The Lions head out on the road for two consecutive games, hoping to wash off the stink of the 93rd-minute decision that decreed Servando Carrasco's arm begins at the Orlando City crest on the left side of his chest in Sunday's 2-2 draw against the New England Revolution. As much of a howler as that error was -- and it was the worst of at least three decisions that affected scoring plays -- the Lions find themselves entering this weekend tied for second in the Eastern Conference.
We'll see the Revs again next week, but first up is a trip to Red Bull Arena to take on last year's Supporters' Shield winners. The last time City invaded New York's pitch it left with a 5-2 victory, a Cyle Larin hat trick, and three points. Joining us to discuss whether that could happen again are Wade Williams, Scott Crumbly, and Logan Oliver. We welcome all of them to the big, round, purple table to get their view of life in Lion Nation.
Probably the less said about the New England game the better, but the Lions did turn the game with the insertion of Cyle Larin and Kevin Molino, dropping Julio Baptista underneath the striker and pushing Kaká out to the left. Did we just get a glimpse of Orlando's best attacking lineup?
Wade: Possibly, but it's still very early to expect the 34-year-old Baptista to match that production over the course of a full MLS season. The glimpse we got was certainly promising -- especially given it allows Rivas and Winter to slide into the substitution roles I've long screamed are the best fit for them -- but I'm not ready to say it's the best lineup. Not yet, at least.
Scott: I obviously want to avoid any recency bias or overreaction to a small sample size, but I'm going to say yes. Kaká was consistently dangerous from the left side of the pitch, and putting your best player in the best position to optimize his talents is, in my humble opinion, a smart thing to do.
Julio Baptista still didn't look quite fit enough to play the full 90, although he huffed and puffed his way through, but I think the combination of he and Cyle Larin gives the Lions the most firepower up front, where attacking midfielders like Kevin Molino and Adrian Winter have flashed, but failed to show truly consistent finishing ability. Having The Beast on with Kid Fantastic puts two goal scorers up front, which would hopefully alleviate some of the scoring burden that has often been on Larin during his short career in purple. With this setup, Molino and Kaká can work their trademark chemistry, and the energy and pace of players like Winter and Carlos Rivas is saved for impact roles off the bench, where they're able to have game-changing impacts from the hour or 70-minute mark on, rather than starting in the first XI.
Logan: Baptista's emergence is definitely a pleasant surprise. The concept of him playing off of Larin is a tempting one, but not every right back Kaká goes up against will be a tiring London Woodberry. If Heath moves forward with Kaká on the left, it will be interesting to see if he can handle the duties of a winger for 90 minutes.
We got our first glimpse of Kevin Alston in purple on Sunday, filling in for an injured Rafael Ramos. Based on Ramos' season so far, did Alston do enough in that match to warrant keeping him in the lineup even when Rafa comes back from the hamstring injury?
Scott: Ramos has certainly had a slower start to the season than I had anticipated, which is disappointing, but the 21-year-old is still Orlando's highest-ceiling option at right back. I don't think that Alston's performance, while certainly not a bad one, merits a promotion to the starting lineup over a healthy Ramos unless the Portuguese struggles for a prolonged stretch following his return from his hamstring tweak.
Logan: He did a solid job on defense and almost got himself a goal, things we haven't seen from Rafa so far in 2016. He deserves to start until he loses the spot, but even if Rafa comes back into the lineup straightaway, Alston will probably see plenty of minutes thanks to suspensions.
Wade: I like the addition of Alston, and I think he's more versatile and an improvement over Corey Ashe from last season. However, Rafael Ramos is this club's starting right back. He's slumped horribly in the early stretch, but I don't think benching him long term is the solution. He's a talented kid with some insane athletic gifts, I look forward to him finding his form again.
The last time Larin went to Red Bull Arena, he bagged a hat trick. He has seven goals in three trips to New York. Why does he play so well there and does he keep that streak going even though New York will be paying close attention to him?
Logan: Larin's hat trick in Red Bull Arena last season was largely thanks to the Carlos Rivas Show, but these Red Bulls don't look like the Supporters' Shield winners of last season. Their defense hasn't been great, so even if they do key on him I think Larin bags a brace this weekend, but only if he listens to Taylor Swift's "Welcome to New York" as he steps out of the airport. At least I assume that's what he does. (Editor's note: Ugh.)
Wade: Kid Fantastic plays well there because, first and foremost, he's an extremely talented player. The Red Bulls are a bit small on the back line, though, and that surely helps the big, strong kid work in the box. I like to think he plays extra hard in the state just to keep those loud-mouthed Yankees as quiet as possible.
The Red Bulls defense has been terrible so far, allowing 15 goals already. Look for Larin to score six -- the amount of slices you get from one of those overrated NY pizzas. If New Yorkers would shove more of that garbage in their mouth every time they wanted to talk about soccer, we'd have world peace.
Scott: "It's a nice place to play in New York. I think every time I go there I get excited and I put the ball in the back of the net."
