Welcome back, MLS. We missed you dearly. We’re so happy to have you back in our lives.
The season kicks off this weekend, and the Boys in Blue are once again on the road for their first match, visiting their expansion brothers Orlando City SC on Sunday evening at 5 PM ET. The Lions welcome New York City FC to their new ground, Orlando City Stadium, in what should be a competitive opening match.
In their third season, Orlando have their sights set on a playoff berth in a competitive Eastern Conference. Michael Citro, Managing Editor of SB Nation’s The Mane Land, sits down (virtually) with us to preview the match and provide some insight.
Q. Orlando City SC finished 8th in the league last year, just narrowly missing out on making its first Playoff appearance since joining MLS three seasons ago. A lot of the team's issues last season can be blamed by injury trouble, but the team was still a few players away from challenging for an MLS cup. Going into this season, I see Orlando didn't make any "flashy" moves, but looked to balance out the squad and give it more depth in the event the injury bug bites again. What new player or players are you most looking forward to seeing play? What expectations do you have for this year's team given the new additions and the strength of the Eastern Conference?
A. Each of the last two seasons have seen the Lions come heartbreakingly close to getting above the red line, only to fall just short. The biggest obstacle to getting in has been defense. The offense has been surprisingly strong, especially last year when Orlando finished third in MLS in goals scored. Unfortunately, that was more than counterbalanced by conceding the most goals in the league. So, the main focus was on bolstering the defense with experienced leadership in the off-season, bringing in Will Johnson and Jonathan Spector. The club also revamped the fullback position with the additions of Donny Toia and Victor “PC” Giro. As such, I’m most looking forward to seeing how Spector can make the back line more cohesive and less leaky.
On the offensive end, I’m looking forward to seeing if Carlos Rivas can make the leap from wildly inconsistent to dependable playmaker/scorer as he works up top with Cyle Larin. Of course, we’re also all looking forward to seeing if Giles Barnes can regain his form after his late off-season acquisition from Vancouver.
I expect this team to finish anywhere from fourth to seventh in the East. Orlando got stronger, as did some of the other clubs in the East, but I think the Lions were already very close last year and if they can yield 15 or so fewer goals and not drop off in scoring, they should be able to get over the hump. I will point out that I’m in the minority on this, as many people are buying into Atlanta and Chicago. I’ll believe in those clubs when I see them do it on the field in meaningful games.
Q. The biggest transfer out Orlando City dealt with when I look at the list is Kevin Molino. He's the team's third leading goalscorer all-time and a player I was always concerned with burning us for pace or making something special happen. Would you consider his departure the biggest one the club saw in this offseason? How is Orlando going about replacing his goal scoring and attacking threat?
A. Yes, I would say Molino is the most significant departure from this past off-season and it’s not even close. I’m not certain he was going to be the best fit in Jason Kreis’ system, but he is a dangerous threat going forward. Molino’s absence will have to be mitigated by Rivas up top and increased scoring from Larin, who started hot but tailed off last season to “only” 14 goals. Two strikers working together up top may do the trick. Additionally, the club needs more offense out of Matias Perez Garcia. MPG came so close to scoring many times last year and he’ll just need a little better luck in 2017. Giles Barnes is versatile enough to play up top or as an attacking wing player and he should be an upgrade on the score sheet over Brek Shea.
Q. Orlando City SC and NYC FC both begun their tenure in MLS playing in non-soccer stadiums - Orlando in the Citrus Bowl and New York in Yankee Stadium. I am very happy and beyond jealous that Orlando is in a soccer-specific stadium. Have you had a chance to see the stadium or can you report on what fans should expect? Is this the stadium that you envisioned when you began supporting Orlando City as an MLS team?
A. As I write this I am giddily preparing to go see the new stadium for the club’s Kickoff Week event featuring Orlando City, Pride, and OCB players against 100 kids in a 90-minute charity match to benefit the club’s foundation. I’ve seen oodles of photos and video and can’t even begin to describe how amazing the venue looks. With the field sunk below street level and the metal roof, the noise level should be incredible and the atmosphere will be amazing.
From all we’ve seen, this is every inch the new home we envisioned when the discussions about the stadium first started and they shoveled the first load of earth out of the site. Visually, it’s stunning and has completely transformed the downtown landscape. We expect it to help the club make its home park the fortress that the old Citrus Bowl/Camping World Stadium never was – even when there were 60,000+ fans in the seats over there.
Although I usually sit in the press box for game coverage, I am looking forward to spending opening day in the safe standing supporters’ section. I’m planning to write a story about the game experience from that vantage point and I’m extremely excited about trying it out and seeing how it compares to The Wall at the old stadium.
Q. Starting XI and prediction?
A. (4-4-2) Joe Bendik; PC, Jonathan Spector, Jose Aja, Donny Toia; Kaká, Will Johnson, Antonio Nocerino, Matias Perez Garcia; Carlos Rivas, Cyle Larin.
I am predicting a 2-2 draw. Orlando City has drawn its season opener two years in a row (you may recall the one in 2015) by scoring late to come from behind. Until I see an opening day win, I’m going with a draw. But – who knows? – maybe the new stadium will make the difference.
Thanks again to Michael Citro and Mane Land for answering our questions. That charity match also sounds like insane fun. Have your own prediction for the match? Leave it in our comment section!