As Orlando City SC (7-12-8, 29 points) continues its rather improbable quest for a playoff spot, the club rolls into Foxborough this weekend for a match-up with the New England Revolution (10-9-7, 37 points).
Coming in the middle of an international break, this game will test Orlando's depth and require the club to survive without several players who have been instrumental to their success this season. The most glaring absence will be Kaká, but look for the Lions to struggle without the offensive production of Cyle Larin and Carlos Rivas, as well as the defensive presence of midfielder Darwin Cerén.
Taking down the surging Revolution at Gillette Stadium is going to be a challenge for Orlando, but the club has enjoyed some success this year against New England. The Lions rallied from a late two-goal deficit to draw the Revs 2-2 in a match earlier this summer at the Citrus Bowl.
Aurélien Collin got on the score sheet that night -- something the Lions will hope to see on Saturday with a few of their starters out of action. It's going to take a complete team effort for the Lions to get points from this early September showdown, so let's see the players Adrian Heath will have to work with...
Formation and Starting XI:
Orlando City has experienced roster issues all season, as injuries, international duty and red cards have forced Heath to get creative with his starting XI. That's going to continue on Saturday.
City will be missing three regular starters in Kaká, Larin and Cerén, plus one of their better offensive weapons in Carlos Rivas, but look for Heath to stick with his patented 4-2-3-1 against New England.
Pedro Ribeiro will likely be asked to recapture the solid form he displayed early in the season, starting at forward for Orlando. Look for him to be joined on the wings by Luke Boden and Adrian Winter, both of whom will need to contribute offensively for the Lions to have a chance in this one. Lewis Neal is the likeliest candidate to replace Ricky in the middle.
The back seven should be largely unaffected by the all the roster turmoil, as Cristian Higuita and Servando Carrasco will start in the defensive midfield with Cerén out. While perhaps not Heath's first-choice holding midfielders, these two have already partnered in the middle during a few games this season and will provide Orlando with some much-needed continuity against New England.
The Revolution are a team built to thrive during international breaks, with a roster full of players who aren't often called up to represent their national sides. The lone exception is midfielder Jermaine Jones, who will be asked to represent the USMNT as they take on Peru and Brazil this week.
He'll likely be replaced by Japanese international Daigo Kobayashi, but other than that, the Revs will be close to full strength as they face Orlando on Saturday.
The offense is built around Lee Nguyen and Charlie Davies, who will give Orlando's back line all they can handle on the Gillette Stadium turf (or grass?). Nguyen's ability to create on offense could be the difference in this one, as it will surely be difficult for Lewis Neal to match his production while playing as a play-maker in midfield for Orlando City.
Player to Watch: Charlie Davies, F
One of the feel good stories of the 2015 MLS season, Davies is a player who most U.S. soccer fans know due to the car accident he suffered in 2009 that nearly cost him his life, just as he was becoming a go-to striker for the USMNT.
But, six years later, Davies is probably better known for his ability on the pitch as he leads the Revolution in scoring this season with nine goals, one of which came against Orlando City at the Citrus Bowl.
Davies is true poacher, just as happy to get on the end of a cross as he is to finish a loose ball in the box. But Davies' goal against the Lions demonstrated his ability to create a little magic himself.
Look for Orlando's defensive strategy to be built around stopping Davies and, while not an easy task, the Lions could very well have the players to get it done. Rafael Ramos will return from his second red card suspension at right back, and Aurélien Collin and David Mateos will look to build on their budding center back partnership in shutting Davies down.
But if they can't, watch out...
Three Questions for Orlando City:
- Can Pedro Ribeiro recapture his early season form? Without their two biggest offensive weapons, the Lions will need a contribution from their other Brazilian. But after not seeing much playing time throughout the season, can Ribeiro get it done against the Revs?
- How will Rafael Ramos look? With simply finishing the game his top priority, can the Lions oft-carded right back still do his job defensively?
- Where are the goals going to come from? It's been 443 minutes since an Orlando City player scored a goal for the club. That's longer than most kids' school days. That can't continue, right?
Prediction: New England Revolution 2, Orlando City 0
Spoiler alert: I think it's going to continue.
Go back and look at the players the Lions have to work with for this game and tell me you think differently. MLS is a league that punishes a thin roster and that's what the Lions are stuck with at this point in the season.
Just compare the attacking fronts of both teams. New England has 22 goals between their forward and attacking midfielders, while Orlando City has a grand total of three.
It's going to take a Herculean effort on defense for Orlando to just split the points in this one, much less find the back of the net. Look for Ramos to take some time getting back into match shape and for the Lions to miss Cyle Larin even more than Kaká. Unless someone comes out of nowhere for Orlando City in this one, I don't expect it to be pretty.