Orlando City is back ... sort of.
While the Lions still have a week to go before the games count for real, their final preseason friendly against Esporte Clube Bahia will give the Citrus Bowl faithful their first good look at the club's form heading into the 2016 season. While the opposition may be a second-division Brazilian club, expect Bahia to present plenty of challenges for Orlando on Saturday night.
The spotlight in this game will be focused on the guys in purple, as several Orlando City players come into 2016 under the weight of newfound expectations. Kaká will be searching for consistency during his second season in MLS, while Brek Shea and Kevin Molino will simply be looking to stay on the field. And several OCSC newcomers, including goalkeeper Joe Bendik and left back Kevin Alston, will be looking to impress with their new club.
Thanks to Flávio Augusto da Silva's role in the front office and the immense star power of Kaká, this is already Orlando's third friendly against Brazilian opposition since joining MLS. The Lions previously squared off against Ponte Preta last May, in a memorable encounter that saw the Lions emerge with a 3-2 victory.
The Lions would also travel to the historic Maracanã in October, where they fell to Flamengo 1-0 in a post-season friendly from Rio de Janeiro.
We've got everything you need to prepare for Saturday night's dress rehearsal right here, with some help from our resident Brazilian soccer expert, Austin Miller of the The Botafogo Star. He's got a scouting report on Bahia, players to watch and predictions for the match. Give him a follow at @austin_james906 for some of the best English-language coverage of Brazilian soccer you'll find on Twitter.
Starting XI and Lineups:
It's never easy predicting the lineup for a preseason friendly, but expect Adrian Heath to send out plenty of big names on Saturday night. While substitutions will be coming early and often, this should give the coaching staff a final chance to evaluate Orlando's projected starters before facing off against Real Salt Lake next week.
In the attacking midfield, SuperDraft pick Richie Laryea could start alongside Kaká and Adrian Winter. That's the spot normally reserved for Kevin Molino, but the club has been cautious with the Trinidadian as he recovers from an ACL tear suffered last season. He played 45 minutes against Fort Lauderdale Strikers in a closed-door friendly on Wednesday, so expect limited minutes from Molino if makes an appearance at all on Saturday night.
Christian Higuita and Darwin Cerén will partner in the defensive midfield while the club awaits Antonio Nocerino's arrival from Italy. Brek Shea and Rafael Ramos appear to have things locked up on the wings.
But the center backs are where things get interesting.
Aurélien Collin has been running with the reserves in the preseason, while Seb Hines and David Mateos have been paired together in the starting back line. This could represent a changing of the guard at center back in 2016, but more likely indicates that Hines and Mateos are battling for the other starting center back role, alongside Collin, once the season gets underway. Saturday night will provide Orlando fans with a chance to see what each player brings to the table on the defensive end of the field.
Esporte Clube Bahia:
Austin Miller: "Bahia come to Orlando in a down moment for the club. Following relegation in 2014, Bahia were pegged to bounce back to the top flight in 2015, but struggled down the stretch of the Série B season, losing 4 of their final 6 games and subjecting themselves to another season fighting for promotion. As is wont to happen in Brazilian football, Bahia experienced a massive amount of turnover during the January transfer window in preparation for the current campaign.
For the uninitiated, the Brazilian season runs from the beginning of February to the end of December. Bahia are currently participating in both the Campeonato Baiano, their state championship, and the Copa do Nordeste, a tournament between clubs from the Northeast region of the country. Due to playing this match with Orlando City, Bahia will actually play two matches on March 9th, one in the Baino, and one in the Copa do Nordeste. On a related note, this will probably only be the 10th weirdest thing to happen in Brazilian football this season.
Bahia are managed by Doriva, who like most Brazilian managers, has been around the block a time or two. Most recently, he managed São Paulo for a whopping seven matches before finding himself dismissed. Like most Brazilian sides, Bahia will work out of a 4-2-3-1. With Bahia having played Thursday night in the Copa do Nordeste against Confiança, it's quite uncertain exactly who they'll bring to Orlando or what they'll play, but a 4-2-3-1 should be the basis."
Players to Watch:
Austin Miller: "As stated before, it's difficult to know exactly who Bahia will bring to Orlando, and thus who will play. All three goalies are talented, starter Marcelo Lomba (who played for Ponte Preta against Orlando City last year) was pegged by many to move up the Série A pecking order, but elected instead to move to Bahia. 20-year-old Jean was the starting keeper for Brazil in last summer's U-20 World Cup, and should at least feature, if not start, on this summer's Olympic roster. In the attack, 29-year old Hernane scored 16 goals in 2013 for Flamengo, and should lead the Bahia attack this season.
Bahia's two best attackers from last season, Kieza and Maxi Biancucchi are both gone, Kieza to São Paulo, while Biancucchi has been told to find another club. As always with Brazilian clubs, the names are part of the fun, and Bahia have Feijão, which literally translates to "beans.""
Three Questions for Orlando City:
1) How many minutes will we see from the regulars?
This will be Orlando's first preseason match in front of a crowd since the 2-1 loss to Jacksonville back on February 13. Adrian Heath sent out a first choice starting XI in that game, with Kevin Molino the only projected started withheld due to injury. But with their MLS opener only a week away, Orlando could always sideline a few more key players for this game.
Whether playing it safe with injury or trying to avoid giving Real Salt Lake or Chicago an early-season tactical preview, don't be surprised if some big names don't see action in this one.
On the other hand, Heath might take this opportunity to see if his starters are ready to go a full 90 minutes.
2) Can Joe Bendik make a good first impression?
When Orlando City signed embattled Toronto goalkeeper Joe Bendik in the off-season, it wasn't exactly hailed as big-time move. But with Tally Hall out of the picture, it looks like Bendik will get a shot to lock down the starting job in 2016. His 73 appearances with Toronto give the 26-year-old an advantage over Earl Edwards Jr. and he saw plenty of time in goal during preseason.
Despite a rough end to his tenure in Canada, Bendik would love nothing more than to endear himself to Orlando fans with a strong performance in his Citrus Bowl debut.
3) Will Adrian Heath make any changes in the defensive midfield ahead of Antonio Nocerino's arrival?
Orlando City fans won't get a chance to break out their No-No-No-Nocerino chants on Saturday night, but we could see some tactical proof that the Lions are preparing for the Italian's arrival.
Nocerino is expected to slot into the defensive midfield next to either promising youngster Cristian Higuita or reigning MLS Latino Player of the Year Darwin Ceren, but Heath could also experiment with a new formation that better utilizes the attacking prowess of the former AC Milan star.
While Orlando City played out of a 4-2-3-1 for the majority of last season, the coaching staff wasn't afraid to mix it up when necessary. What better time to experiment with something new than an exhibition match against a non-league team?
Austin Miller: "I can't see Bahia having too much of an investment in this match. With two competitions going on in Brazil right now, and Série B action starting up in May, expect to see a young side take the pitch on Saturday. With that considered, I like Orlando City to win 2-0."
Me: It's preseason, so the result only means so much, but I expect Orlando City to be the sharper team on Saturday. With a Bahia squad likely composed of rotational players looking to impress the coaching staff, look for the Brazilian visitors to be high on motivation but short on talent in this one. With a healthy roster and a little added juice from the Citrus Bowl faithful, I think Orlando City wins 3-1.