Orlando City will be looking to reverse its fortunes in a rematch against New York Red Bulls on Friday night, a team that lit up the Lions' defense for 26 shots in a 3-2 defeat at Red Bull Arena in the reverse fixture less than two weeks ago. If Orlando is to stall a red-hot NYRB attack at Camping World Stadium, it will start with corralling the man who stirred the drink for the Red Bulls in that April 24 match, Sacha Kljestan.
Kljestan has been a key player for New York this season, registering two goals and two assists across the Red Bulls' three wins, including an assist against the Lions that spurred a three-goal run over a span of just 10 minutes. The American midfielder has been the catalyst for an NYRB attack that has scored seven goals in its last two outings, two more than it had managed in its first seven games combined, and his numbers against Orlando City could have been much bigger had it not been for some heroic saves from Joe Bendik.
Lining up in the No. 10 position for New York, Kljestan drifted from the center of the pitch out to the right throughout the evening and acted as an orchestrator, dishing 10 key passes against Orlando according to Who Scored. His nutmeg assist through the legs of Tommy Redding helped Mike Grella open the scoring in minute 65, and came after he found a pocket of space in behind Darwin Cerén and glided inside from the right before dishing. Only Save of the Week-level stops from Bendik kept Kljestan from notching assists on a Grella volley and a pullback to Felipe, preventing the score from getting out of hand in what could've been a rout of Orlando.
The stellar play from Kljestan has the same New York attack that was shutout five times in the early season looking like one of MLS's best once again, and the Red Bulls are rolling as they come to Central Florida.
The play of Cerén and fellow defensive midfielder Cristian Higuita will be important for Orlando in its efforts to prevent Kljestan from dictating the match on Friday in the same fashion that he did in the first meeting. The two combined for 10 misfired passes in Orlando's half at Red Bull Arena, which contributed to an alarming number of cheap Lions giveaways that played right into the hands of the high-pressing Red Bulls and put a heap of stress on the City back line.
Higuita is master of breaking up play in the middle of the park, and the Lions will need that destroyer mentality on full display Friday in addition to improved ball retention across the board. If Kljestan is allowed the space and time that he was afforded the first time around, NYRB will again put pressure on the OCSC defense and players like Grella and Bradley Wright-Phillips could find themselves in the goals once again as Kljestan picks out runs in behind.
Higuita, Cerén and Antonio Nocerino, who missed the first match against NYRB, will be the primary forces tasked with limiting Kljestan's touches and time on the ball, while the probable return of Kaká will hopefully improve ball retention and provide a link between attack and defense that was absent on April 24 to help limit NYRB's possession.
Bendik has been a revelation in goal for Orlando City in 2016, quieting much of the skepticism that came with his signing in the off-season, but one thing is certain: The Lions can't ask him to make the kind of saves he made the first time around against NYRB. Matching the play of Kljestan and co. in the midfield will go a long way towards alleviating the pressure for Bendik between the posts and allowing Orlando to dictate the pace of the match rather than Red Bulls.