Nobody freak out, but things are looking up for Orlando City (5-5-11, 26 points) coming into this Sunday's match-up with the Seattle Sounders (6-12-3, 21 points).
In more ways than one, these clubs have been mirror images of each other in 2016. Both of them came into the year with playoff expectations, only to find themselves languishing below the red line for much of the season. Beloved managers were shown the door in both Orlando and Seattle, as high-priced talent failed to deliver and fan unrest became palpable.
Here's the good news for City fans: Orlando seems a few weeks ahead of the Sounders in picking up the pieces of a disappointing season. For one, they've still got a shot at the postseason and are level with New England on points for the final spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Seattle's not dead yet, but Clint Dempsey and friends are going to have haul you-know-what just to get back into the postseason conversation.
Oh yeah, and Orlando's got a manager. Jason Kreis couldn't have asked for a better result in his Camping World Stadium debut, but a win against Seattle on national TV would breathe even more life into a season that suddenly looks far from lost.
Starting XI and Lineup Projections:
After his first league game in charge, we're still learning how Kreis is going to handle the lineup card in Orlando. But, one thing seems pretty clear after just 90 minutes in MLS with the new boss: Everyone is starting with a clean slate.
Kreis seemed to throw down the gauntlet on Sunday, with guys like Antonio Nocerino, Servando Carrasco, and Hadji Barry getting starts against the Revolution. It's hard to argue with those selections following Orlando City's first win in over a month, but it will be interesting to see if the trend continues against Seattle.
Cristian Higuita picked up a yellow card suspension against the Revs, so he will miss this weekend's encounter, while Darwin Cerén (#ForeverALion) was shipped off to San Jose. It's looking more and more like Nocerino time against the Sounders, as the Italian looks to hit refresh on his time in Orlando under Kreis. No matter what your take on Orlando's big off-season acquisition, the Lions would stand to benefit if the Italian international can find his form.
In their second game under interim manager Brian Schmetzer, look for the Sounders to stick with the 4-2-3-1 formation that helped them earn a draw with the LA Galaxy last week. It's OK to admit that Seattle's front four is kind of terrifying, with the attacking partnership of Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris (Doc Brown and Marty McFly of the USMNT, respectively) bolstered by a couple of talented internationals in Nelson Valdez and the newly signed Nicolás Lodeiro.
Lodeiro is one to keep your eye on, after he commanded the fifth-highest transfer fee in MLS history before joining the Sounders during the transfer window. An absolute coup of a signing for Seattle, the talented 27-year-old has been Uruguay's No. 10 since the 2014 World Cup, where he earned two caps in addition to starting at the Copa América Centenario this past summer. He's been plying his trade for Argentine giants Boca Juniors since 2015, but after the Buenos Aires-based club finished a disappointing 10th in the Primera División last season, Lodeiro was a guy they were willing to move.
While it's great for every MLS fan that a player with Lodeiro's talent is moving to North America in his prime, it's going to be a pain for Orlando City on Sunday. He looked fantastic in his MLS debut against Los Angeles last weekend, notching 124 touches and 94 completed passes, the fourth- and sixth-highest totals in the league this season.
Player to Watch:
It's gotta be Deuce right?
Even though Seattle has been one of the league's most disappointing teams in 2016, they've still got a player in Clint Dempsey who's been the face of the USMNT since before the 2014 World Cup. His stat line for 2016 is pretty *meh* (three goals and one assist through 14 games), but he also missed about a month of the season with Copa América duty. And he's still capable of doing stuff like this:
Sunday night will be Dempsey's first shot at Orlando City (since he was injured for Seattle's 4-0 romp over the Lions in 2015) and you can bet Jason Kreis will spend plenty of time working on shutting down a player he's coached on Jürgen Klinsmann's USMNT staff.
In a larger sense, Dempsey could be an interesting guy to watch as the season progresses and Seattle's playoff prospects continue to waver. At 33, he's too old for a rebuilding project and would be an expensive piece for the Sounders to move. Rumblings about locker room discontent were shot down by the man himself, but his future in the Pacific Northwest remains uncertain.
Prediction: Orlando City 1, Seattle Sounders 1
As much as I want to believe that Jason Kreis is going to come in and change everything, let's not forget this is an Orlando City team that has struggled all season to collect three points in winnable games. While Seattle has enjoyed a couple "flash in the pan" games this season, I don't think they're going to end Orlando's undefeated streak at home. But I do see them giving the Lions everything they can handle, as Kreis looks to implement more of his system within the club.
Growing pains with a new manager are inevitable, and a disappointing draw against an underachieving Seattle club seems like a possibility. Let's hope not.