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Orlando City vs. D.C. United: Match Preview

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After two matches against Canadian sides, the Lions return to Orlando to take on their nearest geographical rival, D.C. United.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Between two Canadian opponents and the Dynamo out of the Western Conference, Orlando City hasn't faced much in the way of a rivalry game since the opening match against New York City FC.

That changes on Friday, when the Lions' closest geographic rivals will make the trip down from the nation's capital.

D.C. United is one of the most storied franchises in Major League Soccer, and they're also the defending Eastern Conference champions. They flamed out in the playoffs last year against the New York Red Bulls, but almost the entire core of players from last years' table-topping side are back this season.

There will be a couple very notable exceptions on Friday though, including striker Fabian Espindola (suspension) and center back Steve Birnbaum, who suffered an ankle injury last weekend against the Galaxy. In their stead, the oft-injured Chris Pontius and young winger Nick DeLeon seem to have regained the form that carried D.C. to the top of the league back in 2012.

In the back, shot-stopper Bill Hamid was perhaps the best keeper in MLS last year, and he'll be looking to make an impression on Jurgen Klinsmann prior to the next round of USMNT friendlies. In the midfield, Perry Kitchen, a player very similar to Orlando's Amobi Okugo, will have the primary responsibility for marking Kaká.

The Lions, for their part, should have most of their lineup back from international duty, though it's unclear who will be match-ready after the midweek friendlies. Brek Shea scored a beauty of a goal from a free kick for the U.S. on Tuesday, and backup striker Cyle Larin netted for Canada on Monday as well.

I would expect Luke Boden to start in place of Shea, who will have flown back from Europe after his Tuesday friendly. I do think that Kevin Molino to be back in the starting lineup though, and Larin should also be available off the bench.

Formation and Starting XI:

Orlando City SC: The Lions may well go back to the 5-2-2-1 formation which showed some promise against Montreal, but the return of Molino may mean they'll be back in Heath's preferred 4-2-3-1. While striker has been a carousel so far for Orlando, it's hard to believe that Pedro Ribeiro would be out of the starting lineup after his man of the match performance against Montreal, so we're penciling him in.

Orlando will look to return to the Molino/Kaká interplay that created most of their chances through the first three weeks. This should be particularly effective with the Birnbaum injury, as communication will be a concern for United's backline. If Ribeiro is able to get involved as well, it  could spell trouble for D.C.

Chris Pontius is a player who can hurt you in a lot of ways and isn't afraid to shoot from distance, but Aurelien Collin's aggressive attitude should come in handy here. DeLeon is a true winger in D.C's 4-4-2, and will certainly test Luke Boden's defensive merit. Look for a potential return by Rafael Ramos who reportedly returned early from the Portugal U-20 team, but if he's deemed to not be ready, Seb Hines will likely play right back.

D.C. United: The Black and Red are missing Espindola up front, but the attacking prowess of a healthy Chris Pontius shouldn't be ignored. They've tended to move the ball forward up the wing this season, and particularly through Nick DeLeon on the right.

D.C.'s biggest issue so far has been a lack of play-making in the center of the pitch. Kitchen is a defensive-minded midfielder, and Davy Arnaud simply hasn't shown the creativity to drive their offense. If Orlando can keep things under control on the wings, they can exploit United's weakness in the middle and force them to rely on long balls out of the back.

What to Watch:

Kaká/Molino/Ribeiro Connection: We saw some incredible passing between Molino and Kaká in the first three weeks, though they had some trouble actually finding the back of the net. In week four, Kaká and Ribeiro combined for two magnificent goals. Can Orlando get all three working together at the same time? While Kofi Opare is a capable replacement, Birnbaum's absence certainly won't hurt Orlando's chances of success attacking up the middle of the pitch.

"X" Factor:

Orlando Bench: Will Brek Shea be or Darwin Ceren be available off the bench coming off their international duty? Perhaps we see Shea as a super-sub on the wing? Head Coach Adrian Heath has been incredibly stingy with his substitutes so far, but perhaps this is the match where he finally uses all three.

Prediction:

D.C. should be a playoff team this year, and they're coming off a big home win against the LA Galaxy. However, they haven't traveled particularly well over the last few years, and the Birnbaum injury is a major blow.

Orlando seemed to have found their scoring touch against Montreal, and the return of Kevin Molino to the lineup should only boost that. I think Orlando puts together a solid 90-minute performance at home and gets the W on Friday.

Final Result: 2-1 Orlando City

What are your thoughts headed into Orlando's fifth match? Let us know in the comment section. Be sure to join in on our Match Day Open Thread 90 minutes (or so) prior to kickoff!

The match is scheduled for Friday, April 3, at 7:00 p.m. It will be televised nationally on UniMas, with English commentary available via the SAP feature.