After a week off for the international break, Orlando City will get back to the business of winning a Major League Soccer championship this weekend when defending MLS Cup champion Portland visits the Citrus Bowl. The Timbers are a dynamic team that proved their worth in the postseason in 2015 after finishing third in the Western Conference during the regular season.
Four Lions played during the off week, with Kevin Molino, Darwin Ceren and Cyle Larin representing their countries in World Cup qualifying. Tommy Redding took part in the Dallas Cup with the U-20 USMNT. Meanwhile, several reserve players got some time with Orlando City B last weekend. Orlando City is ready to get back at it and so is The Mane Land staff. Joining us at the big, round, purple table this week is Andrew Harrison, Sean Rollins and Robert Vega.
Let's get right to the questions:
Orlando City went into the international break with some momentum, going unbeaten in the three games in March, finishing with a road win at New York City FC. How does the team keep (or regain) that momentum after the layoff?
Andrew: The answer is simple: just keeping doing what you were doing. Okay, some guys were gone from training last week but they were still getting games. They were still staying match sharp. The Lions just need to return from the international break injury free and I think they will find it easy to keep the momentum going in April due to the systems that Head Coach Adrian Heath employs and the style that is asked by coach on game day.
Sean: The schedule's going to get harder going forward, making it more difficult to maintain their momentum. Orlando City must get some better play out of key players. The team was dominated by NYCFC their last time out, after a poor outing. It should help getting Kaká back to add leadership and stability to the team. It'll be difficult with Portland, New York, and SKC coming up, but this team hasn't played its best game yet.
Robert: I get it that the team was unbeaten in March, but it doesn't really feel like there was much momentum. Outside of the furious finish in the opener, it hasn't really felt like the team was rolling. The NYCFC game was a win, sure, but I don't think anyone came away from that game feeling like it was the start of something special. It was more like the great escape. That said, whether we're talking about keeping or building momentum, the key will be getting some consistency in the lineup. With Larin over his illness, Kaká finally returning, and Nocerino getting a bit more time to learn his teammates' names, getting everybody comfortable in their roles will be what gets this train rolling.
Cyle Larin opened his Orlando City account against Portland in 2015. He has three goals in three games with the Lions in 2016. Does he continue his 34-goal pace against the Timbers or will the tough international matches against Mexico break his rhythm?
Robert: I love the "fun with small sample sizes" game! Larin's on pace for 34 goals, Hadji Barry's on pace for 11 assists, and my wife's on pace for 102 heart attacks after I scare her by screaming "shoot the damn ball!" Obviously Larin will have many scoreless games, and while I'm not a fan of his overall game, he has shown a knack for getting and holding position and finishing the play. Portland has yet to have a clean sheet this season and has given up two goals in each of their past two games. With Kaká back, I think Orlando City will create more good looks at goal, and I think Larin will finish one of them to take his streak to four. Ultimately, though, he'll finish the season with less than 34 goals. Maybe 32.
Andrew: Larin has been through the international break a few times now and I don't think that will throw him off. The biggest challenge for him would have been the back line of Portland, however, with Liam Ridgewell out through injury, the usual partnership of Ridgewell/Borchers is not available to Caleb Porter and therefore the defending MLS Cup champs have already shipped five goals, so expect to see Larin get his name on the score sheet.
Sean: If anybody scores for Orlando City Sunday night, it's likely to be Larin. This season he's clearly the target man for the team, which will give him more chances, something that didn't happen until later last season. The fact that Kaká is back will probably draw some attention away from him as well.
City hasn't lost yet this season but has struggled to score goals. What must the team do to start filling the net more regularly?
Sean: The service into the area needs to be better than it has been. A good ball into the box can make a world of difference to a striker. It's also important for Larin to be in the right place, at the right time. This is how Chris Wondolowski scores so many goals. It's why Larin scored against NYCFC.
Robert: Outside of the NYCFC game, the team has done a good job of maintaining possession, but hasn't been able to build up the play to where they're generating enough legitimate scoring opportunities. The crosses have been dreadful and the finishing, outside of Larin, has been pathetic. Somebody else on the team has to step up as a threat in the final third, and it doesn't necessarily have to be scoring goals, but even just creating the opportunities.
Andrew: SHOOT. They have to learn to take more shots. Molino has to shake off the yips and be willing to just take a shot. That goes for other players as well. The best opportunity to score a goal is take a shot. Larin has taken 11 shots this season for three goals. The next player with the most shots is Winter who has taken five, and this should come as no surprise but those people are the only people to have scored for Orlando City this season.
Which of the following will benefit most from the return of Kaká to the lineup: Kevin Molino's play in the final third, Larin's goal-scoring opportunities, or Orlando City's set piece quality?
Robert: I'm going to go with Molino's play in the final third. With Kaká back, Molino should have a little more freedom and space to do Molino things (and maybe to shoot). For the most part, I look at Kaká's return the same way I look at adding an elite closer in baseball. It's not that the closer's play in and of itself makes the team so much better, but his presence puts everyone else back into a role that they're comfortable in. Kaká's presence draws attention that frees other players up and puts them in less stressful positions. Now, it would be nice if someone else could take some more pressure off Kaká, but that wasn't the question.
Andrew: This is a tough one but I have to go with set piece quality. We have no goals from set pieces this season despite the number across MLS being higher than in previous seasons and we know that Kaká has the ability to help rectify this situation. I believe that Molino is the only one who can resolve his scoring difficulties, as playing next to Kaká last season didn't get him on the score sheet before his injury and Larin hasn't had any problems scoring goals so far, and, with Kaká's calls for him to be less selfish in providing for others, Kaká's biggest asset to Orlando City will be his set piece ability.
Sean: I think Kevin Molino's play in the final third will improve with Kaká's return. One reason why Molino has struggled is that he plays faster than others around him. Unfortunately, he's unable to slow his pace to theirs. Kaká can and will play at Molino's speed, which is why he enjoys playing with Kevin so much. Being on the field together will benefit both players.
What match-up must Orlando City win on Sunday to defeat a tough Portland side and come away with the first home win of 2016?
Andrew: Despite many answers to this question, I am going with their playmaker, Diego Valeri. His tireless effort and ability to create something out of nothing for DP striker Fanendo Adi makes him the biggest threat to Orlando and it will be up to our defensive duo Cristian Higuita and Darwin Cerén to keep him out of the game while also handling Portland's other significant midfield threats of Darlington Nagbe and Diego Chara.
Sean: Last year Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell proved to be a difficult pair to crack in the middle of the Portland defense. As the lone striker and big body up front, it'll be important that Larin doesn't get frustrated by the center backs (though Ridgewell is out) and matches up aggressively. This should create opportunities for players in the midfield on goal.
Robert: Tommy Redding against Fanedo Adi. Adi has been hot to start the season with three goals this season, including two against RSL. Redding was fantastic against David Villa last week, and will need to replicate that performance against Adi. Redding and Hines will have to neutralize the big Nigerian if they are to be successful. Orlando City is unlikely to score in bunches, so keeping Portland limited will be essential.
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That's your roundtable discussion for Week 4 in preparation for the Portland Timbers. Feel free to add your answers to these questions or explain why our staff is right/wrong in their predictions or analysis in the comments section below.