Orlando City (7-10-7, 28 points) heads to the Pacific Northwest this weekend for a match-up with Seattle Sounders FC (10-12-2, 32 points), in a battle between two teams with some of the most passionate fans in MLS.
The Lions are second only to the Seattle in terms of average attendance at home games, but both teams have struggled with their product on the field this season. Coming into their Sunday afternoon clash at CenturyLink Field, Orlando City and Sounders FC combined to claim seven out of a possible 36 points in league matches since the start of July. That's not going to get it done.
Orlando is looking to turn things around after a disappointing 0-0 draw with the East's ninth-place Philadelphia Union last Saturday night, as they find themselves just out playoff position due to a tiebreaker with the Montréal Impact. Winning on the road is always tough, but the Lions have to believe they're playing Seattle at an ideal time.
Because if Orlando City is sliding, then the Sounders are in a complete free fall.
About two months ago, Seattle was in first place in the Western Conference, with a USMNT star at their helm and a team that look poised for a deep MLS Cup playoff run. But a month later, the Sounders have lost five in a row in league play, been outscored 9-1 and seen Clint Dempsey go down with injury. Also, this happened in U.S. Open Cup play.
It's been a rough run for the Emerald City Supporters.
But that only makes this game even more important for both clubs. With just a draw on Sunday, Orlando City could (somehow) put themselves in back playoff position, and restore some much needed confidence in the supporters. Seattle will look to end its five-match losing streak with a victory or draw on Sunday and right the ship in a fierce Western Conference playoff race.
Formation and Starting XI
Due to a string of injuries and poor form, predicting Orlando City's starting XI is becoming increasingly difficult. For example, Luke Boden has gone from the bench, to starting at left back, to starting at attacking midfielder, to starting at left back. And with the additions of Adrian Winter and David Mateos, look for the lineup to get another shakeup on Sunday .
Winter should get his first start next to Kaká in Orlando's attacking midfield, hopefully providing the offense with a jolt along the flanks. He'll likely be joined by Carlos Rivas, whose return to the starting lineup should also give the Lions a boost as he looks to improve on the good form he exhibited before going down with a groin injury.
On the back line, Tommy Redding will probably start with the center backs (imagine how crazy that would have sounded a month ago) although newcomer Mateos could slide in there. Redding played well last week against the Union, but Seattle will be a step up in competition to be sure.
Brek Shea (sports hernia), Rafael Ramos (thigh) and Seb Hines (knee) are injury holdouts again this week for the Lions.
With Clint Dempsey's status uncertain, we could see the first Obafemi Martins-Nelson Valdez pairing of the year for Seattle. Valdez has the potential to be a really successful move for the Sounders, but hopefully that won't become apparent until next week.
One player to watch is Tyrone Mears at right back, better known as the guy who replaced DeAndre Yedlin. He's impressed with his defensive ability and Yedlin-like recovery speed, which allows him to make an impact on offense too. Luke Boden could have a busy night keeping Mears contained.
Another big name for Seattle comes on defense, where the Sounders added Panama captain Román Torres to shore up the back line. He'll play with a defensive unit that has been pretty consistent this season for Seattle. You certainly can't blame these guys for Seattle's poor form, as the Sounders have only scored one goal during their losing streak. Torres should only improve the defense and will look to shut down Cyle Larin all night.
Player to Watch: Obafemi Martins, F
Obafemi Martins is one of the most important players in MLS. He's proof that you can be a star in the United States without playing on the USMNT or coming over after a legendary career in Europe. The only way this league can reasonably expect to thrive in the future is by attracting more players like Martins.
He's also the biggest reason Orlando City might lose on Sunday.
Last year's MVP runner-up has been asked to take on an even bigger role in the Sounders offense, with Clint Dempsey out for Gold Cup duty and, more recently, due to injury. He could be paired with summer transfer Nelson Valdez (more on him later) at the top of Sigi Schmid's 4-4-2 formation and will be asked to pour in the goals as Dempsey recovers from a hamstring strain.
That shouldn't be a problem...
With the exception of Aurélien Collin, every single player on Orlando City's opening day back line is injured, so Martins could have a field day running at inexperienced players such as center back Tommy Redding.
It will be up to Western Conference veterans such as Corey Ashe and Servando Carrasco (if he plays) to help keep the defense composed against one of the most deadly attacking threats in the league.
Player You Haven't Heard of (But Should Watch): Nelson Valdez, F
Nelson Antonio Haedo Valdez isn't a player most MLS fans are familiar with, and his signing certainly didn't attract the same attention as Giovani Dos Santos or Didier Drogba. But the Paraguayan striker could be a great fit in Seattle and provides the club with a nice Clint Dempsey insurance policy.
A 31-year-old forward with Champions League experience, Valdez played the majority of his career in the Bundesliga, making almost 200 appearances with Werder Bremen and Borussia Dortmund. He fell off the map a bit during forays to soccer backwaters such Russia and the U.A.E., but reemerged with Greek giants Olympiacos last year, scoring six goals in 10 appearances during a loan spell.
After a failed return to the Bundesliga, Valdez has found himself in Seattle. He's actually reuniting with Martins (that's the scary thing) since the two were teammates with Russian club Rubin Kazan, which could provide an easy transition into what used to be one of the league's most effective offensive attacks. He looks ready to make his MLS debut against Orlando City, so the Lions will have to hope his inexperience shows during his first 90 minutes in the league.
Three Questions for Orlando City:
- Can the Lions score without Cyle Larin? Orlando has only won twice this season when their rookie striker fails to find the back of the net. Against a Seattle defense geared towards stopping Larin and Kaká, who will step up for the Lions?
- What does Adrian Winter bring to the table? The Lions' summer transfer made his debut against Philadelphia last week, coming in as a sub in the 72nd minute. Not much is known about the Swiss attacking midfielder, but can he provide an offensive spark for his new club?
- Can Orlando City continue their dominance over Western Conference opposition? Against the league's far superior conference, Orlando is a surprising 5-2-2. What does this mean? (Seriously guys, I can't really explain this.)
Prediction: Orlando City 1, Seattle Sounders 1
I thought the Lions would draw Columbus and they won, then I predicted them to beat Philadelphia and they drew. So I guess this means good things are coming in Seattle.
In all seriousness, Orlando City is facing a Seattle team coming off its worst month in club history. So a draw (and the Sounders' first point in five weeks) isn't a great result for Orlando City, but the Lions will take it at CenturyLink.
With so many new faces set to debut for Seattle, I don't think they'll have enough consistency to get the win against Orlando. But I also don't think the Lions are going to break out of their second half funk in one of the toughest road environments in MLS.
But the more I write, the better I feel about a draw against Seattle. It should give Orlando confidence as they head to Toronto, and more importantly, will push the Lions into the sixth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, for now at least.