After establishing himself as a three-time All-Star in Major League Soccer with Sporting Kansas City, Aurélien Collin was brought to Orlando City to be the cornerstone of the Lions' back line. He has proven to be exactly that in his nine appearances for City so far in 2015, and his value was highlighted when Orlando blew a 1-0 lead on the road to D.C. United on May 14 following the Frenchman's exit due to a hamstring injury.
But despite playing without their defensive linchpin in the last two games, the Orlando City back five – composed, from left to right, of Luke Boden, Sean St. Ledger, Seb Hines and Rafael Ramos, with goalkeeper Tally Hall behind – has played very well.
The Lions allowed only one shot on target on May 17 in their 4-0 trouncing of LA Galaxy, and they allowed just four the following Sunday away to San Jose, despite playing with 10 men for the final 40 minutes of the 1-1 draw. The lone goal conceded to the Earthquakes came by virtue of a penalty kick, which was awarded as a result of a foul by midfielder Darwin Cerén.
According to manager Adrian Heath, the difference over the last couple of games has started at the back with the return of Hall between the sticks, following a long recovery from an ACL injury suffered last season.
"I think Tally has given everybody a lift," Heath said Tuesday night. "I think that's been pretty apparent. He's been a reassuring presence back there, very undemonstrative as well. One good thing is he's been very good with his communication with the people in front of him [on] set pieces."
While Donovan Ricketts was serviceable in the early season for Orlando, Hall's leadership and communication appears to be elevating the play of the defenders in front of him, and it's clear why the Lions acquired the netminder from Houston last year.
Another Lion who deserves credit for the solidity at the back is center back Sean St. Ledger, who has stepped into the large void left in the center of defense left by Collin.
OCSC was forced to play fullback Tyler Turner out of position for the remainder of the D.C. match following Collin's departure, and the young defender was exposed while playing an unnatural position. In the weeks since, St. Ledger has taken the reins and fully leveraged the opportunity afforded to him by Collin's injury, providing leadership and a rock solid presence alongside Hines in the central defense.
"[St. Ledger] is very vocal," Heath said. "On the training ground every day he never shuts up, so we know he's very vocal. His experience has been invaluable in the last couple games. One thing he does help us with is we don't have to rush Aurélien back with a hamstring."
The performance of St. Ledger and Hines has made it difficult for Heath to compromise that pairing in the center as long as they continue to impress.
At fullback, Luke Boden has fit in well for the Lions at left back since Brek Shea's move up to the left wing in midfield, and Ramos has continued to impress on the right as one of Orlando's early season surprises. Since the last meeting with Columbus, in which Ramos was sent off for a violent tackle just minutes after a terrible gaffe that led to Crew SC's first goal of the evening, the Portuguese seems to have accelerated his maturation process.
His reaction following his giveaway that led to Federico Higuaín's opener in Columbus was hot-headed and only exacerbated the damage by forcing his teammates to play a man down for almost an hour. However, against New England, when a lazy Ramos back pass led to a second goal for the Revs, he responded in a much more professional way and went on to notch an assist in Orlando's comeback for a 2-2 draw.
Outside that moment of craziness, as Heath put it, Ramos has been largely good at right back for the Lions, where the coaching staff was worried entering the season with only a pair of inexperienced starting options present in the 20-year-old Ramos and 18-year-old Turner. Both players have proven to be up to snuff in MLS thus far.
"He's had to [learn his lessons]," Heath said of Ramos. "At this level you get punished for your mistakes. He's been in the second team over at Benfica, and no disrespect, but it doesn't mean the same. [In MLS], you make a mistake and it could cost you three points that cost you the playoffs."
Tonight against Columbus, the Lions will need more of the same from their back five if they hope to take all three points against the Crew.
Columbus boasts one of the most dangerous attacking units in the league. Kei Kamara, who currently leads MLS with nine goals, leads the line and has a dangerous trio of midfielders behind him in Higuaín, Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram.
Finlay leads MLS in assists with six, while Meram provides a threat off the left wing with three goals and an assist to his name. Higuaín is one of the league's best creators in the No. 10 role, as he showed in the first meeting between these teams with a goal and an assist.
With so many weapons in tow, the Crew like to take the game right at their opposition, so tonight's test will be a stiff one. If recent weeks are any indication, though, the Lions' back five has proven capable of passing that test.