Orlando City is coming off its first complete game of the season Sunday night in a 4-1 drubbing of the Portland Timbers. The matches keep coming, however, and the Lions can't rest on their laurels. They must forget the win over the defending champions and get mentally prepared for a trip to Philadelphia to play the Union.
The Lions had their problems with the Union a year ago, and Philly is off to a better start in 2016, so three points won't come easy, especially with injury concerns to Cyle Larin and Tommy Redding. On the other hand, Kaká is back and the Antonio Nocerino is a week closer to being fully match fit.
Here to break down the trip to land of cheesesteaks for Friday's match are Lindsay Harrison, Gavin Ewbank, and Luis Hernandez, who take their place at the big, purple roundtable this week. Let's find out what they're thinking.
Well, Kaká is still good at soccer. He influenced the Portland game both as an attacking midfielder and as a false No. 9 after Cyle Larin got hurt. Let's play coach for a moment -- if Larin can't go Friday at Philadelphia, would you have the captain reprising his false 9 role or would you go with someone else up top (and who)?
Lindsay: I think if Sunday's performance taught us anything it's that Kaká is back. Therefore, if Larin is not ready to go, I wouldn't hesitate in playing him back in that false No. 9 role against the Philadelphia Union. You have to also factor in that midfielders Antonio Nocerino and Julio Baptista should be available for selection on Friday so we have people that can play and support him up top in that role.
However, since that is a potential boring answer, I am also going to play devil's advocate and say that Adrian Heath may move Kevin Molino up front (now that he has found his scoring touch) and then have Kaká provide support and send through balls to the humble Trinidadian and then you'll see Carlos Rivas start on the left with Adrian Winter on the right.
Gavin: I'm hopeful that Larin will be available and good to go for the game against Philly, but I think the bigger question we should be asking is whether or not Julio Baptista will be ready to start for Orlando City. It doesn't sound like he's 90 minutes fit yet, which is understandable, but I think if Adrian Heath deems him ready to play we'll see Baptista get the start and play about 60-70 minutes. If not, then Pedro Ribeiro is probably next up on the forward depth chart.
Luis: With a short week, I don't expect Larin in the starting XI for the Lions. If I were Adrian Heath, I'd actually use a 4-3-3 with Kaká, Molino, and Winter acting as a tandem, but I don't think the coach will abandon the single striker formation. If Cyle can't go against the Union and Baptista isn't ready, I'd expect to see Pedro Ribeiro on top, which makes me a little sad to say since I think that's taking a step back to last year.
We've talked a lot about Kevin Molino's final ball, and indeed Sunday he still had some of the same issues we've discussed at length. But, he finally got his first MLS goal. Does he now settle down and be the player he's always threatened to become?
Gavin: Well, I can't say we haven't seen Kevin Molino play like the old Kevin Molino yet because he's played well, even though the goal totals don't tell the whole story. The goal against Portland -- even it if was a just a penalty -- will be huge for him moving forward, and I think this is only be beginning of Molino finally contributing on the scoresheet for Orlando City.
Luis: Kevin Molino scores a goal during the FIFA break, comes back, and looked great against the Timbers. His first MLS goal was certainly well deserved. I could see from the supporter section the amount of confidence scoring gave him and he nearly had a second one. He absolutely settles down and finds a way to impact the match on Friday. Or as some of other writers would say Molino Mania is alive!
Lindsay: There is no doubt that Kevin Molino is a special player with a huge amount of potential. With him cut down so early last season, we never truly got to see how he would perform in MLS. For those of us who remember him from the USL days, he had a special quality that we knew we all wanted to see more from. I hope that Kevin can regain the confidence that I think has been lacking thus far since his return but I'd like to see him convert a goal on his own during the run of play before I confidently can say that he's ready to be a threat.
After two solid outings in a row, has Joe Bendik officially silenced the doubters among the Orlando City faithful, or are they still waiting for the other shoe to drop? How do you assess his prospects for the rest of the season based on his first four games?
Luis: After the PK save, the supporters chanted Bendik's name. I think it's safe to say he has calmed any fears fans had over him. He hasn't given up any bad goals and has several saves. I think he's gotten confidence from these first four matches, and I think he'll keep us in all our matches. As the broadcasters said during Sunday's broadcast, Orlando City has never had back-to-back clean sheets in MLS, so that's should be something I expect during the season.
