Each week we do a Q&A with our friends around the SB Nation Soccer world to get some insight on their team from those who know them best. Know your enemy.
The two youngest clubs in MLS meet for the second time this season this Sunday at 4PM. New York City FC was cruising before running into Red Bulls, which we don't have to talk about. Orlando City SC has been in a rut of unfavorable results, taking only one win from its last eight. Both teams will see Sunday's match as a chance to right the ship.
The two clubs met in New York in the third week of the MLS season with Orlando taking a painful 1-0 victory from the hosts on the strength of an early goal. Cyle Larin converted a cross early in the game off of some dodgy goalkeeping from Josh Saunders. NYC FC had its chances throughout the match, but could not finish.
This week, Michael Citro from the Mane Land chats with Hudson River Blue about Sunday's pivotal contest. Michael gets to the bottom of the team's poor run of form, provides some defensive insight, and profiles an emerging Orlando City attacking talent.
Q: As you mention in your first question with us, Orlando has been drawing quite a lot recently and has only won once in its last eight. What is behind the run of unfavorable results? In the draws, has it appeared to you that Orlando has been in control but merely been unable to close the game out, or has the team been outmatched by its opposition?
Michael: It’s been a variety of things but what it mostly comes down to is the team paying for a moment (or two) of inattentiveness. Wednesday vs. Philadelphia it was set piece defending. Against the Revs on the road and Red Bulls at home, it was conceding first and having to dig out of a hole. Against New England at home there was that inexplicable penalty call for a handball that hit no hand or arm. But Orlando City has simply not been strong enough in defense and has squandered too many offensive opportunities to get away with those moments when they switch off.
When the team has been outmatched, it hasn’t been able to get much from the game. The Red Bulls away got 26 shots off and won 3-2, although they could have easily scored six or seven had Joe Bendik not been spectacular. The trip to Sporting Kansas City was even worse, with the team allowing more than 30 shots. That was a 2-1 game because of Bendik and SKC players missing sitters. If the Lions can ever learn to focus for 90 minutes with any kind of regularity, they’ll be a dangerous team.
Q: When we spoke early in the season, I asked about the issues with the defense last season as the team conceded the second most goals in MLS. This season, the team seems to have improved defensively, hovering around the middle of the league. What do you attribute the better defensive play to – formational tactics, or personnel improvements? What does the loss due to suspension of Cristian Higuita and David Mateos mean for the defense Sunday?
Michael: I’d say part of it is the maturation of a few players -- and I’m going to include the defensive midfield here -- who were new to MLS (David Mateos, Seb Hines, Rafael Ramos, Darwin Ceren, Cristian Higuita) or new to defense (Brek Shea). Although they have shown they can be better on defense than last year, the Lions still have their narcoleptic moments, and the fullbacks are often the least reliable defenders, although veteran Kevin Alston has been a more stabilizing presence than Ramos at right back.
The other part of it is Bendik. Not to beat a dead horse so early in a three questions piece, but the former Toronto FC keeper has been outstanding between the pipes, frequently bailing out his teammates and helping them steal points here and there. Last year, several of those draws would have been losses and the wins -- aside from a dominant performance against Portland -- could easily have been draws.
I’d like to say lineup consistency is also a reason but the fact is that the team hasn’t been able to stay any healthier or avoid bookings any better this season than last year.
Q: The team might be middle of the pack defensively, but it knows how to score goals. Orlando hasn’t been shutout at any point this season, and sits tied for first with Red Bulls (ugh) in goals scored. We know about Cyle Larin’s ability firsthand, and Kaka is Kaka, so who is an important attacking player we should keep our eye on Sunday? What does he contribute to the attack?
Michael: Kevin Molino has stepped up big this year and the guy wearing No. 18 in purple is someone to watch. Due to an early season-ending injury last year, no one really got to see what the Trinidad & Tobago international can do. He’s on five goals now, just behind Larin, and he is Kaká’s spiritual partner in the attacking midfield. The captain and Molino have the best understanding of any two players on Orlando’s roster, and aside from a poor outing at SKC (although the entire team was terrible), Molino has been great in 2016.
If anyone is on the same wavelength as those two, it has to be new addition Julio Baptista, who may get a start on Sunday after an impressive showing in relief on Wednesday. The Beast has a good understanding with Kaká and Molino and although he hasn’t scored yet in MLS, he’s done a good job of facilitating in the middle of the pitch on plays that turn into goals. Adrian Winter is another solid attacking player who won’t wow anyone with his technical ability but he generally outworks whoever is tasked with marking him.
Starting XI and how about a prediction?
Michael: This is going to be interesting due to injuries and suspensions. Orlando may not have any choice but to play reserve left back Luke Boden at center back or call up young Conor Donovan from Orlando City B to partner with 19-year-old Tommy Redding in central defense unless the club appeals (and wins) the red card on Mateos Wednesday. Higuita is also out due to yellow card accumulation. I don’t know that Adrian Heath will field a full 18, and he may have to change shape on top of that. This is my best guess:
[Updated] Predicted XI: Joe Bendik; Brek Shea, Conor Donovan, Tommy Redding, Kevin Alston; Antonio Nocerino, Servando Carrasco; Adrian Winter, Julio Baptista, Kevin Molino; Cyle Larin.
This is Orlando’s third game in nine days and guys like Shea, Carrasco and Larin have been run ragged over the first two matches. With NYCFC having had a week to rest (and to dwell on that 7-0 loss to rival NYRB), I think it’ll be tough for Orlando City to get a result at Yankee Stadium on Sunday. I’ll predict a 3-1 win for the hosts.
Thanks Michael for answering HRB's questions this week! Join us in the comments section to discuss the Sunday's match and give your own prediction, and be sure to check out the "reverse fixture" on the Mane Land, where we answer three queries on NYCFC.