings.

O’Connor could play with a dual-ten in Kljestan and Colman to negate Chicago’s possession advantage, he could overload the wings again to punish Chicago on the counter, or he could introduce Rosell and Higuita alongside Johnson and Mendez to clog the midfield against a Chicago side that needs space to operate in. He has shown in the past that he is not afraid to tweak things tactically and he has a good understanding of in-game scenarios, traits that might just squeeze a point or three out of this Fire side. 

Weaknesses: It won’t be hard to highlight shortcomings when talking about a side that finished last in the standings in 2018.

The Replacements: Orlando shipped seventy-four goals in 2018, an MLS record. Not only is that stat reflective of an atrocious back line but reflects poorly on a team that failed to defend and fight for one another as a whole. With half the season left to go, it looked like the Lions had already given up and never bought into O’Connor’s philosophy. Forty-three of their allowed goals occurred after his hiring and their offseason turnover reflects what the Irishman thought about the backline he was given to work with. Backline members Joe Bendik, PC, Mohamed El Munir, Amro Tarek, Jonathan Spector, and Scott Sutter were all either traded or had their options declined. Additionally, Lamine Sane continues to struggle with constant injury of varying sort after failing to impress in the wake of his move from the Bundesliga.

The result has been a shift to a 3-4-3 with just three outright defenders featuring in the side, draftee Kamal Miller, Nordic league journeyman Alex De John, and Shane O’Neil. Without sounding overly harsh, that back three has the makings of another failed season. Those players seem to have a USL-ish ceiling and attempting to trot them out against this Chicago side will likely end in disaster. The problem for O’Connor is that he doesn’t have any alternative choices. Unless he is willing to give Joao Moutinho a look on Saturday or pretend that Carlos Ascues hasn’t spent his career in a box-to-box role, Orlando is stuck with the backline that gave away two preventable goals against NYCFC and arguably could have conceded two or three more.

Yes, Will Johnson has been asked to play deeper and shield the back three, but if Mihailovic and McCarty press high and press quickly, this match may be reminiscent of a football score line. Similarly, the backline is especially narrow with Kyle Smith and Danilo Acosta being asked to get wide in support of the front three. Frankowski and Katai should have a field day if Orlando utilizes similar tactics to those trotted out on Saturday. Lastly, if Dom Dwyer is deemed fit and Nani gets his anticipated start, you are further relegating the defensive capabilities on offer.

No, I’m Not the Kitman: For as much praise as we heaped on O’Connor above, there is still a lingering doubt about his adaptability to MLS, especially in terms of dealing with the type of players that Orlando has a tendency for. Plying his trade as a player for the likes of Sheffield, Burnley, West Bromwich, and Stoke, O’Connor’s working-class ethos is plain for all to see. However, amidst last year’s star-studded cast, the Irishman never appeared in control of certain personalities.

A locker room bust up after August’s loss to DC United featured physical confrontations between players, Stuart Holden discussed an air of apathy as Orlando played against Chicago in September, and whispers of individuals believing themselves to be better than the collective led directly to the aforementioned offseason changes. However, the likes of Johnson, Kljestan, and Sane are still there. All three are players with their own history of drama. Dwyer began the season with a rocky press conference in which he refused to answer questions, and the arrival of Nani indicates that this season could see its fair share of hysterics. If Chicago can frustrate Orlando early, perhaps some of those lingering doubts will start to creep into the mind of the Lions.

Prediction: This is going to be a typically Orlando-esque season. Chicago 4-1 Orlando. Frankowski, Katai, Nikolic, and Sapong for the hosts, Nani for the visitors.

Filed under: 2019 Regular Season

Tags: Chicago Fire

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