As Orlando City (2-2-4, 10 points) hits the two-month mark of the 2016 season, it's still tough get a read on where the Lions rank among Major League Soccer clubs. A home fixture against the suddenly dangerous New York Red Bulls (3-6-0, 9 points) could provide some answers, as Orlando looks to separate itself from a crowded Eastern Conference table.
It's the Lions' second match-up against NYRB in as many weeks, following a 3-2 loss at Red Bull Arena that was more lopsided than the final score indicated. And it also come on the heels of a surprising trade that saw Orlando City ship center back Aurélien Collin to New York in exchange for a fourth-round MLS SuperDraft pick. Now, the Frenchman could be in line to make his first appearance with the Red Bulls in the city where he spent the entire 2015 season.
There will be plenty of story lines to choose from on Friday night, but let's kick things off with Cyle Larin's cheeky finish against New York from earlier this month.
Starting XI and Lineup Predictions:
With Kaká and Larin both expected to play on Friday, Orlando City will have the heart and soul of their offense somewhere near full strength. That could mean a return to the 4-3-2-1 formation that Adrian Heath leaned on earlier in the season, with Kaká playing a few yards back and providing service to Larin from the wing next to Adrian Winter, who seems in line to get the nod in place of the recently injured Kevin Molino.
Behind them, Antonio Nocerino will try to open his MLS account from the midfield after missing an absolute sitter against New England last week. The back line should be unchanged, as David Mateos (who the coaching staff spoke highly of following his performance last week) seems to be playing well enough to push Tommy Redding for a starting spot that he looked to have locked down earlier in the campaign.
New York Red Bulls:
Orlando City fans shouldn't expect many changes from Jesse Marsch in the starting XI. That's what happens when you string together a couple wins after dropping your previous four games.
All eyes at Camping World Stadium (ugh) will be on Aurélien Collin, as the former Lion makes his return to Orlando and, possibly, his debut with the Red Bulls. It remains to be seen whether he finds his way into the starting XI, but that certainly seems like the long-term plan after New York spent a SuperDraft pick to acquire the footballing fashionista last week.
New York has experimented with a couple different center backs alongside former EPL defender Ronald Zubar, with youngsters Chris Duvall and Karl Ouimette both getting starts in the last couple weeks. Collin could be the stabilizing force that the Red Bulls need to turn their season around and should pair nicely with Zubar at the back.
Players to Watch:
Last time Orlando City took on the Red Bulls, we focused on goalkeeper Luis Robles, who went from the German third division to MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. But with NYRB heading to Orlando, let's give Winter Park native Dax McCarty his due.
The midfielder made his professional debut with Ajax's short-lived satellite academy team, Ajax Orlando Prospects, before FC Dallas picked him up in the 2006 MLS SuperDraft. After nearly 100 appearances in Dallas and a brief stint as captain of D.C. United, McCarty found his way to New York.
He's been a fixture at Red Bull Arena ever since, teaming up with Thierry Henry to lead NYRB on some deep runs in the MLS Cup playoffs. And as far as nicknames go, it's hard to beat the Ginger Ninja.
Prediction: Orlando City 2, New York Red Bulls 2
New York has yet to draw a match this season and I can't seem to buy a prediction lately, so this is probably going to be great.
While I think the Lions will be able to come away with a point in this one, the club hasn't given fans much reason to believe they're going to turn the corner anytime soon. Orlando's only had one game this season where they were the better team for 90 minutes, and while that 4-1 victory over Portland was impressive, any momentum from the win has long since faded away.
There's something to be said for grinding out points even when things aren't going well, and that's something this team certainly seems capable of, but winning consistently will require Orlando to take its play to another level. We'll see if that happens tonight.