Coming off two league losses and a hard-fought bye week friendly, there's no rest for the weary for Orlando City (2-4-2, 8 pts) as defending Eastern Conference Playoffs Champion New England Revolution comes to town.
The Revolution (5-2-2, 17 pts) picked up right where they left off and are currently sitting atop the Eastern Conference table. Not only that, but after dropping their first two matches of the season (without Jermaine Jones), the Revs are undefeated in their last seven. Not exactly the ideal candidate to play slump-buster for the Lions.
Speaking of Jones, he's stepped right back into his role as midfield general for New England, even after missing the club's first five matches. He should be back in the midfield this week after filling in at center back last week against NYRB. As a deep-lying central play-maker, he poses a unique defensive challenge for Orlando City. Will Amobi Okugo be drawn forward to defend the German-American, or will Kaká be forced into more defensive duty tracking back? Neither is an ideal option for the Lions.
For Orlando, significant changes will likely be in store this week, with the season-ending ACL injury suffered by Kevin Molino in last week's friendly. It's not entirely clear who will replace him on the right wing, but it seems most likely that Eric Avila will slide over to that side. More significantly, word from training is that Brek Shea will indeed move back up to left wing, and allow USL veteran Luke Boden to start at fullback.
Shea provides the Lions' most dynamic attacking threat outside of Kaká, and moving the Texan to wing will allow him more freedom to push forward and run at goal. Shea has been solid defensively though, and New England's elite forwards will surely test Boden in only his second MLS appearance.
Formation and Starting XI:
Orlando City: What will life be like for the Lions without Kevin Molino? The Trinidadian hadn't found the score sheet yet for City, but he was clearly an integral part of the offense, not to mention Kaká's favorite attack partner. There's really no option on the roster to replace him; hence the dramatic shift of moving Brek Shea back up to his natural winger position. Shea has been great so far at making overlapping runs in support when Kaká is on the ball. Starting at wing, however, he'll need to slow down his play and support the Brazilian in cycling the ball through the midfield and controlling possession. That's never been Shea's strong-suit, so we'll see just how comfortable he looks in Heath's possession-oriented system.
Luke Boden looked capable in his lone appearance of the season against Montreal, and also looked downright good playing on the left side with Shea in last weekend's friendly. However, he's no Brek Shea, and Orlando fans simply can't expect the same level of attacking contribution from the Englishman.
Heath will want to see improvement from rookie Cyle Larin this week, who will be making his sixth MLS appearance. If Larin fails to have an impact, we may see an early appearance from Designated Player Bryan Rochez, who scored a goal against Ponte Preta on Saturday and earned praise from Coach Heath.
New England Revolution: The cliche would be to say that the Revs have "a wealth of attacking talent", but that's honestly not nearly a strong enough phrase. Outside of the fearsome Dempsey/Martins combo in Seattle, there may be no team with more options up front. In Juan Agudelo, Lee Nguyen, Teal Bunbury, and Charlie Davies, the Revolution have four excellent, young attacking players, each of whom has been capped by the USMNT. It's a testament to Jay Heaps' ability as a coach that he's able to get all four on the pitch at the same time effectively.
New England plays a similar 4-2-3-1 formation, but their style is much different than Orlando City's. Jones has more freedom to create from a deep position, and their attack is typically much more direct and high-pressure. Bunbury and Agudelo on the wings are both converted strikers, and neither is afraid to go directly at goal. At the fullbacks, Woodberry and Tierney are talented players, but the Revs are less reliant on them in attack than some teams in the league.
What to Watch For:
Lions' Midfield Chemistry - Fans will discount the impact of Kevin Molino since he had failed to find the net in 2015, but he really had been essential to the Lions offensive movement. Shea has the speed and tricks, but will he be able to play possession soccer in the attacking third?
If it is indeed Avila on the right, will he be able to contribute more in attack from that side than he has on the left? Further, he will have to adjust to Ramos running forward from the fullback position. Rafael is a fiery player, and after his red card against Columbus, one would expect him to come out hungry on Friday.
Orlando City Set Pieces - For the first time all year, the Lions had success from set pieces in this weekend's friendly. Rochez scored a first half header off a corner, and defender Sean St. Ledger did the same in the second.
Aurelien Collin and Seb Hines are elite headers of the ball by MLS standards, and it's almost a surprise they haven't had more impact on corners this year. With Larin and Shea providing some size as well, a corner or set piece may well be the best chance Orlando will have at finding the scoreboard against a team like New England. It's worth noting, with CB Andrew Farrell coming in at only 5-foot-11, the Revolution don't have the most intimidating back line in MLS.
The friendly win went a long way to increase the confidence among the Lions, though the popular Molino's injury may have dampened spirits a bit. Regardless, Orlando have still not scored a league goal at home in the last 270 minutes.
New England is on fire right now, and are certainly one of the best teams in MLS this year. Can the Molino-less Lions pull off a win at home against the Revs? Of course. But given both teams current form, it would be hard to bet on it.
Final Score: 2-0 New England Revolution
What are your predictions for Orlando's ninth league 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, May 8, at 8 p.m. It will be televised nationally on UniMas.