Orlando City (4-4-9, 21 points) heads to the Big Apple tonight for a match-up with the New York Red Bulls (7-9-3, 24 points) and the beginning of a three-game road trip that could make or break the 2016 season.
The Lions look destined to spend the rest of 2016 flirting with the red line and are currently sitting outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture. While there's still time for Kaká and company to right the ship, evidence of a mid-season revival has been hard to come by. Instead, Orlando City has shown all the signs of a club in turmoil.
Fire the manager? Check. Invest in players who haven't seen much of the pitch? Check. Watch those players get into verbal confrontations with supporters? Check.
In some ways, this road stretch could prove to be a blessing for the club. Perhaps it's exactly the cruise Orlando City needs as the Lions look to turn their season. On the other hand, maybe it's just the iceberg.
Starting XI and Lineup Projections
So there are a couple different ways to feel about this roster.
The negative way: it doesn't include Orlando's highest paid players in Kaká (injured) and Antonio Nocerino (last seen around these parts arguing with supporters). The positive way: it's our second chance to see the lineup Bobby Murphy rolled out against the Houston Dynamo, which produced some glimmers of hope in an otherwise frustrating 0-0 draw.
Harrison Heath got a rare start against the Dynamo and played well, allowing Cristian Higuita to stay home and defend while making some creative runs forward. With Darwin Cerén forced to start higher up in the attacking midfield, I think Murphy sticks with Heath in center of the park.
But let's go back to Cerén. Though the El Salvadorian is not an attacking midfielder by trade, he remains one of Orlando's best players and is someone the coaching staff will be desperate to get on the pitch. With Heath's impressive performance against Houston in the defensive midfield, look for Cerén to spend another match playing higher up the pitch.
New York Red Bulls:
The Red Bulls have been pretty consistent up top this season, and while Bradley Wright-Phillips has cooled down after taking MLS by storm in 2014, he's still a guy New York will count on to bag goals. The defensive midfield is also pretty much etched in stone, with longtime Red Bull Dax McCarty joined by the Brazilian Felipe to form one of the best DM pairings in the league.
But the back line is where things start to get interesting.
Defense was an issue for the Red Bulls earlier this season, which prompted the club to snag Aurélien Collin from Orlando for a mid-round MLS SuperDraft pick. That helped steady things for a while, until center back and Ghana starlet Gideon Baah broke his leg this week. Not good.
Frenchman Damien Perrinelle will likely be asked to step in alongside Collin after being called up from the USL squad earlier this season.
Player To Watch:
In a match that features two of the best defensive midfields in MLS, Orlando fans should be familiar with the work of McCarty. But we talked about the Winter Park native last time, so let's focus on his partner this week.
Felipe isn't a star in MLS by any means, but he has become a fixture in Jesse Marsch's starting XI.
The 25-year-old bounced around Europe during the early part of his career, before a successful trial with AFC Bournemouth in 2009. Cherries manager Eddie Howe even said of the Brazilian:
"He's got great talent and great feet and can certainly cross a ball. I've taken a long-term view and you've got to look to the future".
But Felipe turned down the chance to play with Bournemouth, then of League One, and joined a club in Switzerland, where he failed to make leave a mark. It wasn't until a move to the MLS-bound Montreal Impact that the journeyman's career began to take off. He was part of the allocation swap that landed Sacha Kljestan in New York and has been a fixture in Red Bulls midfield ever since.
One constant to the Brazilian's success? Jesse Marsch, who coached him in both Montreal and New York.
Prediction: Orlando City 1, New York Red Bulls 1
The Red Bulls have been slumping lately and Orlando City is Orlando City, so I think this one ends with both teams sharing the points.
While I expect Orlando to turn in one of its better road performances of the season, nothing we've seen this season suggests the Lions can defend New York effectively for 90 minutes. Best thing to look for in this one would be another solid performance from Heath and signs that Orlando can keep things interesting down the stretch this season.