MLS's two newest clubs face off in Week 3 as NYC FC welcome Orlando City SC to Yankee Stadium for a Friday night showdown.
Orlando earned a 2-2 draw in their opening match against Real Salt Lake on some late heroics, but followed up the result with a disappointing draw against a 10-man Chicago Fire side. The Lions are nursing early injuries and still looking to integrate their new pieces into the squad, but could be poised to break out soon.
Michael Citro (@manelandmichael), managing editor of SB Nation's The Mane Land, joins us this week to discuss year two of Orlando City SC, new signings, and defensive adjustments.
Q: Orlando City had a relatively successful inaugural season (better than ours, at least), and the expectations are high for the team coming into 2016. However, the first two games have not gone to plan for Orlando, with a heroic draw against RSL and a disappointing draw to the Fire, both at home. What have you seen from the first two games that concerns you about the club's ability to earn a Postseason berth? What have you seen that encourages you that the club is ready to turn the corner this Friday against NYC FC?
A: The biggest concern is that one or two mistakes are costing the team points because the finishing in the offensive third isn’t there. The players have tried to be too fine in and around the penalty area and it’s resulting in wasted chances and turnovers instead of dangerous chances. This could be partly due to the void Kaká’s injury has left behind because Kevin Molino hasn’t had the same kind of partnership with Adrian Winter or Brek Shea over the first two games. It may come together organically. A few long shots to keep the opposition from packing the box might help. Pedro Ribeiro nearly scored a thunderous goal that hit the woodwork late in that Chicago game. More of that could bear fruit.
The encouraging thing so far is that the team is limiting opposition chances. Two opposition goals were the result of an unnecessary penalty and David Accam’s raw speed on a gorgeous long ball. The center backs have been pretty solid in limiting the danger overall. The only goal that resulted from the opponent having sustained possession in the offensive third came off a cross where right back Rafael Ramos got caught ball watching and allowed Joao Plata a tap-in.
Remember this? We do. Oh, do we ever.
Q: The club took steps to bring more experience and talent into the midfield by signing Antonio Nocerino from Milan and is effectively getting a "new signing" as Kevin Molino returns to the attack after his traumatic ACL injury. What have you seen from these two players in preseason and so far this season? What does each player bring to the squad?
A: Molino looks like he’s about to explode but somehow hasn’t yet. He’s at his best with Kaká (shocker) because the two understand each other’s movement, which has held him back this year. He sometimes thinks more quickly than his teammates and puts balls in places they should go but don’t. He has also been victim of two very good saves in the first two games. He is a quick, dynamic 1-2 passer with good vision that can win you fouls in the attacking third. His quickness just creates problems, although he doesn’t have blazing straight line speed like an Accam.
Nocerino appears to be a very good possession guy, but he just played his first competitive soccer since August so he looks about how you’d expect -- a bit rusty. However, one thing you notice is that he is good with the ball at his feet. Very few heavy touches even in his first outing. He sometimes threaded passes to where he expected teammates to go, but those teammates aren’t yet on his level of understanding and when those runs don’t get made, it can hang the passer out to dry. He appears to be a player as advertised and once he’s fully match fit and knows his teammates names, he could really be a big player for Orlando City. His experience and vision will be a welcome addition.
Q: Orlando conceded the second most goals in the MLS last season (don't ask who conceded the most, it's not important), but made moves this off-season to strengthen the defense. The team traded for Joe Bendik from Toronto, brought in Kevin Alston from New England, and added the aforementioned Nocerino as a defensive shield in the midfield. What have you seen so far to suggest that the defense will be stronger this year? Has there been a switch in formation to provide more cover or is the team hopeful that this defensive alignment will be enough? Who is the linchpin in the defense (new or existing player) that can make the unit come together?
A: There has been more of a shift to a 4-3-2-1 and at times a 4-3-3 throughout preseason and early in the season this year, which does appear to be bearing fruit in providing added cover. Orlando City has yet to field its projected starting central midfield trio of Nocerino, Cristian Higuita and Darwin Ceren due to suspensions to the latter two. All three are adept at breaking up play, stepping into lanes to intercept passes, and protecting the back line. Nocerino will also serve as a conduit to connect the defensive half to the attacking midfielders and striker Cyle Larin. Real Salt Lake has some very gifted and dynamic offensive players and I felt the team did a pretty good job limiting danger from their big four of Martinez, Movsisyan, Plata and Morales. Kennedy Igboananike and Accam were a bit more dangerous but mostly due to the former’s prowess in the air and the latter’s insane speed. Even so, they were far more dangerous on the counter than through any build-up play.
If there is [a linchpin], it has yet to be revealed who that is. It was Higuita last year and so far this year it's been Servando Carrasco, who has probably only played due to suspensions to Ceren and Higuita in the first two games. On the back line, Seb Hines is expected to win everything in the air and be the last line of defense. He's had a mixed season so far but a lot is being asked of him, playing beside a 19-year-old the first two matches, with David Mateos out with an injury.
How about a prediction and a starting XI?
Orlando City has played on three baseball fields in the past year. The club has lost all three games, and one of those was to a USL side and one against an NASL opponent. I don’t think the Lions like the narrow pitch and it certainly hinders the effectiveness of how they like to attack up the wings with their fullbacks. Larin has a hat trick in each trip to New York in his career, so I guess I’ll go 4-3 to NYCFC to keep all trends fully intact. The blue shirts are simply playing better as a team early in the season than Orlando City is. But this is MLS, so forget everything I said because none of it will happen, obviously.
As for the starting lineup, I’m going to assume Kaká and David Mateos are out for one more game. I expect we may see a different shape than usual to combat the smaller Yankee Stadium pitch, but I’m not sure if it will look like a 5-3-1-1, a 3-5-2, or what. I’ll play it safer and go with a 4-3-2-1:
Joe Bendik; Brek Shea, Seb Hines, Tommy Redding, Rafael Ramos; Antonio Nocerino, Darwin Ceren, Cristian Higuita; Kevin Molino, Adrian Winter; Cyle Larin.
Have a prediction for the game? Thoughts on Orlando City and the challenge they pose NYC FC? Let us hear it in the comments section. And don't miss our "reverse fixture," in which we head over to The Mane Land to answer three questions on the Bronx Blues.