Orlando City (2-0-2, 8 points) has gotten off a hot start in 2016, as the Lions find themselves atop the Eastern Conference at the end of the season's first month. But when the Lions take on the Philadelphia Union (2-2-0, 6 points) tonight, it could very well be the coldest match in the club's MLS history.
With match time temperatures hovering in the 40s (not exactly freezing but...my narrative!) the Lions will have to battle both the conditions and an upstart Philadelphia squad if they hope to grab their third win of the season. Orlando was scoreless in 180 minutes against the Union last season, grinding out a 0-0 draw at home before falling 1-0 in the reverse fixture.
While Philly has completely reshaped its roster since last season, the Union did bring back Sebastien Le Toux. The Frenchman scored the winner against Orlando in the 2015 season finale from the penalty spot.
Starting XI and Lineup Projections
This is a game where Adrian Heath will be forced to earn his paycheck, as the Lions are down three players coming off a shortened week. Brek Shea has been suspended after his yellow card against Portland was retroactively changed to a red, and Cyle Larin (hamstring) and Tommy Redding (head) were ruled out on Thursday with injuries.
But the roster gods have actually dealt the Lions a fairly manageable hand.
Orlando has got some serious depth all over the field, and Heath will turn to three experienced players to fill in the gaps this week. Kaká could slot into Larin's attacking spot in a 4-3-2-1 formation, as the reigning MLS Player of the Week looked terrific playing up top against Portland. From there, it's simply a one-for-one swap with Luke Boden hopping in for Brek Shea and Aurélien Collin getting his first start of the season in place of Tommy Redding.
Along with Orlando, the Union have been one of the league's early-season surprises in 2016. The club only won ten games a year ago, but is off to an impressive start with victories over the New England Revolution and Columbus Crew. And they're doing it with a roster devoid of any real big names, save for longtime D.C. United star Chris Pontius.
After last week's 1-0 loss to the Chicago Fire at a snowy Toyota Park, the Union will be forced to replace midfielder Warren Creavalle, as the former UCF Knight picked up a red card against the Fire. Vincent Nogueira should step in to replace Creavalle, as the veteran Frenchman has Ligue 1 experience with Sochaux.
Philadelphia's most well-known player, former USMNT defender Maurice Edu, is out for at least two more months with a stress fracture.
Player(s) To Watch:
The Union don't have any true superstars, but they did manage to strengthen a team that finished near the bottom of the Eastern Conference a year ago.
Chris Pontius should be a familiar name, as the MLS veteran made over 150 appearances with D.C. United during a six-year tenure in the nation's capital. He's gotten off to a quick start in 2016, with two goals already under his belt this season.
But the Union also made a couple international signings that flew under the radar, inking two players with European experience in Ilsinho and Roland Alberg.
The 30-year-old Ilsinho has enjoyed two successful stints with Ukrainian giants Shakhtar Donetsk, in which he bagged a Champions League goal against Barcelona in 2008 and helped lead the club to a Europa League title the next season. Here's that goal against Barcelona, which was scored eight years ago and not, as the video quality would suggest, in the 1980s.
Also arriving in Philly was Dutch midfielder Roland Alberg, who scored 17 goals over three seasons for ADO Den Haag in the Eredivisie. Alberg is only 25 and could join with Ilsinho and Pontius to give the Union one of the more potent midfields in the Eastern Conference.
They'll be looking to play the ball to U.S. international and former member of Orlando City's USL side, C.J. Sapong. He recently inked a three-year contract extension with the Union and has gotten off to a quick start in 2016, nabbing a pretty goal against the New England Revolution.
Prediction: Orlando City 2, Philadelphia Union 1
There's no reason to believe Orlando City should win this match, played in chilly conditions, on short rest and without three of their starters.
But I've been down on the Lions all season, and I'm finally ready to drink the Kool-Aid.
If Kaká plays half as well as he did against Portland (a match in which the Lions played without Larin for almost 70 minutes), then Orlando should be fine. The club is catching Philly at the right time, as many of the Union's big signings are still adjusting to life in MLS. But the Lions will likely need another lights out performance from Joe Bendik to collect all three points.
I think they'll get it, along with the win.