Winless in five games (0-4-1), Orlando City will try to close out the 2016 MLS season on a high note with two more matches against teams currently above the playoff line. That starts tomorrow afternoon at Talen Energy Stadium in Philadelphia with an afternoon (3 p.m.) meeting with the Union.
Philadelphia is also winless in five (0-3-2), free falling down the standings over the last two and a half months. In that span, the Union have won just three of the last 13 matches, in posting a record of 3-6-4. To put Philly’s plight into perspective, Orlando City has an identical 3-6-4 record over that same span. Welcome to our world, Sons of Ben!
You may recall that Orlando City had not yet tasted defeat in 2016 until visiting Philadelphia back on April 8. That 2-1 loss to Philadelphia should have been a draw, but alas, breaks must be earned; they are not given. The loss spoiled a 2-0-2 start for the Lions that had us all wondering what tifo we’d see the Ruckus and Iron Lion Firm unveil at the MLS Cup final. It seems like a lifetime ago.
The return leg in Orlando didn’t go that much better, with the Union scratching out a 2-2 draw at Camping World Stadium on May 25 on a late goal by Ken Tribbett of all people (that’s how you know your season is not going well).
The Lions will be without center back David Mateos, who is out for the rest of 2016 with an MCL tear. Brek Shea (foot) is a bit banged up after suffering an injury in training but may be available.
Here with us again to help us scout the Union is Eugene Rupinski from SB Nation’s Philadelphia blog, Brotherly Game. I've answered Eugene's questions as well, if you're interested in checking that out over on their site.
Philadelphia has slid down to sixth in the Eastern Conference table. How did the Union get to this point after being up among the conference’s top teams through much of the season?
Eugene Rupinski: Quite simply, they haven't won many games lately. Winning only three of the last 13, while teams like Toronto FC, the New York Red Bulls, and New York City FC were able to pick up points, saw the Union plummet from a comfortable first place in the conference down. The cause of this is a little more complicated. When midfielder Vincent Nogueira up and left the club, it left a gaping hole in the Union's midfield. The Union's identity is based around the ability to shift quickly between offense and defense, and Nogueira allowed for that to happen.
When he left the Union tried several players at the position, however, none of the options really worked out. They tried defensive midfielder Warren Creavalle, who predictably excelled at the defensive side but was a bit wanting on the offensive side of the ball. Then they tried Tranquillo Barnetta and Roland Alberg, however, they excelled on the offensive side of the ball but were wanting on the defensive end. This isn't an indictment of any of these players – they were just square pegs being forced (out of necessity) into a round hole. This has since been fixed with the addition of Alejandro Bedoya – the improvement was immediately evident, however, the chemistry is still a work in progress. The defense is still leaking goals, however, hopefully that trend will reverse itself soon.
Chris Pontius looks reborn in Philadelphia this season. What is he doing differently this year that he wasn’t doing with D.C.? Is it just a matter of a change of scenery or is he being utilized differently?
ER: I think it has a lot to do with a change of scenery, but perhaps more importantly, Chris has been able to remain healthy for the first time in a long time. Chris has always had the talent, but it's hard to have that talent show through when you miss half a season or more with injuries. The change of scenery has helped immensely as well. With the Union, Chris has a world class 10 in Tranquillo Barnetta distributing the ball to him in dangerous positions, allowing him to get good looks on goal. He also has a left back in Fabinho who likes to run forward and get in the mix, which also allows him to have even more freedom on the left wing. This offensive system, in addition to him playing in 32 of 32 games thus far, has led to Pontius' re-emergence.
Orlando City and the Union have played some very close matches. On a scale from 1 to 10, how worried are Philly fans about facing a team looking to play spoiler and players competing for their jobs?
ER: If there's one thing Philadelphia sports fans fear, it's the epic collapse. The fans here have been let down at the last minute by all major teams in this city, so the fear is very real for a lot of people. A team with nothing to lose is a dangerous team, so I wouldn't be surprised if Orlando looks as good as they have in a long time thanks to the pressure being completely off of them. Any team with Cyle Larin and Kaká on the pitch is going to be a dangerous team, even if that's not necessarily reflected in the standings. This is not a match that the Union players and fans should take lightly. That being said, this is a match the Union should win and would go a long way to ensuring they make their first post-season appearance since 2011.
What suspensions/injuries will keep players out of the Union lineup? What’s your projected starting XI and your final score prediction for Sunday’s game?
ER: No suspensions, however Alejandro Bedoya is dealing with sore ribs and Josh Yaro has been undergoing concussion protocol after being knocked cold in a collision with Andre Blake and Aurelien Collin. Both are expected to be available for selection. For a starting XI, look for Andre Blake in goal with a defensive line of Fabinho, Richie Marquez, Ken Tribbett, and Keegan Rosenberry. At deep midfield look for Warren Creavalle and Alejandro Bedoya to play, although Creavalle might be replaced with either Brian Carroll or Maurice Edu since Creavalle played 120 minutes for Guyana in Guyana on Tuesday. Up top will be a midfield of Chris Pontius, Tranquillo Barnetta, and Fabian Herbers behind CJ Sapong. As much as I hate predictions, I'll go with a 3-1 Union victory.
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Big thanks to Eugene from Brotherly Game for giving us some insight on the Philadelphia Union. Now let's see if the Lions can get their first win in the series.