Fresh off an encouraging victory last weekend, Orlando City (4-3-8, 20 points) heads to the Lone Star State for a match-up with Supporters' Shield contenders FC Dallas (9-5-4, 31 points). A five-game unbeaten streak has elevated Orlando back into the Eastern Conference playoff race, but all that mid-season optimism could go out the window if the Lions fall flat on Independence Day.
Both clubs will be playing on short rest after U.S. Open Cup games in the midweek, but there's reason to believe the quick turnaround could benefit Orlando. While the Lions fielded plenty of bench players and USL call-ups in a loss to the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers, Dallas was forced to go into extra time against the first-place Colorado Rapids, meaning Orlando City could have the fresher legs on Monday.
And for the first time this season, the Lions appear to be living up to their Orlando Health jersey sponsor, with Pedro Ribeiro and (possibly) Rafael Ramos the club's only notable absences. Look for Adrian Heath to have some freedom with the lineup card this week.
It's tough to gauge expectations for this kind of game, as most clubs would be content to split the points on the road against a league power like Dallas. But with eight draws already this season, Orlando City doesn't have that luxury. With four of their next six matches away from Camping World Stadium, the Lions will have to grab a couple wins away from home to stay in playoff contention. Why not start on Monday?
Starting XI and Lineup Prediction:
In their first ever meeting with FC Dallas last season, the Lions fell 2-0 at the Citrus Bowl. But that was also a game that featured Carlos Rivas taking penalty kicks and Eric Avila, Lewis Neal, and Pedro Ribeiro in the attacking midfield. In other words, this is not the same Orlando City team.
Despite playing in the midweek, look for Heath to run out the same starting lineup that brought home three points last weekend, with the exception of Adrian Winter, who was released this week for "family reasons." With a healthy roster (seriously, just about every first-choice starter is available for this one), the only change will likely be in the attacking midfield, where Rivas could be used to counter the speed of Dallas' young guns. That would become even more likely if Kevin Molino receives further discipline for his red card in U.S. Open Cup play this week.
Another match-up to watch is on the right flank, where Kevin Alston will square off against Maynor Figueroa. The former Wigan and Hull City right back could cause problems for Orlando's back line and provide service to any one of Dallas's main attacking threats.
But perhaps the biggest subplot in this one will be Brek Shea's return to Toyota Stadium, after he left Dallas for the Premier League in 2012. Not that long ago, Shea was tearing it up with Dallas, scoring 19 goals throughout four seasons for the club that drafted and eventually sold him to Stoke City. But it remains to be seen how the home fans will greet Shea during his return to Dallas. They had plenty of good times together:
While it's probably a stretch to say that FC Dallas is revolutionizing MLS, the club has built a legitimate contender on the strength of their Homegrown Players and without any major signings. Dallas rebounded from a three-game winless stretch with a win over Real Salt Lake last weekend, and there's no reason to believe they will deviate from that lineup.
The offense flows through Mauro Díaz, who leads the club in assists while generating a healthy number of shots during any given match. With Díaz flanked by the talented Colombian duo of Fabián Castillo and Michael Barrios, Dallas boasts a dynamic and capable attack.
But more than anything, Dallas is balanced. The club ranks ninth in goals scored this season and seventh in goals allowed, one of only three clubs in the league to rank in the top 10 in both categories. And with the majority of their roster under the age of 25, the Hoops look primed to stay in that elite company for a while.
Player to Watch:
The benefactor of all that offensive depth has been Maximiliano Urruti, who arrived in Dallas this season on the heels of an MLS Cup championship with the Portland Timbers. Coming from the same Newell's Old Boys youth academy that discovered Lionel Messi, the 25-year-old Argentine has been the point of the spear for Dallas' 4-2-3-1 formation.
This week, he scored the winner as a substitute in U.S. Open Cup play:
#USOC2016 GOL de Maximiliano Urruti. @FCDallas se va arriba (2-1) ante @ColoradoRapids en tiempo extra #FCDvCOL pic.twitter.com/oVuF9hxArT— MLS FÚTBOL CLUB (@MLS_FC) June 30, 2016
Look for Urruti to challenge an Orlando City back line that's been porous at times this season. On a team full of talented guys who most casual fans haven't heard of, the player whose name is hardest to pronounce could be the most dangerous.
Prediction: Orlando City 1, FC Dallas 1
But this is actually a pretty tough one to call. On one hand, I think Orlando's loss on Wednesday has been blown way out of proportion and shouldn't have much bearing on the team's success in league play moving forward. But FC Dallas is also a damn good MLS club that's shown a knack for getting hot (they've only had one victory this season that didn't come as part of winning streak). After a victory over a solid Real Salt Lake team last week and a win in U.S. Open Cup play, it's not a great time to face the Hoops.
But I think Orlando fights to earn a draw.
The Lions have managed at least one goal in every game they've played this season, and that should continue, even against a stingy Dallas defense. A road point on Monday could be enough to keep Orlando above the playoff line, and with an enticing home game against the Houston Dynamo on the horizon, it could prove to be huge mid-season result.