After winning back-to-back matches for the first time since early June, Orlando City SC (9-13-8, 35 points) heads to the Big Apple on Friday night, for a match-up with the Supporters' Shield contending New York Red Bulls (14-8-6, 48 points). It will be a big step up in competition for the Lions, after Orlando knocked off the last-place Chicago Fire on Saturday, but this is a match the the club must take points from in order to remain competitive within a tight MLS Cup playoff race.
The Montreal Impact widened their lead over Orlando for the sixth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with a win over Chicago on Wednesday, meaning they now hold a four-point advantage over the Lions in the standings. With Montreal heading to the Citrus Bowl next weekend, the Lions needs to narrow that gap ahead of a crucial late-season showdown.
But they'll have their work cut out for them against a stingy Red Bulls side that hasn't lost at home in over three months.
These teams first met back on July 18th, with New York rolling past the Lions 2-0 behind goals from Sacha Kljestan and Mike Grella. But you probably remember that game because of this...
Cyle Larin would eventually get that red card overturned on appeal, but it still left a bad taste in the mouths of Orlando supporters. The Lions will get a chance for some payback on Friday, but first, here's a look at who we can expect to see in the starting XI.
Starting XI and Lineup Predictions
I only expect to see one change for Orlando City, but it's going to be a big one, as Kaká returns to the lineup after a lengthy absence. The captain should be fit to start against the Red Bulls and will look to transition into an offense that's finally learned how to succeed without him.
It's going to interesting to watch how the captain assimilates back into the starting XI, but the Lions should improve with him on the field. Even though they got the win last weekend, Orlando struggled throughout much of the match with midfield turnovers and offensive creativity. There's nobody in the league more qualified to address those problems than Kaká.
Besides that notable addition, look for Adrian Heath to go with the same lineup he's been getting results with over the past couple weeks. That means Carlos Rivas should get another start on the left side of Orlando's midfield attacking trio, with Brek Shea a near-lock to come on at some point in the second half.
Bryan Rochez is another guy who's pretty much 50/50 to start, but look for Heath to pair Kaká with a attacker he's familiar with in Cyle Larin. The Lions have managed to stay in playoff contention, even without the young Canadian regaining his form, though he could provide the club with a huge boost against RBNY.
New York Red Bulls:
The Red Bulls have already locked up a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but don't expect Energy Drink FC to take it easy on the Lions this weekend.
Behind an attacking trio of Bradley Wright-Phillips Mike Grella and Lloyd Sam, the Red Bulls boast one of the league's deepest offensive units. BWP isn't going to duplicate his breakout 2014 campaign, but he doesn't need to, playing alongside guys like Grella and Sam, who have combined to match his goal-scoring production with 14 goals between them.
Of course, Orlando City fans will have their eyes on Red Bulls defensive midfielder and Winter Park native Dax McCarty. But until he and Dom Dwyer make their Orlando City homecoming after the club signs Ronaldo (we can dream right?), McCarty is going to give the Lions all they can handle in the middle of the pitch. Look for him to muddle things up in the midfield and give Kaká a rude welcome in his return to the pitch.
Three Questions for Orlando City:
- How seamlessly can Kaká transition back into the lineup? The captain's creativity and play-making ability has been missed during his absence, but several young players have managed to step up with him out. Can players like Bryan Róchez continue their growth with No. 10 back on the pitch? The answer could determine whether or not the club makes the playoffs this season.
- How much longer can Tally Hall keep this up? The Lions' goalkeeper has been a revelation this season, keeping the club in games that could've otherwise been lopsided defeats. But if he turns in a bad performance, it could be enough to sink Orlando's playoff hopes.
- Remember when Cyle Larin couldn't stop scoring? Orlando City's rookie sensation has gone cold in recent weeks and will need a goal in the club's last four regular season games to break the first-year scoring record. He'll likely retain his spot in the starting XI with Kaká back, but if Bryan Róchez keeps improving, Larin could be on the hot seat.
Prediction: Orlando City 1, New York Red Bulls 1
Hate to mess with a good thing here, but I don't think Orlando City's just going to stroll into Red Bull Arena and walk out with three points.
The club has been improving in recent weeks and that should continue against RBNY, but I'm not sure there's enough regular season left for Orlando to fully complete this impressive turnaround. Look for Kaká to show some rust and for the defense to wilt against a smothering Red Bull offensive attack, though Tally Hall keeps Orlando in the game.
The Lions will play well enough to win but settle for a point, setting up a huge showdown with the Montreal Impact next weekend.