This is the most important match in Orlando City history.
None of that has to do with goals, yellow cards, penalty kicks or anything related to the action on the pitch. Saturday night is going to be about the Orlando community coming together for the first professional sporting event in the wake of an unthinkable tragedy.
We often view soccer as a pleasant distraction from the banality of everyday life, which is another way of saying that it doesn't really matter. And after the violence and horror that came to Orlando last week, Saturday's match seems almost painfully insignificant. But if Orlando City and the San Jose Earthquakes can provide anyone at Camping World Stadium with a distraction from the events of this week for just 90 minutes, then this is all going to be worth it.
So now, if it's alright with you, I'm going to talk about soccer for a bit. But the words of Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz feel strangely appropriate here, to quote his speech before the first game at Fenway following the Boston Marathon bombings.
"This is our [expletive] City."
Starting XI and Lineup Predictions:
The Copa América Centenario break couldn't have come at a better time for Orlando City (3-3-7, 16 points), which limped into June with a ton of red/yellow card suspensions and injuries. After pulling out an improbable 2-2 draw vs. New York City FC in their last MLS encounter, the Lions will have reinforcements against the Quakes.
Cristian Higuita should be back in the starting XI following a yellow card accumulation suspension, providing stability at the back for Adrian Heath's side. Higuita was the only MLS player named to Colombia's preliminary Copa América roster, and while he didn't make the final squad, his reputation is only growing.
After David Mateos got the start in midweek U.S. Open Cup action, look for Tommy Redding to reclaim his spot in the back line next to a fully healthy Seb Hines. Both Mateos and Redding played Wednesday night but Redding seemed the fresher of the two after the 90 minutes.
Rafael Ramos will be a questions mark in this one, although he has returned to training. Captain Kaká is very likely out with a muscle injury suffered in training with the Brazilian national team. He was ruled out of training for at least three weeks when he suffered the injury at the beginning of the month and has not been training with the team, so a return on Saturday is doubtful. Darwin Ceren is also still out with a high ankle sprain, although he's done some training and is getting close to a return.
San Jose Earthquakes:
Saturday will provide the San Jose Earthquakes (5-4-5, 20 points) with a chance to reintroduce several players into the lineup who were out on Copa América duty.
USMNT mainstay Chris Wondolowski will be unavailable after the United States advanced to the semifinals of the Copa América last night, but Jamaican striker Simon Dawkins provides San Jose with a more than capable replacement. Originally named to his country's tournament roster, Dawkins was forced out of the Copa América with an injury. If he's good to go on Saturday, Dawkins could cause plenty of problems in the final third.
The Panamanian duo of Alberto Quintero and Aníbal Godoy will provide San Jose with much-needed depth in the midfield. Both players got the start in Panama's 2-1 Copa América victory over Bolivia at Camping World Stadiumlast week with Quintero in particular proving dangerous for his country.
Player(s) to Watch:
Even casual MLS fans know Quincy Amarikwa as the guy who did this:
That's just gross.
But with Wondolowski still away, the Quakes' lesser-known American forward will be asked to carry the load against Orlando. While he's not going to be threatening for a spot on the national team anytime soon, Amarikwa is still a capable MLS starter and the perfect replacement for someone like Wondo.
Amarikwa might have to pair with Dawkins, a player whose road to MLS has been one of the more unconventional ones. After coming through Tottenham Hotspur's academy and making their roster for a Europa League game, the Jamaican was loaned to San Jose, where he turned heads with 14 goals in 53 MLS appearances.
While he fizzled in a return to the Premier League with Aston Villa, Dawkins signed with the Quakes as a Designated Player this year, reopening his MLS account with a goal against Philadelphia in April.
Prediction: Orlando City 2, San Jose Earthquakes 0
Whether it's good mojo after a midweek U.S. Open Cup win over Jacksonville or feeding off the passion of the home fans, I think Orlando City gets the win this week.
San Jose will be featuring a ton of players still recovering from Copa América duty, the remedy for which is not flying across the country to play a road game in hot and humid weather. But such is the nature of life in MLS and the advantage that Orlando should have on Saturday.
Look for Orlando to collect all three points.