Orlando City (6-9-6, 24 points) has been searching for a rival all season.
While New York City FC, their expansion siblings, and D.C. United, the Lion's closest regional opponent, have both made a case to be the team Orlando fans love to hate, perhaps Columbus Crew SC (8-7-7, 31 points) could be the perfect nemesis after all.
In their first meeting, Columbus handed the Lions their worst loss of the season, a 3-0 bruising that saw Rafael Ramos sent off for a reckless challenge on Waylon Francis.
The teams would draw 2-2 in their next encounter at the Citrus Bowl, before Orlando knocked Crew SC out of the U.S. Open Cup with a 2-0 victory on June 30.
Now, in their fourth meeting of 2015, the stakes are higher than ever for Orlando City.
Coming off a winless July that the Lions would surely like to forget, Orlando City must end its losing ways if the club hopes to stay in contention for the MLS Cup playoffs. With 13 games left to play in the regular season, Orlando sits in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, behind both Montreal and NYCFC on tie breakers. A win against Columbus would catapult Orlando City back into the playoff picture, but it won't be easy against one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
Formation and Starting XI:
Forced to play without Ramos or Christian Higuita against NYCFC last week, the Lions went with a 4-3-4 in an attempt to slow down David Villa and better defend on the smaller Yankee Stadium pitch.
So, even with Ramos questionable for Saturday's match with a thigh injury, look for Orlando City to return to the standard 4-2-3-1 formation against Columbus. The Lions should get a boost with Christian Higuita back from yellow card suspension, as he will partner with Darwin Cerén in the defensive midfield. They'll be tasked with preventing the Columbus midfield from getting any dangerous through-balls to Kamara and keeping Ethan Finlay from running rampant.
Defensively, this is a huge game for Sean St. Ledger. He had some breakdowns against New York City, and Orlando's recent signing of former Real Madrid defender David Mateos wasn't exactly a vote of confidence in the performance of the back line. Orlando City General Manager Paul McDonough said he expects Mateos to "make an impact right away," meaning that without a strong performance against Columbus, this could jeopardize St. Ledger's standing as a regular in Adrian Heath's starting lineup. Fresh off an appearance in the Chipotle Homegrown Game, look for Tyler Turner to start at right back for the injured Ramos and try to deal with MLS All-Star Waylon Francis down the flanks.
In Orlando's three-man attacking midfield, Kaká and Carlos Rivas should get the starting nod, but the third sport could be a toss-up between Lewis Neal (if healthy) and Eric Avila. They'll both want to prove they can get involved offensively, because, like St. Ledger, they were put on notice by a recent Orlando City signing. With the Lions making a move for Swiss attacking midfielder Adrian Winter, both Neal and Avila will need show the club they deserve starting minutes going forward.
Columbus is one of those MLS teams that manages to fly completely under the radar, because the Crew lack any European stars or American internationals. But, while Crew SC hasn't gotten the attention they deserve this season, it's done nothing to shake their confidence, as the club currently sits in second place in a crowded Eastern Conference.
With three MLS All-Stars on their roster in Kei Kamara, Ethan Finlay and Waylon Francis, Columbus boasts one of the most complete squads in MLS, and they should provide a stern test for Orlando City. Kamara, the leading goal scorer in MLS, has already found the back of the net twice against the Lions, and looked impressive in the MLS All-Star Game against Tottenham Hotspur.
Finlay will also have to be dealt with if Orlando City wants an opportunity to win against Columbus. He'll be watched by Cerén and Higuita, but Orlando will have to avoid costly turnovers in the midfield to truly neutralize this threat.
The Lions should be able to take advantage of a less-than-stellar Crew defense, however, as new Ghanaian acquisition Harrison Afful likely won't be ready to go on Saturday. First-choice right back Hector Jiménez is recovering from back spasms and has missed the past few weeks for Columbus, so look for Chad Barson or Chris Klute to get the start in his absence. This could allow Carlos Rivas to continue his good form and provide good service into the box as he did against NYCFC on Sunday.
Player to Watch: Kei Kamara, F
Player You Haven't Heard Of (But Should Watch): Tyson Wahl, CB
There's a bit of controversy brewing in the Columbus back line, where Austrian international Emanuel "Mad Dog" Pogatetz has been benched in favor of MLS veteran Tyson Wahl. Pogatetz spent quite a bit of time in the Premier League with Middlesborough and West Ham, not to mention over 60 caps with the Austrian national team, making him a premium option at center back.
Many thought his benching was temporary, but the Columbus brass has shown no signs of giving Pogatetz his job back. This has opened a window for Tyson Wahl to earn starting minutes with Crew SC and establish himself on what is now his fifth MLS club. The 31-year old Wahl is seen by many as only a temporary replacement at center back, but Orlando City could seek to expose the journeyman defender and create opportunities right in front of goal.
Three Keys For Orlando City:
- Stop Kei Kamara
- Free Carlos Rivas on the left flank to run at Chad Barson or Chris Klute
- Seriously, don't let Kei Kamara score
Prediction: Orlando City 1, Columbus Crew 1
I think Orlando City ends the losing streak on Saturday, I really do, and that's going to be huge for this club. I just don't think they'll be able to start a winning streak against a team as good as Columbus Crew SC.
Look for the defense to be much improved from last week's debacle in the Bronx and for Orlando to create a couple quality chances on goal throughout the match. I expect Kaká to continue his good form after an MVP performance in the MLS All-Star Game and for Cyle Larin to show that his hat trick against NYCFC was no fluke.
I just don't think Orlando City can stop Kei Kamara for 90 minutes and that's going to be the difference in a 1-1 draw.
Let us know your predictions for Saturday's match in the comment section below. And be sure to check out our Open Thread before, during and after the game on Saturday, where members of The Mane Land crew will be talking Orlando City soccer and watching the Lions (hopefully) end this losing streak.
Saturday's match is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 1 at 7:30 p.m. ET. The game will be televised locally on Fox35 or online on the FOX Sports Go app.