Those words from Larin prior to Orlando's trip to face NYCFC in mid-March pretty much explain it all: New York is a nice place to play, he gets excited and, ipso facto, goals ensue. Even in that match at Yankee Stadium last month, Larin's excitement couldn't be curtailed by an illness, with the Canadian scoring the eventual winner early on an effective, if unorthodox, header.
Other than the excitement factor and the big city lights, however, I do think Larin finds the net against NYRB. He looked dangerous last Sunday off the bench and, assuming he's fit enough to start this week, I expect his work to pay off against a Red Bulls team that will struggle with his strength and has conceded two or more goals in six of its seven matches, including two three-goal showings.
There have been a lot of curious decisions from referees in Orlando City's matches this season. Can we finally get through a game without any controversy on Sunday?
Wade: Unless we joined a new league overnight, or a new referee union is being used, the answer is an easy no. In no major North American sport are the officials this bad. Even in combat sports, where officials are employed by local athletic commissions and not the leagues themselves (IE UFC, Bellator, etc), the officials are far more competent. If I can tell you with a straight face that Steve Mazzagatti is better at his job than you are at yours, you should take that as the ultimate insult. That's worse than slapping your mother. That's worse than pissing in your cheerios. Those are fighting words.
At the end of the day, bad officiating really doesn't bother me -- as long as it's consistently bad. I don't want to see garbage offside calls against one team and garbage handball calls against the other. If you consistently suck at properly reading an offside call, then at least I know that you consistently suck at properly reading an offside call the other way, too.
But when you blow your whistle and then seemingly try to come up with a reason why, before a stadium full of fans breaks out into chants about the line of work you truly belong in, it becomes painfully obvious, painfully quickly, that you're in over your head. And that is something we should all refuse to accept from our officials.
Scott: Much has been written, on this site and elsewhere across the Internet, about the ineptitude of PRO refs. I've decided to hop on board with our boy Jeff Milby who has proposed that we stop trying to hold PRO to any kind of reasonable standard, as we'll only wind up disappointed. Accept the chaos for what it is at this point, because it doesn't seem to be going anywhere. All this being said: I can't imagine the controversy matches the levels we saw last week (although it can't be ruled out with PRO), but something wacky will more than likely occur. Let's just hope that the soccer gods are feeling generous and that whatever it is, it benefits the Lions.
Logan: Given that Hilario Grajeda has the match, I doubt we see anything too out of the ordinary. There will be some questionable calls but I don't think he'll decide the outcome of the match.
What's the key match-up on Sunday and how do you see Orlando City at New York Red Bulls unfolding?
Scott: Handling Dax McCarty will be key for Orlando City this week. Hopefully, Cristian Higuita will be ready to play for Orlando, coming off a groin injury, because the play of he and Darwin Cerén in the middle of the park will be very important to limit McCarty's time on the ball, where he acts as NYRB's engine and pulls strings for his teammates up the field. If Higuita can't go, one or both of Antonio Nocerino and Servando Carrasco can be included here, and they'll need to keep McCarty from dictating the game in the midfield, as the back line will have its hands full tracking runs by Bradley Wright-Phillips in behind.
Logan: The major issue will be if City's back line can handle the attacking threats that the Red Bulls possess. They looked shaky against the Revolution for the entire match and Bradley Wright-Phillips, Sacha Kljestan, and Felipe are a little more intimidating than a lonesome Lee Nguyen. There will be goals in this one, but I think City edge it out 3-2 with some late magic.
Wade: It's all about the kid against the back line. NYRB has struggled all season, they can't score goals, and they can't stop them, either. Larin should look to strike early and often, getting Orlando ahead and letting the Red Bulls crumble from within under the pressure yet again.
Bonus: What's your attendance prediction for the Orlando Pride vs. Houston Dash on Saturday at the Citrus Bowl? Will the club break the NWSL attendance record of just over 21K? What's your ballpark number?
Logan: I think they get there but it'll be close. I'm hopeful for 23k.
Wade: I'm probably the least knowledgeable member of The Mane Land when it comes to the Pride. I would imagine they'll get at least 15K -- the promo work around the city and on social media hasn't been lost on me, this city is clearly a soccer city first and foremost, and the best woman on the planet is a helluva draw. I hope the fans do manage to break the league record. At the least, they'll get up to around 75% of it.
Scott: Both #FillTheBowl campaigns thus far have succeeded, so I don't doubt what this city can do when it comes to painting the Citrus Bowl purple. I'll venture to say that the Pride draw just enough to break the record, with a total shot-in-the-dark guess of 23k.
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And thus concludes your roundtable discussion for Week 7 as Orlando City prepares for a date with the Red Bulls and the Pride get set to host their first ever home match. My personal thought is that the Pride will draw closer to 30,000 than 20,000. Call me optimistic.
Feel free to add your answers to the questions above or explain why our staff is right/wrong in their predictions or analysis in the comments section below.