Despite preseason suggestions that these two expansion sides would be each other's fiercest rivals, things have been fairly quiet between Orlando City (6-8-6, 24 pts) and New York City FC (5-9-6, 21 pts) since the teams fought to a wild 1-1 draw on opening day.
Orlando has battled to remain in playoff contention in the East, and played a number of fierce games against D.C. United and Columbus Crew. On the other hand, NYCFC struggled and faded further back in the Eastern Conference Standings, though at the moment, they're only three points shy of sixth-place Orlando City. The club's biggest headline of the year came when they acquired Italian legend Andrea Pirlo, who should be at least available for this weekend's match-up.
It's been extremely rough going for the Lions in July though, with a record of 0-3-1 across all competitions. They did manage a friendly win against EPL side West Brom, but that will hardly redeem a run of poor form that's seen them slide down the MLS table and knocked out of the U.S. Open Cup.
On a positive note, common sense has prevailed, and forward Cyle Larin will be eligible for this Sunday's match after the red card he received against New York last weekend was overturned on appeal. The same can't be said for Head Coach Adrian Heath and midfielder Cristian Higuita though, who will both miss this match on suspension.
Orlando will be in absolutely no position to complain about absences hurting its team on Sunday, though. Pirlo is finally with NYCFC and training, but he will be basically a game-day decision, according to MLSSoccer.com's Dylan Butler. Lions fans might almost consider rooting for him to start, given how difficult it would be to perform well after a one month vacation and only a few training sessions with a new team. Frank Lampard will also likely miss the match with a calf strain, and Mix Diskerud will still be with the USMNT for the Gold Cup third place match on Saturday. Finally, role players Ned Grabavoy and Jason Hernandez will both be out on red and yellow card suspensions, respectively.
Here are the highlights from the March 8 match, if perhaps you weren't one of the 62,358 at the Citrus Bowl for the event:
Formation and Starting XI:
Orlando City: It's good news that Cyle Larin will be available, but that won't replace midfielder Cristian Higuita, who will miss the game on yellow card suspension. With Amobi Okugo sent to Sporting KC, and Harrison Heath injured, that likely leaves newly acquired Servando Carrasco to start in his stead.
It's hard to really look to the earlier meeting for clues as to how this will turn out, as both expansion sides have come a long way since that March tilt. What's still true is that whichever side controls the middle of the field will be the odds on favorite to come away with three points in this one.
During it's recent losing streak, Orlando City has been entirely too reliant on crosses from the wings to create chances, which has never really been their strong suit as a team. It's extremely important that Kaká establishes a connection early with Darwin Ceren and either Lewis Neal or Eric Avila, and Orlando asserts control in the middle third of the pitch.
New York City FC: The most expensive midfield in Major League Soccer will hardly be very imposing on Sunday. Realistically, all four projected starters will likely be out for Sunday's match, though in fairness, Pirlo and Frank Lampard have have just joined the team.
New York's busiest problem has been finding the connection between the midfield and Spanish striker David Villa, especially since Diskerud has been missing with Gold Cup duty. Villa has too often been forced to come back to find the ball, which inhibits his ability to get in good scoring positions quite as often.
NYCFC will have to find a way to remedy that issue against Orlando, and may even consider turning to the freshly arrived Pirlo. Cristian Higuita has been Orlando's most pestering defender in the midfield, so it will be up to Darwin Ceren and the newly acquired Servando Carrasco to disrupt New York's midfield.
What to Watch For
Battle for the Middle: I harped on this already, but the key to Sunday's match will be which team can control the middle of the narrow Yankee Stadium field. If Orlando City resort to a lot of crosses in the early going, I don't think they'll be coming home with the result they want.
Despite the absences in New York's midfield, Andrew Jacobson has put in some quality minutes for the Bronx Bombers of MLS. Whether or not Pirlo will play is still a mystery, but regardless it will be up to Ceren and Carrasco to stop the New York side from progressing the ball up the middle of the field at all costs.
David Villa: While Orlando City has spent all summer chasing elite, international strikers, New York City FC already have one who's working out quite nicely. There's no doubt Villa will be the best pure goal-scorer on the field on Sunday, and even if New York is struggling, he can still create an individual goal at any time.
There have been times this year where Sean St. Ledger's positioning hasn't been up to par, and that's the sort of thing that will hurt you real quick with Villa. If City is not careful, they could outplay NYCFC for 90 minutes and still end up with a 1-0 loss and Villa wonder-strike.
How will the referees ruin my prediction this week?
NYCFC have been all over the place this season, but more bad than good overall. Orlando City is in the midst of their worst run of results of the season, though that's been aided by some very poor refereeing.
I honestly don't know how the Lions will adjust to the micro-field that is Yankee stadium, though theoretically it should benefit their passing, possession driven offense. The Lions should be able to handle a depleted NYCFC, but with City's recent luck, who the heck knows.
Final Score: 2-0 Orlando City
What are your predictions for Orlando's showdown with NYCFC? 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 Sunday, July 26, at 2:30 p.m. It will be televised nationally on Fox Sports 1.