For Orlando City (7-10-6, 27 points), Saturday night's clash with the Philadelphia Union (6-13-4, 22 points) is a must-win game.
It's an overused cliché in sports today, but when you look at Orlando's remaining schedule and where the Lions sit in the Eastern Conference standings, it's hard to imagine a scenario where the club makes the playoffs after losing to the worst team in MLS at the Citrus Bowl.
With Orlando City set to hit the road for the next two matches, including difficult trips to Seattle and Toronto, a match-up with Philly could provide the Lions with the three points they need to keep pace in a crowded Eastern Conference. And seriously, if beating the last-place Union on home turf is too much too ask, Orlando City doesn't really deserve a shot at the MLS Cup Playoffs anyway.
Coming into this pivotal late-summer match, both Orlando City and Philadelphia are in pretty similar form. After appearing to turn the corner with impressive wins against Seattle and Portland earlier in the season, the wheels have fallen off for the Union, and they've lost three straight. Orlando hasn't been much better, having lost four out of five after Wednesday night's 4-1 defeat to Toronto FC.
This is the first meeting of the 2015 season between the two clubs, but Orlando City will also travel to PPL Park for the season finale on Oct. 25. The Union are the only Eastern Conference opponent that Orlando City has yet to face.
Formation And Starting XI
Wednesday night's loss to Toronto FC wasn't fun for Orlando City, but the effects of playing a mid-week game are going to continue to haunt this thinned out roster over the weekend.
Luckily, a few key players should return for Orlando to provide the club with a boost against the Union. The biggest addition (obviously) will be Kaká, who missed the loss to Toronto FC with a minor injury. He should slot into his normal spot at the center of Orlando City's midfield and jump start the Lions offense with his composure and presence alone.
In addition, look for Darwin Cerén to drop back into a midfield pairing with Christian Higuita as Lewis Neal is likely to get the start in Orlando's attacking midfield. Neal returned from injury as a substitute against Toronto, and should be well-rested for a starting role against the Union.
The Union currently own the worst record in MLS, but this isn't a team Orlando City can afford to overlook.
Boasting a surprisingly effective offense behind Argentine midfielder Cristian Maidana and forward C.J. Sapong (#ForeverALion), the Union haven't actually struggled to find the back of the net this season. Their issues have come in preventing goals, with an MLS-worst mark of 40 goals conceded in 2015.
This is something Orlando City has the weapons to exploit.
But the Union will look to prevent any defensive lapses with a center back pairing of former Rangers defender Maurice Edu and second-year man Richie Marquez. While Edu has been a steadying presence in the back line for Philly, everything else the Union have tried on defense hasn't worked. Marquez is an intriguing prospect (drafted out of D-III University of Redlands in 2014) who has been impressive filling in for several injured defenders this season. The Union will look for him to spark an impressive defensive performance against Orlando City on Saturday.
MLS veterans Brian Carroll and Sebastian Le Toux are also worth keeping an eye on, as the 34-year-old Carroll has been especially impressive in 2015. After starting the season on the bench, he forced his way into the starting lineup and has been a regular for the Union down the stretch this season.
Player to Watch: Maurice Edu, D
The most recognizable name on Philly's roster, Maurice Edu isn't the same player who made nearly 100 appearances with Rangers and found his way onto a FIFA cover in 2009.
But he's still pretty darn good.
Edu was a victim of Rangers' financial liquidation before the start of the 2012-13 Scottish Premier League season and was sold to Stoke City as part of cost-cutting measures. But he only played 10 minutes with his new EPL club before joining the Union on loan last season, where's he now a full-fledged MLS player, after the Union bought his contract before the 2015 season.
An imposing center back, Edu could very well be the only thing standing between Cyle Larin and sole possession of the MLS rookie scoring record. He'll also be battling Aurélien Collin on set pieces and looking to do emergency defending for a lackluster Union back line.
Player You Haven't Heard Of (But Should Still Watch): Cristian Maidana, MF
One of the perks of being a club near the bottom of the MLS table is that's its easy to catch teams by surprise with players who have flown under the radar throughout the season. That's why it's important to appreciate just how good Cristian Maidana can be for the Philadelphia Union.
One of the best assist men in MLS, Maidana has contributed on 11 Union goals this season, tied for second in MLS with All-Star Benny Feilhaber. He hasn't gotten much recognition on a last-place Philly team, but the Argentine international can play...(Eric Avila's ankles were never the same after this goal.)
Maidana will test the defensive ability of Orlando City's midfield, but this is a unit that has shown it has what it takes to stop a creative midfielder like the Union star. They were able to keep MLS assist leader Ethan Finlay off the score sheet in a 5-2 victory over the Columbus Crew last week.
Why Orlando City Will Win:
On paper, the Lions appear to be the better team in this match-up, and they've done well this season against teams from the bottom half of the MLS table.
Orlando City is currently 3-3-1 against teams sitting outside MLS playoff position and the club should be able to continue that trend on Saturday. The Union are a team that loves to attack, but their defensive ineptitude should allow Larin and Kaká to dominate the final third and allow Orlando to light up the scoreboard.
Why the Philadelphia Union Will Win:
The Sons of Ben must have felt like their club was finally putting it together earlier this summer, when Philly rattled off impressive wins against the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. But it's been all downhill since then for the Union, who have lost three straight coming into Saturday's night clash at the Citrus Bowl.
The Union and Orlando City have actually had remarkably similar seasons, as the Lions weren't able to capitalize on impressive victories over Los Angeles, D.C. and Colorado earlier in the season and have taken all three points just once since then. They did that in a high octane performance against the Columbus Crew, where seemingly everything went right for club.
In short, the Union are due for their breakout game. And I'm worried it could come this Saturday.
The Lions will score against Philadelphia, but not enough to get the win if Cristian Maidana and C.J. Sapong run rampant for Philadelphia.
Why They'll Draw:
Because the Soccer Gods hate us?
I don't know about you, but to me this game seems like a scoreless draw waiting to happen. Orlando City's escaped the dreaded 0-0 scoreline so far this season, but don't forget that the Lions failed to score in their last two home defeats. They'll also be gassed from a midweek trip north of the border, and could still be without Ramos and Carlos Rivas.
In a match-up between two teams desperate for a win, a draw would seem to be the cruelest possible result.
Prediction: Orlando City 3, Philadelphia Union 2
Orlando City is a team that's underachieved down the stretch this season, but last week's 5-2 victory over Columbus was a sign of how good this team can be. If they can get back to full strength against Philadelphia, the Lions should be able to take care of business against a floundering Union team.
Look for Cyle Larin to break the rookie scoring record and Kaká to get a goal in a 3-2 win that's not as close as it seems. And more importantly, a win that gets the Lions get back in the playoff race.
Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday night. The game will be televised locally on MY65 and Sun Sports.