With the CONCACAF Gold Cup underway, there's no rest for the weary in MLS, with a severely short-handed FC Dallas set to battle an equally weakened Orlando City (6-6-6, 24 pts) on Saturday night in the Citrus Bowl.
To clarify, don't mistake "short-handed" to mean missing one or two stars. It's unlikely that either team will be able to dress 18 on game day, and Orlando City alone is missing four starters. Brek Shea remains out this month with an injury, Kaká will serve his (very questionable) red card suspension, and Darwin Cerén and Cyle Larin are busy playing for the El Salvadoran and Canadian National Teams, respectively.
FC Dallas (8-5-5, 29 pts) is hardly in better shape though, as the Texas club will be short five players this weekend, including attacking threats Blas Perez and Tesho Akindele, who are with Panama and Canada, respectively. However, while Orlando will be without its top two goal-scoring threats, Dallas will still have leading scorer Fabian Castillo, along with talented young play-maker Mauro Diaz.
On the strength of back-to-back home wins, the club formerly known as the Dallas Burn has climbed again just below the elite clubs in the strong Western Conference. The Texas side has been less impressive on the road though, going 0-3-2 on a recent road trip, including a 4-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City and a 3-0 defeat in Seattle.
Dallas seems to have staked out a perennial place just shy of the top guns in the Western Conference, and despite being one of the Original Ten in MLS, the club is yet to win an MLS cup. To its credits though, Dallas has brought in some young talent in recent years, and has seen increased attendance and improved results as a consequence.
It's an interesting match in that, while neither team will be near 100%, both need every point they can get to remain safely within their conference's respective playoff pictures.
Formation and Starting XI:
Orlando City: When your team is forced to line up without its top three offensive threats, there aren't really a lot of good options formation-wise. Coach Adrian Heath could choose to go a variety of different directions with Pedro Ribeiro and Lewis Neal, and the Lions could come out in either a 4-2-3-1, a 4-3-3, or maybe even something entirely different.
If it were me, I'd sure want to leave Carlos Rivas out on the left wing, where he's just finally starting to look comfortable. Pedro Ribeiro should be more comfortable as the central forward in a 4-3-3, where his lack of speed won't be quite so apparent, and Amobi Okugo will have a shot at redemption in the central midfield.
Whatever the formation, though, Orlando City will almost certainly have to rely on fullbacks Luke Boden and Rafael Ramos to provide an offensive spark down the wings with Larin and Kaká absent in the center of the field. The veteran presence of Neal and Eric Avila should prove pivotal in this one as well. This may be the truest test of Adrian Heath's tactical creativity to date.
FC Dallas: As Orlando fans have seen a number of teams do in the Citrus Bowl, Dallas will likely sit back on the road and try to score on the counter. Castillo makes that a dangerous proposition, especially with a number of City midfielders playing out of position, and potentially in an unfamiliar formation.
Mauro Diaz, the Argentine who's evolved into a solid MLS number 10 at only 24, is a threat on the ball as well. As we've seen a number of times, don't be surprised if Tally Hall and the Orlando City center backs are called upon to make some desperation saves to keep things under control. So far, that's worked well enough for the Lions, but luck has been known to run out.
What to Watch For
Carlos Rivas: Over the last few weeks for Orlando City, it's been a nice surprise that Colombian winger Carlos Rivas has finally found his form. He's scored four times in two Gold Cup matches, and he was a difference-maker after his first half substitution in league play against the Rapids.
This weekend, Rivas will go from supporting player to prime attacking option for the Lions. If Orlando City is to score in the run of play against FC Dallas, Rivas will almost certainly have to be involved, whether it be from the wing or as a striker. Is he up to the task?
Fabian Castillo: With Perez, Akindele, Kaká, Larin, and Shea all missing in action, Fabian Castillo may be the most dangerous man on the pitch for either team. A product of Deportivo Cali -- the same Colombian side that produced Rivas and Cristian Higuita -- Castillo has the same blazing speed and cunning as Rivas, but is a far more polished player, with four years of MLS experience under his belt.
Offensively, a tactical change makes sense for the Lions. However, will unfamiliar roles make it difficult to mark Castillo in the midfield? If Orlando can keep Dallas' Colombian speedster under wraps, the Lions stand a good shot at coming away with three points at home.
This will almost assuredly be a messy affair, with both teams featuring a number of unfamiliar faces in their starting XIs. Castillo and Diaz should certainly have City fans on edge, but Dallas has not been good on the road of late.
If Boden and Ramos can stay involved in the attack on their home turf, and Ribeiro and Rivas can step into increased roles in the attack, Orlando City should have the advantage in this one.
Final Score: 2-0 Orlando City win
What are your predictions for Orlando's showdown with FC Dallas? 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, July 11, at 7:30 p.m. It will be televised locally on My65 locally, Sun Sports regionally, and nationally on MLS Live.