Lindsay: I will admit that I have been a Bendik skeptic. His first two games had me questioning front office sanity and wondering if we were in another Ricketts-type place holder situation. However, his shutout against NYCFC and his near-shutout against Portland (that Adi PK save!), are making me a believer in Joe Bendik. Bendik seems to be getting more comfortable with his new team and has figured out how to communicate with his back line and I hope that what we have seen from him in the past couple of outings are a preview of things to come, and not just a flash in the pan.
Gavin: I think Joe Bendik has done an outstanding job for the Lions so far, and is quickly making people forget about his past in Toronto. Heath talked about it postgame after Portland how much Stewart Kerr -- the new goalkeeper coach -- raved about him, and I think that partnership between the two is paying off big time for Bendik and the Lions. Is he going to have a bad game at some point? Everyone does. But I think he'll be fine moving forward.
Orlando City is 6-3-3 in 12 matches against the Western Conference in two seasons, yet has struggled with teams like Chicago, Philadelphia and other Eastern Conference foes. Do the Lions simply play to the level of their competition or are there other factors involved here?
Lindsay: The last time an Eastern Conference team won MLS Cup was Columbus in 2008 and the Crew were managed by Sigi Schmid, one of the best managers in MLS, who moved to the Seattle Sounders after that win. The statistics show that the West dominates MLS and the most simplistic answer is that Orlando City rises to the challenge of the harder conference. The other answer is that it's hard to get amped about going to Chicago or Philly to play in front of mediocre crowds when we can draw double that attendance on an average night at home. Heck, it's hard for me to get amped about watching these games, so I can't imagine trying to psyche myself up to play the worst team in the league. What we need to start doing is going in there and seeing how much we can demolish them by. Raise the bar and make a new drinking game for fans -- nutmeg a player, take a drink! Score a goal off of Seb Hines' head, take a drink!
Gavin: I mean, that's actually pretty fair to say. Look at the teams they beat last season: LA, Portland, Sporting KC, Columbus a couple of times. And at the same time, you mentioned they struggled against the Phillys and Chicagos of the league, so yes, you can definitely say that they play to their competition at times. But that was also last season, and this is a team with a year of MLS experience under their belts, so hopefully you can say they'll avoid those games and actually take the points when they should.
Luis: Yeah, I think there could be some play to the level of the opponent involved, but I also think other factors are involved. Travel is one of them. Crossing the U.S. and changing time zones which your body isn't use to is also a part of that. Second factor is familiarity with Eastern opponents. Playing the Western teams once a year versus Eastern teams, multiple times including during the Open Cup all factor in.
Philadelphia seems to be much improved so far this season, with Chris Pontius having a positive effect on the Union after coming over from D.C. United. How do you think the Lions will deal with C.J. Sapong and company on Friday night and what are your match predictions?
Gavin: Well, if Orlando City defends Philly like they did Portland and New York City FC, there won't be much bad to talk about on Saturday morning. Darwin Ceren and Cristian Higuita, naturally, will be the keys in the midfield. Seb Hines and Tommy Redding have been a formidable duo on the backline, and those guys (if Redding plays) will be put to work again on Friday. I'll say 2-1 Orlando City.
Luis: For some reason, we don't play our best when we've faced Philadelphia. Sapong is going to give us trouble, but Orlando City has to step up in a big way defensively. I'd hope we start the same back line which we've started so far, but I don't know if Redding will be cleared for Friday. Being on the road with a short week, I'm going to say 1-1 draw.
Lindsay: The Union have undergone a resurgence this season and they are certainly seeing the benefits to committing to head coach Jim Curtin for another season (sound like any other team we know?). The acquisition of Pontius and the decision to let some big names go in the offseason such as Cristian Maidana and Andrew Wenger have certainly paid off for the front office and made this team tough to deal with especially due to the breakout season of Keegan Rosenberry.
I expect that Orlando City will deal with Philly the same way they did against the Portland Timbers. They will try to pack the midfield and stop Warren Creavalle, Ilsinho and Pontius from being able to supply Sapong with opportunities. I do however expect it to be a tough contest and with Orlando on a short turn around away from home, I am going with a prediction of a 2-2 scoreline.
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That's your roundtable discussion for Week 5 as Orlando City heads to Philadelphia. 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.