Orlando City (1-2-2) will make its first trip to the vaunted soccer hotbed that is the Pacific Northwest this weekend, as they travel to Portland to take on the Timbers.
The Portland Timbers (1-1-3) had high hopes heading into the season, but they haven't exactly lit the league on fire so far, earning three draws in five matches. To their credit, they're dealing with quite a few injuries, including most notably midfielders Will Johnson and Diego Valeri.
The Western Conference side is coming off a commanding 3-1 win against a previously unbeaten FC Dallas side though, so confidence is high in Stumptown.
Orlando will be trying to rebound from a crushing stoppage-time defeat at the hands of D.C. United in the Citrus Bowl. Luis Silva's free kick cost the Lions a point at home for the second time in only five matches.
There are a number of similarities between the two clubs, including a focus on possession-based soccer, passionate fan bases, and both teams being recent additions to MLS (Portland was an expansion team in 2011). Orlando will certainly be in for a challenge on Sunday evening, as the Timbers fancy themselves as contenders in the tough Western Conference this season.
Formation and Starting XI:
Orlando City: The Lions are continuing their march back to full strength, after international duty and injuries left them short-handed and lacking rest for their last two matches. If Carlos Rivas is finally fully fit to start on the wing, the left-footer could be a big boost to Orlando's attack. With Pedro Ribeiro's unfortunate hamstring injury, rookie Cyle Larin is slated to start in the striker role. He put in an energetic 70 minutes against D.C., though his finishing left something to be desired.
The Lions should be able to fit more comfortably into Head Coach Adrian Heath's preferred 4-2-3-1 formation this week, so look for a return to possession football. Unlike Rivas and Ribeiro before him, Larin is a pure striker. The hope for Orlando is that his natural instincts when it comes to hold-up play and off-the-ball runs may open up more space for Kaká and co., as it seemed to last weekend. Now, if only someone could finish a chance!
The defense has been consistent and healthy so far this year, and that's a great thing. With a long week of rest after their international matches, fullbacks Brek Shea and Rafael Ramos should be back to 100% and ready to get forward with gusto. Don't be surprised to see either of them put together an MLS Best XI performance on Sunday.
Portland Timbers: Regardless of how the Timbers are playing, it's always a challenge to travel to Providence Park for a match. It's a very long trip for Orlando, and Seattle may have the only louder stadium in MLS. Caleb Porter's men will need all the help they can get, though, as his squad has been devastated by injuries so far in 2015. Porter prefers a 4-2-3-1 formation, similar to Heath's system, but the absence of Johnson and Valeri has forced him into a 4-4-2 in recent matches.
Darlington Nagbe has been the primary playmaker so far this season. He plays a role similar to Kevin Molino, in that he's looking to cut in and bring the ball to the top of the box from his right midfield role. Particularly if Rivas does get the start on the left wing, Darwin Ceren and Shea will need to be very solid defensively against the Liberian-American attacker.
Liam Ridgewell and Nat Borchers form a solid, if not spectacular, center back pairing for Portland. I could definitely see these two having trouble containing the Kaká/Molino combination, though. In general, Portland is a possession oriented team as well, so whichever team controls the ball more in the middle of the pitch should be in a good position to win on Sunday.
What to Watch For:
Orlando City Fullbacks: Last week, the Lions had Brek Shea and Rafael Ramos on short rest following international duty, and Shea still put on a Man of the Match caliber performance. That only stands to improve this week with nine days between matches. The return of Rivas on the left should continue to help Shea as well.
Shea in particular is an excellent finisher, so look for him to make an effort to attack the goal on his own and will Orlando onto the score sheet. He may have his hands full with Nagbe at times, but I expect a big game from the Texan on Sunday night.
Bonus What to Watch For: Donovan Ricketts - Orlando selected the Jamaican keeper number one overall in the MLS Expansion Draft, after the Timbers decided not to protect him this off-season. Ricketts has been serviceable filling in for a recovering Tally Hall, though he certainly hasn't been great. Will a match-up against the team that left him unprotected in the Expansion Draft energize the veteran netminder?
Cyle Larin: No surprise here. The rookie out of UConn will get the first start of his MLS career on Sunday, as the lone striker in Orlando's 4-2-3-1 system. He put in a solid 68 minutes against D.C. after Ribeiro went down, but starting a match is a whole different challenge.
Larin has had some trouble finding the net since he joined the team, but that may not be what the Lions really need from him on Sunday. If the Canadian youngster is able to put himself in the right positions to open things up for Kaká and Molino, things should go well for Orlando City.
Man, for some reason, I just feel good about this one. Maybe it's the long rest week. Maybe it's the Portland injuries. Maybe I just expect Orlando to bounce back after the tough loss.
Still, this may be one of the most rowdy environments that a number of the Lions have ever played in (Cyle Larin, for example). Home field advantage matters in soccer, and the Timbers have a huge one. My gut tells me that Orlando comes home with at least a point, so I'm going to stay conservative and call it a draw.
Final Result: 1-1 Tie
What are your predictions for Orlando's sixth 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 Sunday, April 12, at 5 p.m. It will be televised nationally on ESPN 2.