For Orlando City (10-13-8, 38 points), this is the club's biggest game in its brief MLS history.
The Lions welcome the Montreal Impact (12-11-6, 42 points) to the Citrus Bowl this weekend, trailing Didier Drogba's club by four points in the Eastern Conference standings. But the Impact have five games left in the regular season, meaning Orlando has no room for error on Saturday night. Simply put, the Lions need to pick up a W.
One potential story line could be Drogba's availability, as the legendary Ivorian striker may sit out this crucial match due to the Citrus Bowl's artificial playing surface. It's a precedent that's been set by many European stars who have joined MLS late in their careers, with Thierry Henry famously refusing to play on turf during his tenure with the New York Red Bulls. Henry did suit up for the Eastern Conference Finals in 2014, which were played on an artificial surface at Gillette Stadium.
At any rate, the Lions have yet to beat Montreal this season, with the teams' first meeting at Olympic Stadium all the way back in March. That was one of the weirdest matches of the year for Orlando City, as the Impact pulled ahead 2-0, only for the Lions to tie it on goals from Pedro Ribeiro and Kaká in the span of two minutes.
Their next meeting came a few yards away at Saputo Stadium, where the Lions fell 2-0 in a June match-up that signaled the beginning of Orlando's late summer swoon.
Whether or not Drogba is able to go for this one, the mission for Orlando City is not going to change. The Lions would be eliminated from playoff contention with a loss to Montreal and a Toronto win or draw against Philadelphia. But a victory would bring them within a point of the Impact and crack the playoff window open just a little bit more.
Starting XI and Lineup Predictions
When you score five goals against one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, you're not going to mess with your lineup too much. At least that's what I think is going through Adrian Heath's mind this weekend.
A resurgent performance from Cyle Larin against New York Red Bulls will keep him atop Orlando City's standard 4-2-3-1 formation, where he'll look to improve on his record-breaking season. The Canadian rookie has surpassed every expectation placed upon him as a No. 1 draft pick in 2015, providing the Lions with an offensive cornerstone they can build around.
With Kaká locked in for the remainder of the season, look for him start along with Brek Shea and Lewis Neal in a three-man attacking midfield. Carlos Rivas did everything in his power to prove he deserved a starting spot against NYRB, but I think Heath will stick with the veteran Neal for the sake of consistency. It's a conservative move, but if Drogba is indeed out for this one, Orlando City might just need to play mistake-free soccer in order to pick up the win.
One unfortunate change will come out of necessity, as OCSC's stud central midfielder Cristian Higuita is unavailable due to a yellow card suspension. Expect Servando Carrasco to slot in next to Darwin Cerén in the double pivot.
Projecting Montreal's starting lineup is tricky, because the makeup of this team was completely transformed with the arrival of Drogba from Chelsea a few months ago.
It's hard to think of a player who's made a smoother transition to MLS than Drogba, as the Ivory Coast legend has been unstoppable in his first few games with the Impact. Though he's only played in six matches, Drogba is already one goal away from becoming Montreal's co-scoring leader on the 2015 season.
But Orlando City might not have to worry about him on Saturday.
Impact coach Mauro Biello said Drogba is hesitant about playing on turf, a surface he hasn't encountered before during his career. Expect a decision regarding his status by this evening, after Drogba has a chance to practice at the Citrus Bowl.
The upshot here is that predicting Montreal's lineup is basically impossible until we know whether or not Drogba is going to play.
If he does suit up, expect a 4-2-3-1 formation designed around getting him as many scoring opportunities as possible. That means using Dominic Oduro to keep the defense occupied with his game-breaking speed (I mean seriously, the guy's Twitter handle is @Freakyfast8), while Ignacio Piatti goes toe-to-toe with Kaká in a battle of central attacking midfielders.
One guy to watch for Montreal is Patrice Bernier, who has seen a diminished role with the Impact this season. Impact supporters were chanting his name at Saputo Stadium last month (as the 36-year-old midfielder celebrated his birthday), and Bernier delivered with a game-winning assist in 2-1 victory over Chicago. He could be dangerous off the bench against Orlando, providing the Impact with some late-game experience they can deploy as needed.
Three Questions for Orlando City:
- Can Cyle Larin score somewhere other than New York? The rookie sensation had another unbelievable performance in the Big Apple last week, but he must bring some of that magic home to Orlando on Saturday. He might be going toe-to-toe with a legend, but can Larin play beyond his years against Montreal?
- Who's going to step up off the bench? With both Carlos Rivas and Bryan Róchez looking like attractive late-game options, Adrian Heath has a couple different players he can turn to go if this match is close late.
- Just how packed is the Citrus Bowl going to be? This is a match with serious playoff implications, and while breaking the record set with #FillTheBowl certainly isn't going to happen, there's no reason Orlando City fans shouldn't produce another electric atmosphere as the season winds down.
Prediction: Orlando City 3, Montreal Impact 1
At this point, would you expect anything less?
The Lions are peaking at the right time this season and, if Montreal hadn't brought in Didier freaking Drogba, would probably be in playoff position already. With the roster looking healthier than it's been in months, Orlando should give their playoff hopes a serious jolt with a win on Saturday night.
Somebody scores off the bench, and Drogba is held in check as the Lions win a big one at home.