Well, here it is, the proverbial six-point game. Orlando City (7-9-13, 34 points) visits D.C. United (7-9-13, 34 points) in a pivotal match in the race for the Eastern Conference playoffs. A draw serves little purpose other than to keep both teams alive, but with the resurgent New England Revolution taking on Columbus Crew SC tomorrow night, a point would likely only cause both teams to lose ground to the Revs.
The winning team tonight — provided there is one, which is by no means assured with each of these teams amassing 13 draws so far this season — will get a huge leg up on the other with four matches remaining. The losing side will sustain a major blow to its playoff chances.
That’s the backdrop we face heading into tonight’s game at RFK Stadium. While a loss wouldn’t mathematically eliminate the Lions from the postseason, the odds of climbing back above the red line would start to slide into lottery territory. In short, Orlando City must win this game or escape with no worse than a draw, which is a pretty big ask in a place like RFK.
Well, our teams managed to make it into late September without facing each other. Obviously a lot has changed for United since we last met. Which key players have come and gone since we last met and how have those changes impacted the team?
Ben Bromley: So many players have come and gone this year, its already a whole new team from just the start of the season. United and Orlando last met in the regular season in June of 2015, making this 15 months in between games for two teams in the same conference (oh, MLS).
The defense is basically the same with Bobby Boswell, Steve Birnbaum, and Taylor Kemp anchoring the line in front of Bill Hamid. The front six, however, is completely different. Gone are Perry Kitchen, Jairo Arrieta, Fabian Espindola, and Davy Arnaud; Chris Rolfe suffered a concussion and is out for the rest of the season (and could be forced to retire); Nick DeLeon is still on the team and active, but after a half season starting in central midfield, has been relegated to the bench.
The central midfield is now run by Luciano Acosta, United's Argentine playmaker, with Rob Vincent and Marcelo Sarvas in support. Patrick Nyarko and Lloyd Sam are the wingers, and Patrick Mullins leads the line. This group is much more effective than anything else United has tried this year, but finishing can still be a problem. They can score six goals, or they can be forced to have Boswell and Birnbaum save them. If they can get things going, they will score; if not, it will be a long day.
With only one win in the last six, United haven’t been in their finest form, yet the team has also only lost one of those games. Is the fan base taking the “glass half empty” or “glass half full” approach to this recent run of form?
BB: It’s actually a little bit of both; I feel like most people are tantalized and frustrated by the promise that the team is showing, especially their ridiculous ability to come back in stoppage time in three straight games. However, those three exciting games only produced two points. If Boswell especially, and the rest of the defense can re-find their early season form, they might not need these late-game comebacks. However, that will be difficult without Sean Franklin.
United has a completely revamped attacking group from a year ago. What should Jason Kreis and the Lions do defensively to maximize their chances of keeping DC off the score sheet?
BB: Make Patrick Mullins take low percentage shots and, hilariously, don't give up set pieces that will allow Steve Birnbaum to dominate the air. Birnbaum has finally made good on his offensive promise, becoming a dominant aerial presence during United's unbeaten streak. He can score goals, he can set up his teammates, and he simply cannot be stopped in the air right now. So, don't give up set pieces for him to provide on. (The fact that he is United's best offensive weapon is another story that cannot possibly be sustained, but its where we are right now.)
Patrick Mullins can be very hot or very cold, so forcing him into low percentage shots will prevent him from getting going. If he's allowed to get in a rhythm, he can get United's whole attack ticking, and bringing in Patrick Nyarko, Lloyd Sam, and Luciano Acosta will make the day even longer. Speaking of Acosta, he had a bad game last week; if Orlando can keep him off his game, they can take away United's central midfield.
Are there any players missing through injury/suspension this weekend? Can you give us your predicted starting XI and final score?
BB: The only starter missing is Sean Franklin; he has been recently replaced by Luke Mishu, but Mishu has had two bad games in a row. I hope that backup center back Jalen Robinson plays right back instead, but I don't know if that will actually happen. Other than right back, the starting XI will be fairly standard: Bill Hamid; Robinson/Mishu, Steve Birnbaum, Bobby Boswell, Taylor Kemp; Rob Vincent; Patrick Nyarko, Marcelo Sarvas, Luciano Acosta, Lloyd Sam; Patrick Mullins.
With United at home and needing this game badly, my prediction for our site was a 2-1 victory for the Black and Red, so I will stick with that.
Major thanks to Ben for providing his insight into Orlando City’s opponents for tonight.