Who knew a three-match unbeaten streak could feel so deflating?
On paper, Orlando City (3-5-5, 14 points) hasn't lost since May 13 and are in the midst of the best run of results in the club's short MLS history. In reality, City is coming off a draining 1-1 draw against San Jose, which they played much of with 10 men, and an absolutely exasperating 2-2 tie with the 10-man Crew.
On we go, though, as the Lions are set to travel to the Windy City to take on the Chicago Fire (4-6-2, 14 points). As it was last week against Columbus, this weekend's match will feature two teams desperately clawing up toward the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.The two sides are tied on 14 points at the moment, though the Fire have the advantage with a game in hand. Still, a victory here for either side would likely leapfrog them squarely into the playoff picture, while the loser would be well on the outside looking in.
The Fire were busy this week, travelling to the nation's capital on Wednesday to take on D.C. United in a midweek fixture, which they lost 3-1. They crushed the Impact 3-0 at home last weekend though, so things aren't all bad in Chi-Town. Heck, even the Cubs are above .500!
Orlando City has again managed to stay reasonably healthy, though backup forward Martin Paterson will again miss time with a minor leg injury. Brek Shea will also miss his second straight match, though this time it will be on a more positive note than the red card suspension that kept him out against Columbus. He's in Amsterdam with the U.S. National Team to take on the Netherlands in a friendly (to be followed by another against Germany).
Formation and Starting XI:
Orlando City: For a team that's had its ups and downs this season, you have to think that the consistency of the starting XI over these past three matches has contributed to their success. With Shea missing again, I think this week may also see the return of Aurelien Collin to the starting XI. While Seb Hines and Sean St. Ledger have been excellent, you don't just keep one of the best defenders in MLS on the bench all year.
Cyle Larin finally seemed to cool off a bit after a scorching hot month, missing a few sitters against the Crew this past weekend. Carlos Rivas had the same finishing woes, and though OCSC Head Coach Adrian Heath was adamant in defending his young Designated Player, I'm not convinced he's in line for another start. In limited appearances this year, Pedro Ribeiro has been bordering on spectacular. It's simply a case of needing to get a guy on the pitch, even if that requires playing him out of position. The interesting thing about this lineup is that it gives Orlando the option to seamlessly switch into a two forward look, with either Kaká or Ribeiro sliding forward.
The game plan for the Lions should be to get back to the more direct style of play that led to so much success against the Galaxy three weeks ago. The Fire keep their shape very well in their own half, and Orlando may have a hard time breaking them down if they revert to the possession oriented attacked they employed earlier in the season. Kaká and Eric Avila should be looking to deliver quick through balls to Ribeiro and fullback Rafael Ramos cutting into the box.
Chicago Fire: To put it broadly, the 2010s have not been kind to the Chicago Fire. The club has only made the playoffs once in the past five years, losing in the knockout round in 2012. They underwent a massive personnel shakeup under the direction of new coach Frank Yallop in early 2014, but so far, there have been few dividends.
It also hasn't helped that 2013 MLS MVP Mike Magee has been out for the last nine months following hip and knee surgeries. Magee saw his first match action in nearly a year last weekend with Chicago's USL affiliate Saint Louis FC, but it's unclear whether he will be available in any capacity for the Fire against Orlando.
Tactically, the fire rely heavily on David Accam and Harry Shipp on the offensive end. Both have found success cutting in centrally from out wide, and will look to make runs off of Igboananike and Guly. Speaking of, Nigerian Designated Player Kennedy Igboananike has come on strong in the past month, and should be fresh after only coming on for the last 20 minutes against D.C. As mentioned earlier, their strength defensively is their superb form, which could certainly frustrate Orlando City.
What to Watch For:
Who Fills in For Shea?: Will Heath take our advice and insert Pedro Ribeiro into an unfamiliar role, or will he stick with Rivas and hope the Colombian finds his finishing touch? For a third option, does he aim to play smart soccer on the road and start recently healthy veteran Lewis Neal? I can see the argument for all three, but it's clear that the Lions' attack has struggled in the absence of Shea and the injured Kevin Molino.
Kennedy Igboananike: Honestly, I just really like typing his name. If that's not enough for you though, the fact of the matter is that the Nigerian has begun to show why Chicago paid DP money to bring him aboard this off-season. He's fast, smart, creative, and generally a threat on the attacking end.
"I haven't played my best game yet," Igboananike told the Chicago Sun-Times Saturday. "I think more is about to come. [I'm] just starting to get used to the players and getting used to everything around me, so I think I'm getting better and better every day."
If you're an Orlando City fan, that should scare you. Like Kei Kamara last weekend, Igboananike is capable of winning this match all by himself.
Orlando City has scored seven goals in its last three matches, but I'm not expecting a high-scoring affair on Saturday. The fire are too disciplined on defense to be broken down easily by Orlando, but I'm not sure they'll have the energy on short rest to create much offensively.
I'd venture that Orlando City will control a good deal of possession, even on the road, but they should definitely be wary of Shipp, Accam, and Igboananike on the counter. As we near the halfway point of the season though, this match between two teams battling for the sixth and final playoff spot could have huge repercussions down the line.
Final Score: 1-1 Draw
What are your predictions for Orlando's first MLS match against the Fire? 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 Saturday, June 6, at 8:30 p.m. It will be televised locally on My65 locally, FOX Sports Florida regionally, and nationally on MLS Live.