It seems like we say this every week now, but this is Orlando City's (11-13-8, 41 points) most important match of the year. There is no more margin of error and the Lions must win out and get help to sneak into the MLS playoffs in their inaugural season.
On tap for the regular season home finale is the same opponent that Orlando welcomed to the inaugural MLS match in the Citrus Bowl back in March, New York City FC. When you think of NYCFC, your think star power -- David Villa, Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo, and Mix Diskerud are the headliners. But Jason Kreis has put together a solid supporting cast, including Thomas McNamara, Patrick Mullins, Mehdi Ballouchy, Kwadwo Poku, Josh Saunders and others.
Nearly as important as making the playoffs is a finish higher than our fellow expansion side. New York City (10-15-7, 37 points) is four points behind the Lions with tonight and one additional game left on the schedule. A win or a draw tonight for Orlando clinches a better record than their Gotham counterparts. Bragging rights are important as a consolation prize, so at least one point would be welcome. Three would be more so, as the Lions are just 0-1-1 in the season series.
The teams split the points on opening day, playing a scoreless first half, with Kaká getting the best chance of the first 45 minutes, from just above the box. Just after the break, Kevin Molino forced a diving Saunders save that nearly broke the deadlock. Diskerud broke the scoreless tie with a curling shot after Molino left him unmarked and Neal was slow to react to the danger, putting the visitors up 1-0. Things looked bleak for the Lions when Aurelien Collin's two-footed challenge on Villa got him sent off in the 83rd minute. But in the 91st minute, Kaká's free kick took the immaculate deflection and rescued a point for Orlando.
In the visit to Yankee Stadium, David Villa opened the scoring after shaking free of Sean St. Ledger, who we didn't realize at the time was playing in his last game with Orlando City, and fired past Tally Hall from the top of the box. Villa would score again and set up a goal as well, terrorizing the Lions' back line. Cyle Larin's hat trick began with an equalizing goal to knot the game at 1-1. Javier Calle restored NYCFC's lead after the break, tapping in unmarked at the far post. Larin tied the game again, taking a perfect cross from Carlos Rivas, off an equally perfect through ball from Darwin Ceren. Villa's second put the hosts in front again, with the aid of an unlucky deflection that wrong-footed Hall. McNamara extended the lead at 71'. Larin completed the hat trick to pull one back but then Diskerud got a stoppage time goal on the counter.
Seriously though, on that small pitch at Yankee Stadium it was like watching indoor soccer at times, and the scoring mirrored that.
Starting XI and Lineup Predictions
OK, it's not ideal. Kaká and Brek Shea are both out on yellow card suspension. Molino obviously isn't back and Rafael Ramos is still suffering from concussion symptoms after a clash of heads with teammate Tommy Redding in the Montreal match on Oct. 3. David Mateos and Corey Ashe are returning from injuries.
I don't see Adrian Heath changing his 4-2-3-1. Starting in the back, I expect he'll play Luke Boden and Ashe at the fullback slots, and I suspect Ashe will take the right side, although that's not a sure thing. Seb Hines could also play the right side. I expect Mateos back in the middle with Collin.
Cristian Higuita and Darwin Ceren will likely be the defensive midfield pairing. Higuita missed the last NYCFC match due to yellow card suspension, and it showed. I don't expect NYC's attacking players to run amok with the Colombian and Salvadoran side by side.
The attacking midfield is a question mark, but the most likely combination is Carlos Rivas and Adrian Winter flanking Lewis Neal. Cyle Larin will probably not notch another hat trick, but he'll be up top and Bryan Rochez will be ready off the bench if called upon.
There's a chance we might see a 4-3-3, utilizing Servando Carrasco along with Ceren and Higuita in the midfield. If that happens I would expect Rivas and Neal to flank Larin up top, moving Winter to the bench.
New York City FC:
Jason Kreis has more options in the attack than he did early in the season but injuries and suspensions will force him to shuffle the back line in front of Josh Saunders. Jason Hernandez and R.J. Allen are out on caution accumulation and Andoni Iraola is nursing a knock. I anticipate the back four will be (L-R) Angelino, Chris Wingert, Jefferson Mena and Shay Facey, although Jeb Brovsky could play a role.
Andrea Pirlo and Andrew Jacobson will connect the back line with the attacking force of Frank Lampard, Ned Grabavoy, (probably) Mix Diskerud and David Villa in a bit of an amorphous 4-2-3-1. Diskerud did play Tuesday night for the U.S. but not for a full half. Mehdi Ballouchy is a potential replacement if Kreis feels Mix isn't ready to go.
Three Questions for Orlando City:
- Who will link play? Without Kaká or Shea in the lineup, there are fewer attacking threats and it will be up to someone like Carlos Rivas or Adrian Winter to supply Larin up top. Neal hasn't been a profound offensive presence so it will likely fall to the wings, along with longer balls from Ceren/Higuita and occasional crosses from the fullbacks.
- Where will the goals come from? Larin is always a threat, but the next highest goal scorer available for Orlando City is Bryan Rochez, who has three goals and will likely start on the bench.
- Can Higuita and Ceren help the back line shut down New York City's stable of offensive threats? The duo of Ceren and Carrasco did a poor job on Pirlo in the last meeting and a worse job on Poku. That can't happen tonight if the Lions are to get a result.
Prediction: Orlando City 2, New York City FC 1
The Lions have so much more to play for than NYCFC. That could become a liability the longer the game remains tied, so Orlando will want to score early if possible and make the blue shirts chase the game. Should OCSC fall behind, things will become more difficult, but a huge, raucous Citrus Bowl crowd could help them carry the day.
For some odd reason, I feel like this is the game Carlos Rivas opens his account. Maybe Larin or Rochez pots one as well.