The stage is set for a dramatic finish to Orlando City B’s 2017 regular season on Thursday night. With the young Lions just one point out of the playoff picture and three teams that they could potentially pass during the final week, it’s a must-win scenario. They will still need some help from any of New York Red Bulls II after losing at home last week, Bethlehem Steel, or FC Cincinnati, but none of that matters without three points on Thursday night.
The team’s do-or-die match naturally happens to be at home against the arch-rival Tampa Bay Rowdies, who have already clinched their postseason berth and sit third in the Eastern Conference.
“I had a feeling it was going to come down to the last game,” OCB Head Coach Anthony Pulis said following the wild 6-5 loss to Red Bulls II. “Any game against the Rowdies is big. There’s definitely going to be a little bit more in it for sure.”
But with Orlando City’s first team now officially eliminated from MLS playoff contention, first-team Head Coach Jason Kreis and company have some interesting personnel decisions to make in the coming days. Following the Lions’ contentious draw with FC Dallas, Kreis and Kaká made comments about the potential for the younger players to get minutes up with the first team without playoffs to play for. But with the need for a victory against a good Rowdies side, is there more incentive to let the young guns continue with OCB to finish out the USL regular season?
With the MLS side off last week, it was an easy decision to give more minutes to the younger players. With their backs to the wall, OCB fought back valiantly to keep their playoff dreams in hand but ultimately fell, 6-5. There were eight players on MLS contracts in the side, including Richie Laryea and Earl Edwards, who have been strictly with the first team over the past few weeks.
With Tampa travelling to Orlando City Stadium on Thursday and a quick turnaround with the Columbus Crew arriving for Sunday’s home finale, it’s unlikely any players would see extensive minutes in both matches. The opportunity is there to feature in both, but likely with limitations.
There’s a developmental dilemma on Orlando’s hands. Which is the better environment for the Lions’ young players: an MLS match against higher-quality competition with less on the line, or a must-win USL match with far more stress on the line? Making the playoffs then provides more opportunities for meaningful matches down the line, though it would mean making the same decisions next week between Orlando’s season finale with the Philadelphia Union or the opening round of the USL playoffs.
Even after the MLS season is done, playoffs could provide vital minutes to young players that need them. According to the USL competition rules, players on loan need to make five appearances to be playoff eligible. That means 11 MLS players could find their way onto OCB’s playoff roster: Kevin Alston, Hadji Barry, Pierre Da Silva, Conor Donovan, Earl Edwards, Seb Hines, Richie Laryea, PC, Leo Pereira, Rafael Ramos, and Tony Rocha.
But with all of the minutes they could potentially see in USL, does that provide more upside for the first team going into next season? Pulis often employs a different formation (though often still utilizing two strikers) with a different tactical approach. For instance, Laryea, who has made his substitute appearances in midfield for Kreis, has often been used as the deeper striker for Pulis, who does not utilize a central attacking midfielder. So even if the players are learning, is it a better use of their time than getting minutes in Kreis’ system?
It’s a great opportunity for the youngsters to prove they deserve more minutes in 2018. The question Orlando City must ask is where those minutes best serve the future of the club.