Know your enemy! 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.
NYC FC is back in action Sunday and HRB has needed the full week and then some to rehabilitate after David Villa melted our faces last Friday. Sunday afternoon, New York will be home and looking for revenge against Orlando City, who took all three points against the Blues on opening weekend.
Orlando is coming off a 2-1 victory against the LA Galaxy and has been one of the hottest teams in MLS, taking 12 of a possible 15 points to start the season.
Mane Land editor Michael Citro fielded our questions this week, discussing Orlando’s good form, the contributions from new signings, and Orlando’s success against NYC FC.
Q. It's been an excellent start to the season for Orlando City, taking 12 points from their first 5 games and sitting only one point out of first place in the Eastern Conference. In all four of Orlando's wins, the team has held on to get all three points in one goal games. Is this a small sample size, or is there something about Orlando City that makes the team effective at holding off opponents? Or, conversely, has Orlando been consistently the better team but unable to convert their opportunities?
M. I think it’s all of those things. Certainly five games isn’t enough to make a true judgment about a team. However, the defensive improvement of the club and the commitment of the players to buy in to Jason Kreis’ system is apparent in the early part of the season. Players like Matias Perez Garcia and Giles Barnes have had good work rates through their careers, but our conversations with people who cover their former teams did not lead us to believe they’d be this good defensively. The addition of Jonathan Spector speaks for itself so far, and Scott Sutter has stepped right in and contributed at right back through his first two MLS starts. Putting in improved defensive performances in front of a good shot-stopping goalkeeper like Joe Bendik is a recipe for protecting slim leads.
The Lions have certainly squandered some chances for more comfortable victories. Cyle Larin missed two absolutely golden chances to put the New York Red Bulls away on an uncharacteristically off night. Carlos Rivas hit the woodwork twice against the Galaxy this past week. Barnes could have also had a brace against LA had he fired high, but instead he was denied on point-blank chances by the leg of Jelle Van Damme and a sprawling save by Clement Diop. There were missed opportunities for a third goal in the Philly game, as well, so there have been some chances for City to put teams away.
But, those four wins have come at home in Orlando City Stadium. Starting with that opening-day win over New York City FC, the new building has built an early mystique. I stood in the supporters’ section for that match and regardless of how many shots NYCFC put on frame or how much possession the visitors had, it just never felt like the Lions were going to break that day. That belief by the fans seeped into the team and as long as the ride lasts, it makes Orlando very tough to break down at home.
Q. We asked about your incoming players before the first game of the season and I remarked that they were "not flashy." That may still be the case, but so far the new additions are paying huge dividends for Orlando. According to whoscored, Will Johnson, Jonathan Spector and Donny Toia on aggregate rank as having your first, second and fourth best match ratings, respectively. What have you seen from this trio of players and how are they making Orlando a better team so far in 2017?
M. Those three in particular have helped change the work rate and attitude of the entire team. Spector and Johnson have provided a new kind of leadership that is infectious and now you see how that has rubbed off on guys like Carlos Rivas and Larin when they bust their tails to get into passing lanes and put pressure on the ball.
The fullback situation at Orlando City was not good through the team’s first two years. Toia has been a solid, if unspectacular, left back to start the season. He doesn’t offer too much in the attack, but his stability has limited opponents’ chances. Against LA, Romain Alessandrini was much more dangerous during a period of the game when he played more centrally, away from Toia. I wouldn’t say Donny shut him down, but I think it’s fair to say that he ‘managed’ the Galaxy DP, keeping him mostly quiet on his forays down the right side of the LA attack.
That trio of players you mentioned has been professional, steady, and dependable through the first five games.
Q. As you mentioned in our initial exchange, Orlando has had success against NYC FC so far in their series. The frustration for New York has been there, playing many close games without much success. What did you see from Orlando in our first meeting that you want to see replicated this weekend? Who is the key player for Orlando against New York and someone us New York fans should keep tabs on?
That first game was weird because just 10 minutes into it, Kaká went down with an injury and the Lions seemed fairly discombobulated on offense, aside from that one moment of brilliance from Barnes and Larin. I think if there’s one thing I’d like to see the team replicate in the second meeting with NYCFC, it’s the togetherness and effort the players showed for one another. Jason Kreis called it “a willingness to not be broken.” That’s much more difficult to duplicate on the road, though.
The key player for me in this match-up is center back Tommy Redding. He’s had success before in helping to manage David Villa and he’ll have to do it again if Orlando City is to take anything from Yankee Stadium on Sunday. Redding has stepped in for Jose Aja and he’s the deserved No. 3 center back right now, earning a lot of respect from Kreis despite his young age. Kreis likes to play the more physical Aja with Spector, who is less physical and a more cerebral and tactical player, because pairing Spector and Redding puts two of the same type of player in the middle. Redding will have to find ways to frustrate Villa to keep the Spaniard from having one of his typical big games.
Q. What injuries and suspensions do we need to know about?
M. The team is suspension free [/furiously knocks on wood] right now. Kaká (hamstring) is getting closer to a return but I don’t know that he’ll be quite ready for Sunday. Jose Aja (hamstring) and Rafael Ramos (hamstring) are out. Reserve fullback/midfielder Tony Rocha (hamstring) put in a shift for the club’s USL side on Tuesday and may be on the bench Sunday. Backup center back Seb Hines (knee surgery) is out.
Q. Prediction for match?
M. I think we’ll see mostly the same Starting XI as last week, with Matias Perez Garcia returning from his suspension and manning the top of the diamond, sending Giles Barnes to the bench as a super sub. I think Kreis will field a 4-4-2 diamond, with this look: Joe Bendik; Donny Toia, Jonathan Spector, Tommy Redding, Scott Sutter; Cristian Higuita, Antonio Nocerino, Will Johnson, Matias Perez Garcia; Carlos Rivas, Cyle Larin.
As this will be the first trip to Yankee Stadium for Spector and Sutter, I’m a bit concerned, as that’s a tricky venue due to the narrow pitch and variety in the playing surface. I expect it will be tough to score. I think a 1-1 draw may be on tap.
Thanks again to Michael for answering our questions. Have a hot Orlando City take you just have to unleash? Let us hear it in the comments section!