While it may be winless in its last five matches, Orlando City (2-2-5, 11 points) has proven itself capable of grinding out points against tough competition in 2016. But a trip to Children's Mercy Park might be the stiffest test of the young season, as the Lions prepare for a match-up with Sporting Kansas City (4-6-2, 14 points).
Coming off a 1-1 draw with the New York Red Bulls (the Lions' third time splitting the points in five matches), Orlando doesn't exactly looked primed to get back in the win column against a perennial Western Conference power. But there is reason for optimism, even in the Blue Hell.
Orlando City knocked off Sporting KC 3-1 at what was then known as the Citrus Bowl last season, behind a brace from newly signed Adrian Winter and a goal from Bryan Róchez. That win kicked off Orlando's best stretch of the season, as the club nearly qualified for the MLS Cup Playoffs.
And while Orlando's recent form has hardly been inspiring, SKC has actually been even worse. The club is 0-5-2 in its last seven matches after storming out of the gate with four wins in its first five games of the season. So you could say the Lions are catching Kansas City at a good time.
Here's a fun fact: since joining the league in 2015, Orlando has managed an impressive 6-2-3 mark against Western Conference opponents. Considering the West has produced the last seven MLS Cup champions and is generally regarded as the stronger conference, those results are nothing to sniff at.
Starting XI and Lineup Predictions:
The biggest change for Orlando on Sunday won't come on the field, but rather in the technical area, as Head Coach Adrian Heath has been suspended one game for an act so egregious, so horrifying, that it threatens everything we love so much about the game of the soccer.
Dumbest suspension ever https://t.co/Hqqnn5jIbH— Brad Shilling (@bradshilling) May 11, 2016
I mean that is just horrifying.
While Heath spends some time thinking about what he's done, former San Jose Earthquakes manager Mark Watson will lead Orlando against SKC. Heath's top assistant has done this sort of thing before, taking over last season when the Gaffer was suspended for a match against NYCFC (the Lions lost 5-3).
The other big absence for Orlando will be Cristian Higuita, who is suspended after picking up a red card against New York last week. That's certainly a big loss for the Lions, but it also means that Servando Carrasco could be in line to get the start against his former team.
Sporting Kansas City:
While Kansas City is anchored by the USMNT duo of Matt Besler and Graham Zusi, the unquestionable face of the team is star striker Dom Dwyer. We've talked about him a little bit around these parts, but since Heath got fined for doing that last year, we'll try and keep the Dom talk to a minimum.
Operating out of a 4-3-3, Kansas City is a deep team with talent all over the field. But they've struggled to find the back of the net this season, and the team currently sits 17th in the league in goals scored, with 11. Dwyer is responsible for over one-third of those tallies, so shutting him down could be the key to stopping SKC.
Players to Watch:
You already know about Dwyer, Besler and Zusi, so let's talk about a guy who has fallen off the radar a bit in Benny Feilhaber.
The Brazilian-born U.S. international was long considered one of the more promising young Americans coming down the pipeline, but was never able to quite reach superstar status. Spells in the Bundesliga with HSV and the Premier League with Derby County didn't quite come off, and Feilhaber made the trip stateside in 2011 with the New England Revolution.
But he's really come into his own since joining Sporting Kansas City, where Feilhaber has become the anchor of a team that expects to make deep MLS Cup playoff runs every year. Dude scored 10 goals from the midfield last season.
Prediction: Orlando City 3, Sporting Kansas City 2
I finally nailed a prediction last week (the outcome at least) so maybe I'm just cocky, but this strikes me as a game the Lions could steal.
Facing a team that's struggling in front of fans who aren't used to losing, an early goal could sap the energy right out of Children's Mercy Park. Higuita's absence is huge, but SKC hasn't been able to score against anyone this year. Toss in a motivated Carrasco to replace Higuita, and I like Orlando's odds to win a close one.