Things couldn’t get much worse for Orlando City this past Saturday night, giving up four goals at home for the first time in MLS in a 4-1 loss to the Columbus Crew, which entered the match sitting in the cellar of the Eastern Conference.
Jason Kreis’ side is still very much a work in progress — we won’t see serious progress being made until the off-season rolls around — but while positive performances are what he’s looking for the most, a playoff spot is still the team’s No. 1 goal this season, which of course is almost every bit of why a mid-season coaching change was made in the first place.
The playoffs are still well within reach for Orlando City, which now heads north for a two-game road swing that kicks off in the nation’s capital on Saturday against D.C. United at RKF Stadium.
The Lions enter the weekend tied on points (34) with D.C. for seventh place in the Eastern Conference, as both clubs trail the New England Revolution by two points. A win could go a long way for either club, while a loss for Orlando could all but knock it out of the playoff hunt with four games remaining heading into Toronto on Wednesday.
Starting XI and Lineup Projections
For the first time in, like, ever, Orlando City has everybody fit and healthy for this match against D.C., and that gives Kreis plenty of options to choose from.
Rafael Ramos made his return to the lineup for the first time since May, featuring on the subs' bench against Columbus. Kevin Alston has struggled to play well over the last handful of games, and I think it could force Kreis to slot in the Portuguese right back. That would certainly give Orlando City a boost of energy on the right side, and some more speed in the attack, without question.
Staying on the back line, an awful performance against Columbus will most likely have Seb Hines on the bench, as I see Tommy Redding slotting next to David Mateos, who returns from suspension, although if deemed healthy enough, it could be Jose Aja's spot again.
Antonio Nocerino could come back this weekend, too, after missing the Columbus game due to a hamstring injury. I see him slotting back into the starting lineup, and I think we might also see Cristian Higuita return next to him in the defensive midfield. Higuita hasn’t played since starting at Chicago in mid-August after suffering an injury, and like Ramos, he would provide another boost of life into the defense, which lacked any sort of life against the Crew.
The attacking four likely won’t see any changes, with Cyle Larin leading the charge above Kaká, Matias Perez Garcia, and Kevin Molino.
Ben Olsen’s lineup has stayed pretty consistent over the last couple of games. Right back Sean Franklin is expected to be out with a calf injury, which is a plus for Orlando City coming down the right side. Bobby Boswell and Steve Birnbaum create a solid combo on the back line, and breaking that down will be a key.
Patrick Mullins was traded to D.C. by New York City FC in July and has really come to life with his new club, scoring five goals in 10 appearances (eight starts). I’ve mentioned Orlando City’s poor back line play of late, and stopping Mullins will be another tough task, in addition to dealing with the likes of Lloyd Sam and Patrick Nyarko.
United is winless in its last three games as it's coming off a 2-2 draw against the Chicago Fire last week. It’s only the first meeting with Orlando City this season after taking two of three against the Lions in 2015, including the only match in Washington.
Player to Watch
Cyle Larin is arguably Orlando City’s best player, and with five games left to go the Canadian striker is just three goals shy of the goal-scoring mark he set in his rookie season last year with 17.
Larin is a major key to Orlando City’s attack, having scored nearly a third of the team’s goals in MLS since the start of last season, but the No. 1-ranked player on MLS’s 24 Under 24 list has been seeing fewer touches lately, which is leading to fewer shots. That alone can be a big problem for the Lions.
Orlando City needs to get the ball to Larin, and if it does, he can have a field day against D.C.
But you already know about Cyle.
For United, pay attention to young play-making midfielder/forward Luciano Acosta. The diminutive 22-year-old joined D.C. on loan from Boca Juniors out of Argentina and he has a lot of skill, posting three goals and nine assists in his 27 appearances (21 starts). Sitting tied for eighth in the league in assists, Acosta provides United with a threat who can not only score, but also help others do so. That attacking skill is a big part of why Acosta was named No. 14 on Major League Soccer's 24 Under 24 list.
Orlando City's defensive midfield and back line had better pay attention to the Buenos Aires native.
Prediction: Orlando City 2, D.C. United 2
I’m making the 12-hour drive to D.C., to cover this match in person, so I’m hopeful of a positive result for all my troubles. However, it’s been a while since the Lions have drawn a match and I have a feeling we could see one coming. And that’s not a bad result, keep in mind. Any points that help Orlando City keep pace with D.C. are good points.