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Adrian Heath: Columbus Match 'Most Important of the Season' for Orlando City

In the midst of a three-game skid, Orlando City manager Adrian Heath believes his team is facing its most important match of the season this weekend.

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into their fourth meeting of the season on Saturday, Orlando City and Columbus Crew SC are clubs currently trending in different directions. Coincidentally, this was also the case the last time these two teams faced off in league play on May 30.

The 2-2 draw at the Citrus Bowl that evening came in the middle of a five-match unbeaten streak for the Lions, which would eventually turn into OCSC's best stretch of the season. During that run, Orlando won four out of seven games overall and only lost once between May 17 and June 24.

Fifteen matches into the 2015 season, Orlando City was sitting on 20 points and looking to be in good position in the MLS Eastern Conference playoff race, which was already shaping up to be a tight one.

Columbus, on the other hand, was in the midst of a five-match winless streak. The Crew lost two and drew three during that stretch, and sat on 17 points after 15 matches while moving in the wrong direction in the table.

Fast forward to late July, and the tables have turned.

Orlando City has lost three straight league matches and is experiencing a period of frustration that is unprecedented in the club's history. Since beating D.C. United on June 14, the Lions have only managed 4 points out of a possible 18 in MLS competition and have slipped all the way to eighth place in the East as a result.

Columbus, however, have surged to second in the standings by putting together a run of results similar to that of Orlando's from mid-May to late June. Crew SC have won four out of their last seven matches, losing only once during that span, and now sit on 31 points and trail only D.C. in the conference standings.

Despite the recent run of losses, Orlando City find themselves still within striking distance of the postseason, level on points with NYCFC and Montreal Impact in the battle for the sixth and final playoff spot. With only 13 games to play in the 2015 season, though, Lions manager Adrian Heath sees this weekend's reunion with Columbus as the club's most vital match yet in the American top flight.

"I am concerned enough to know that we have to stop the bleeding a little bit," Heath said Tuesday night. "This weekend, I think, is conceivably the most important game of the season. I really believe that."

This pivotal match comes against a team in very good form that the Lions have developed a bit of a rivalry with due to a high frequency of meetings this season. In three meetings so far (two in MLS, one in U.S. Open Cup competition), the teams have scrapped to a 1-1-1 series record.

The two league meetings, in particular, gave rise to feelings of discontent after chippy play and red cards for both sides marred the clubs' and supporters' first impressions of one another.

Contention will be high once again this weekend, as Orlando will see a stronger Columbus lineup than they did in the June 30 Open Cup meeting. The Crew SC side that rolls into the Citrus Bowl this weekend will more closely resemble the one that scored three goals on a short-handed Orlando team in April and battled to a draw in May despite being a man down for most of the evening.

"They play different than anybody else in the league," Heath said of Columbus. "They ask questions of you that nobody else asks. They gamble at times. They go for the game, they open the game up – they try and score more goals than the opposition. They don't want to [just] win the game, they want to impose their will on the opposition."

It may be a stretch to say that Orlando City's season is on the line this weekend, but it isn't a stretch at all to agree with Heath's statement. Saturday's showdown with Columbus will be critical for the Lions in their quest to regain a foothold in the table and claw their way back into the playoff picture.