Orlando City (3-5-3, 12 pts) are set to hitch the wagons and head west this weekend to take on the surprising San Jose Earthquakes (5-4-2, 17pts). The match will take place Sunday night at Levis Stadium, the 68,500-seat home of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers.
The Earthquakes sit in fourth place in the Western Conference, though that still certainly qualifies as "surprising" given their 2014 season. San Jose finished that campaign dead last in the West, three points behind a Chivas USA squad that was so bad the MLS chose to disband them.
They've been a different squad so far in 2015, though, under the watchful gaze of new head coach Dominic Kinnear. Chris Wondolowski is again near the top of the league in goals, and Víctor Bernárdez and Clarence Goodson comprise one of the most impressive center back pairings in the league. I generally hesitate to focus too strongly on the big name players like Wondolowski when I put together these previews, but taking a look at the stats, it seems like he deserves it.
For Orlando City, an up-and-down season took a massive swing for the good last weekend, with the 4-0 drubbing of the defending champion LA Galaxy. Midfielder Darwin Cerén had a bit of a breakout game, and we also saw the return of both Martin Paterson and Tally Hall. Things were still certainly more bad than good for Orlando over the last month, but there's optimism that the win could be a turning point.
For all the flair of Kaká and Brek Shea up top, though, the man to watch right now is rookie Cyle Larin. Just months removed from his last match at UConn, the Canadian international has scored in the team's last four matches, including a friendly against Brazilian side Ponte Preta. He's improved his play each and every week, and appears to be Orlando's best scoring threat despite being only 20 years old.
Orlando City: No changes for the Lions, which makes sense considering last weekend's result. Coach Adrian Heath will certainly stick with the hot hand in Larin, rather than rushing Paterson back into action. While I don't think we've seen the last of Amobi Okugo quite yet, for now, you can't argue with results.
We had a great conversation about this on this week's PawedCast, but I think it's clear how much the Lions' offense has changed following the loss of Kevin Molino. They've become more direct, in part to better suit Shea's style. Without Molino to play keep-away with for 90 minutes, Kaká has had to adapt and realize that through balls to Shea and Rafael Ramos are now his best offensive option.
Larin's hold-up play was spectacular against a depleted Galaxy back line last week, but he'll be in for much more of a challenge against Goodson and Bernárdez, not to mention the wildly underrated Marvell Wynne at right back. The league has certainly noticed the rookie's recent form, so don't expect any Quakes to overlook him on Sunday.
San Jose Earthquakes: Forever in the shadow of the Galaxy and playing in a relatively small West Coast city, San Jose has never been the poster boy for Major League Soccer. The Quakes were originally known as the clash for their first five seasons, and then were "on hiatus" for two years when their owner packed up the players and coaches and moved to Houston. But alas, they've also won two MLS Cups and two Supporters' Shields. Go figure.
Honestly though, looking at their 2015 lineup, I see a really solid squad. I've already talked about the back line, but I can't stress enough that it's an elite defensive unit. Wynne and Stewart don't provide a huge amount of attacking threat down the wings, but Kinnear has covered for them by throwing five forwards and attacking midfielders on the field. Unlike Shea and Eric Avila for Orlando City, Sanna Nyassi and Shea Salinas are true wingers who are happy attacking down the sidelines.
In case you missed the statistics above, though, there's no big mystery who's going to hurt you on this Earthquakes side. He's unlikely to do anything too pretty, but the odds are better than not that Wondolowski finds a way to put the ball in the net this weekend.
What to Watch For:
Chris Wondolowski's 100th MLS Goal: I can't say whether it will happen against Orlando or not, but the importance of the milestone can't be overstated. He'll be only the ninth player in MLS history to reach triple digits. Not only that, but there are only four players with more than 110. If he continues at his current pace, the 32-year-old Wondolowski may be the fifth-leading goal scorer of all-time in Major League Soccer by the end of 2015.
With four more goals, he'll reach ten for the year and be the first player ever to reach double digits in six consecutive seasons. On six right now, he's only one behind Kei Kamara and Clint Dempsey for a share of the current MLS lead.
Martin Paterson: San Jose rarely loses or wins big, so expect a close match in what will be an unfamiliar stadium for both sides. Enter Martin Paterson, who will likely see time off the bench midway through the second half no matter what the scoreline is. If Orlando is in the lead, Paterson is a tremendous pest in soccer's version of a fore-check. If City are in need of a goal, we may finally see what the Northern Irish striker can do in attack.
I honestly don't really have a strong feeling on this one either way. I think Nyassi and Salinas will do a lot to keep Boden and Ramos busy on the defensive end, but I also think the St. Ledger and Hines are the right kind of defenders to deal with Wondo.
Orlando City looked great on the road in Portland earlier this year, and they'll have all 11 starters available from the side that just routed L.A. Without really having too much to go on, I'll say the Lions find a way to get another win on the road.
Final Result: 2-1 Orlando City
What are your predictions for Orlando's match with the San Jose Earthquakes? 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, May 24, at 7 p.m. It will be nationally televised on Fox Sports 1.