Don't look now, but a win on Saturday evening in the Citrus Bowl against third place New York Red Bulls could see Orlando City (6-7-6, 24 points) leapfrog RBNY, Columbus, and Toronto into second in the Eastern Conference standings.
Apparently no one told the Lions that expansion teams are supposed to struggle!
Of course, second place doesn't mean all that much right now in the compressed East, which features eight of 10 teams within six points of each other in the standings. Outside of D.C. United, the law of the land seems to be inconsistency.
New York (7-6-5, 26 points) has dropped matches to Philadelphia and Vancouver at home in the last two months, though they crushed the Revolution at Red Bull Arena last weekend. The Red Bulls have posted a 2-4-3 record on the road this year, so they haven't traveled particularly well so far. Off-season addition Sacha Kljestan has been mediocre so far in his return to Major League Soccer, though he seems to be rounding into form of late. Goal-scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips continues to excel, notching eight in 18 matches so far this year.
Orlando City's ups and downs have been well established this year as well, though they had found a bit more consistency at home of late. The team had a seven-match home unbeaten streak snapped last weekend, falling 2-0 to visiting FC Dallas.
With all the hoopla surrounding Javier Hernández this week, Orlando City went out an surprised us all by signing another player who may actually start this weekend. That would be Corey Ashe, former left back of the Houston Dynamo, who lost his starting role to U.S. National Team legend DaMarcus Beasley this season. Ashe is a two-time MLS All-Star, and he'll almost certainly fill in for the suspended Luke Boden on Saturday.
Orlando City will also be without regular Sean St. Ledger (shoulder), but the side has a like-for-like substitution available in Seb Hines. It's not all bad news though, as Darwin Cerén and Cyle Larin will both be returning from Gold Cup duty and should be fit to start. Kaká will also be back in action after serving a red card suspension last week, and he looked fresh in 45 minutes against West Brom on Wednesday.
A key for Orlando will be to keep RBNY off the scoreboard early, considering they scored twice before the 10-minute mark last week against a decent New England squad. Lloyd Sam and BWP are as dangerous as they come in the attacking third, and Dax McCarty and Kljestan are both capable of deadly long balls.
New York Red Bulls:
Designated Player Sacha Kljestan was never expected to replace Thierry Henry, but so far, he hasn't quite lived up to the more modest expectations of Red Bulls fans. Still, things are looking up of late for the original team from the Big Apple.
New York will come out in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and generally look to move the ball up the middle of the pitch. For Orlando, the task will be to keep playmakers Kljestan and McCarty pushed as far back the field as possible. If either is able to move far enough forward up the pitch with the ball to require the attention of the Orlando center backs, BWP or Lloyd Sam could find space in behind, which could spell doom for Orlando City.
What to Watch For:
Bradley Wright-Phillips vs. Orlando City CBs: BWP, a former Manchester City Academy product, has scored at an absurd clip since joining up with the Red Bulls mid-year in 2013 --36 goals in 57 matches, to be exact. Unlike the Messis and Ronaldos of the world though, he's not the type of player to spend long on the ball. If you can get him service in a dangerous spot, it's normally one or two touches and an attempt at goal.
Center backs Aurélien Collin and Seb Hines will need to stick tight to the former Golden Boot winner all night. If a defender isn't on top of him by time the ball is reaching his feet, chances are, you're cooked.
Corey Ashe: An "X" Factor in the truest sense of the word, Ashe will likely be starting for Orlando City less than a week after officially signing with the team. At 29, Ashe has already racked up 211 MLS appearances with the Houston Dynamo, and earned two MLS All-Star selections. Houston chose to bring in USMNT left back DaMarcus Beasley following his stellar World Cup performance, so Ashe was deemed expendable.
With Brek Shea out for at least another month or two, and Luke Boden suspended this week, Ashe becomes the immediate starter if Head Coach Adrian Heath deems him fit enough to play. It's not terribly likely he'll score or truly change the entire match, but he's a serious threat down the wing at his best.
The Red Bulls seem to be coming into form, but they've been average on the road, and Orlando City has only lost one of their last eight matches at the Citrus Bowl. Despite the league loss last weekend, the friendly win against West Brom certainly won't hurt the attitude around Orlando, and if his goal on Wednesday was any indication, Captain Kaká is rested and ready to go.
Prediction: 3-1 Orlando City
What are your thoughts headed into Orlando's match against the third place New York Red Bulls? 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 18, at 7:30 p.m. It will be televised nationally on Fox Sports and on the Fox Sports GO app. It will be broadcast on Real Radio 104.1 FM and La Grande 1030 AM.