Orlando City heads into this weekend's match against Sporting Kansas City on a six-game winless streak, its playoff hopes having spiraled downward over the course of the last two months in concert with the club's form. But a silver lining for the Lions is that they will receive reinforcements this weekend with the return of Cyle Larin from international duty, and Carlos Rivas from a yellow card suspension, along with the likely return of Brek Shea from injury.
The possible losses of midfielders Darwin Cerén and, suddenly today, Kaká cast a bit of a cloud over things – because Orlando City can't get any good fortune without some bad news to balance the scale – but the return of these other key attacking players is still a net positive for the Lions as they look to end their free fall.
Kaká missing Saturday's loss at New England only to make a 23-minute substitute appearance for Brazil and injure himself seemed a massive waste, but if the captain is be back in the starting XI on Sunday, he would (hopefully) provide some sort of catalyst for a sputtering attack that has been held off the score sheet in four of its last five outings. His day-to-day status makes his availability for the weekend a question mark, however. Possibly a very big question mark.
Larin returns to Orlando still looking for a goal to officially claim the MLS rookie scoring record, which he tied with a brace against Columbus on Aug. 2. The first-year center forward has netted 11 goals in his rookie campaign for the Lions, but he has struggled for chances over the last month just as much as the rest of the OCSC attack and will look to get back in the scoring column as Orlando attempts to keep pace with a potent SKC offense.
Perhaps the most significant reinforcement this weekend could come in the form of left winger Brek Shea, who last suited up for Orlando City on June 24 for the club's 2-0 win over Colorado Rapids. Shea, who had been bothered by an apparent groin injury for a couple of weeks prior, limped off the pitch early that night and was later found to have a sports hernia.
While Shea was not lighting up the stat sheet prior to his exit, his injury sabbatical lines up surprisingly well with Orlando City's slide down the Eastern Conference table. The Lions were on the heels of a 4-1-2 run in Shea's final seven matches before undergoing surgery, a stretch highlighted by a five-match unbeaten streak. But since the Texan's relegation to the sideline, the Lions have done a 180 en route to a 1-7-3 record in 11 MLS matches.
That win against Colorado on June 24 saw Orlando City claim third place in the Eastern Conference table. Upon Shea's return this weekend, the Lions are in eighth, just two points out of dead last in the league, while having played one more game than Chicago, the current bottom dwellers.
Despite these numbers, Shea's return won't be a magic elixir to cure Orlando's ailments. Far from it. The Lions' problems in attack have coincided with a horrific defensive run that has seen OCSC concede 21 goals over their last five road matches, and the problems on both ends have combined for a -18 goal differential overall in their last 11 league games.
At the very least, though, Shea will provide another option on the left side for Adrian Heath. His return, along with that of Rivas, will allow Luke Boden to play in his primary spot at left back and the infusion of some fresh legs could help revitalize an attack that has grown stale. Shea brings a combination of size and technical ability that not many wingers can match, and his work with Boden in overlapping play can add an element that has been missing on the left flank since Shea's exit.
Likewise, Rivas possesses rare speed and an ability to strike the ball with power that is unmatched in the OCSC side. Combining Shea or Rivas on the left with Larin up top should give City a better chance of scoring this weekend than the makeshift lineup we saw in New England that featured Boden on the wing and Lewis Neal at the No. 10, with Pedro Ribeiro leading the line.
With Boden and a healthy Rafael Ramos overlapping on the outside and Adrian Winter on the right wing, things should improve for OCSC this week. And if Kaká is healthy enough to play at the 10, who knows, the Lions could just flash some of their early summer form at the Citrus Bowl this Sunday.