The moment we've all been waiting for is finally here, as Orlando City SC is set to take on New York City FC on Sunday in the Citrus Bowl to begin the inaugural MLS campaign. Kickoff is at 5 p.m., and the match will be televised live on ESPN2 with coverage starting at 4:30.
Lost in the hoopla of #FillTheBowl and the drama of the CBA negotiations though, there's an actual soccer match to be played on Sunday. You know, that thing where 22 guys runs up and down the field kicking a ball for 90 minutes?
Rest easy, ManeLanders. We here at TML have a laser-like focus on all aspects of the beautiful game, and I'm here today to get you prepped for the actual match on Sunday!
Are they or are they not rivals? Where in the world is Frank Lampard? Are we doing #FillTheBowl, or is the match postponed? When was the last time there was this much build-up to a regular season match, in any sport?
This will clearly be the marquee MLS match-up of the weekend, and perhaps one of the most watched worldwide. It will be on ESPN2 in the U.S., Sky Sports in the UK, and aired in parts of Brazil as well.
It features two teams playing in their first ever MLS matches, though they come from very different beginnings. Orlando City is the brainchild of two Englishmen, Head Coach Adrian Heath and President Phil Rawlins, who founded the club in 2008 in Austin, TX. They moved to Orlando in 2011, and proceeded to dominate the USL and build a rabid fan base to earn their entry to MLS.
New York City FC is the creation of the wealthy owners of English side Manchester City, along with the owners of Major League Baseball's New York Yankees. The team has deep pockets and the country's biggest market in New York City, but they lacked a built-in fan base or players to build around.
Both clubs have added formidable attacking players from top European clubs, with Brazilian legend Kaká joining the Lions, while Spanish striker David Villa will feature for New York. Top young American talent will also feature on Sunday, with Brek Shea and Amobi Okugo on Orlando, and Mix Diskerud starting in the midfield for the opposition.
Expansion teams have traditionally had a difficult time in their first MLS seasons, so expectations are tapered for both sides. Orlando fans are used to championships though, and aren't likely to settle for anything less than a playoff appearance this season.
Formation and Starting XI:
Orlando City SC: We have't seen much experimentation this preseason from Coach Adrian Heath, which means we have a pretty good idea of what to expect on Sunday. The Lions will be in Heath's customary 4-2-3-1 formation, with DPs Kaká and Bryan Rochez up top, spearheading the attack. In fact, the only position that is in any real doubt for this match is center back, where Sean St. Ledger was only officially signed by the team on Thursday afternoon.
On the left, Brek Shea will have the green light to roam forward at will, and veteran Lewis Neal will be counted on to cover for him defensively on occasion. On the right, 19-year-old Rafael Ramos will be more cautious, with Kevin Molino providing the primary attacking option. Look for Okugo to stay home defensively for most of the match, as he'll be asked to support a shaky back line and a young right back.
New York City FC:
There's actually a bit more mystery with NYCFC's formation, as head coach Jason Kreis' preferred midfield diamond has already been called into question. New York shifted to a flat 4-4-2 at the half against Orlando in Charleston, and it's as yet unclear how they'll come out on Sunday. Diskerud fits well enough as the play-maker at the top of the diamond, but asking Andrew Jacobson to shadow Kaká on his own is a riskier proposition.
David Villa is, of course, the biggest threat on the squad, and he'll float wherever he needs to in the attacking third to get on the ball. While left back Chris Wingert is no Brek Shea, he's a confident attacking fullback in his own right, who can challenge Ramos down Orlando's right flank.
Match-up to Watch:
Amobi Okugo vs. Mix Diskerud: It's no secret that both squads here are front-loaded with a glut of attacking talent. However, as is so often the case, the winner of this match may be decided by whose defense is most up to the challenge. Enter Amobi Okugo, who has assumed a leadership role for the Lions in the central midfield. His primary responsibility on Sunday will be corralling Diskerud, whose talent many fans have seen on display for the U.S. National Team.
While the media hype will surely focus around Kaká and Villa facing off for the first time in MLS, the Okugo/Mix battle is the more salient match-up for American soccer. Both players are just entering their prime, and both figure to be involved in the USMNT picture over the next four years. For the sake of the match, we know Villa and Kaká will have their moments of magic, but my guess would be that Orlando will walk away victorious if Okugo can contain the Norwegian-American.
The Crowd: Sure, chances are you could say this about any home match for Orlando City. But Sunday will be different. 62,000 people are expected at the refurbished Citrus Bowl in Orlando, and the town will be painted purple this weekend. This match could go a number of ways, but if the Lions get out to a strong start and score early, the roar will be deafening.
There will be a lot of soccer newbies in the crowd for sure, but the supporters groups will be out in force to give them their cues. It may not be the biggest stage of their storied careers, but I'd be shocked if even Villa and Kaká don't have a few goosebumps as they walk out of the tunnel.
This is a classic head vs. heart decision for me. My heart tells me that Orlando will build upon their experienced core of players and the energy of 62,000 fans to earn the victory. My head tells me that both teams will be nervous and play cautious soccer, with a draw as the likely outcome.
Neither team has built the strongest back line, so i think we'll see a few goals in this one. While a Lions victory would be the perfect ending to a momentous day for the city of Orlando, I can't help but think that both teams come away from this one with a point.
Final Result: 2-2
What are your thoughts headed into the match on Sunday? Let us know in the comment section. Be sure to stay tuned tomorrow and Sunday as well. We'll have our Match Day Open Thread up 90 minutes prior to kickoff!