It’s not going to be easy for an Orlando City side full of so many walking wounded to walk away victorious on Saturday. Against a Union side that has managed to get results after traveling across the continent to Vancouver and then again against the reigning Eastern Conference champion Toronto FC, Orlando might need to pull out all the stops to get a win. Coming up against a team it consistently battles for a playoff spot, this match could mean a little bit more at the end of the season.
Here are three keys to the Lions remaining unbeaten and undrawn at Orlando City Stadium:
End Product from Carlos Rivas
It’s been the story of the young Colombian’s time in Orlando. But now, with deficiencies throughout the rest of the offense, the pressure will be on Carlos to perform (assuming he plays after his return to training on Thursday, following a hamstring issue). Kaká will be watching from the sidelines and Matías Pérez García will need to focus a good amount of effort on the defensive end to cover for Will Johnson at fullback. Giles Barnes -- for all of his positives in the win against New York City FC -- still has some question marks surrounding him after only being in the system for a few weeks.
Rivas had a lot of positives in his game against NYCFC, but he just couldn’t connect in the final third. His shots weren’t catastrophically wide, but they were mostly non-threatening. He also made a few clever curling passes that managed to find Cyle Larin but without enough space or time to gather the ball. He’ll need to connect on one or the other and get in the box score if Orlando City is going to get a result. He doesn’t need to score, necessarily, but he needs to make the key pass or draw fouls in dangerous areas to set up his teammates.
The Union defense had trouble with the slicing runs of Justin Morrow last week and Rivas has the pace and ability to get in behind the same way. But getting into dangerous areas is only half the battle and beating Andre Blake is easier said than done. With Orlando in dire need of an offensive spark, can Rivas stay composed enough to make the right plays?
Controlling Central Midfield
The availability of Cristian Higuita makes this a lot easier for the Lions, but there's still no telling if he’ll be fit enough for the entire match. Orlando saw the tandem of Higuita and Antonio Nocerino toward the end of last season, with both capable of playing a holding role or advancing forward. But Philadelphia has a formidable pairing of its own with two relative surprises in Haris Medunjanin and Derrick Jones, who more than held their own against a talented Toronto FC side. Not to mention Alejandro Bedoya, who will line up in front of them and provide a tall task for the OCSC central midfield to contain.
But containment isn't all it’ll need to do. Any combination of Nocerino, Higuita, and Servando Carrasco should be talented enough to shield the back line, but they’ll be needed in support of the offense as well. If Higuita is fit, can he be effective further up the pitch as well as make crunching tackles?
It was tense watching for most of the match against NYCFC for a major reason: Orlando City barely managed to hold possession for 30% of the game. It’s something most fans aren’t used to after continuously holding onto the ball against opponents for most of the last six years. But the home opener saw long clearances galore and wave after wave of attacks from New York City FC, which registered a whopping 14 shots.
At some point, Orlando’s defense will break under that kind of pressure. Even if Jason Kreis worked miracles with the defenders, giving up so many chances — a lot of them high quality — will result in goals. And while Philadelphia may not boast the attacking talent of NYCFC, it has pieces in its own right. Former Lion C.J. Sapong managed to snatch a point from Toronto and the Union would have likely beaten the reigning Eastern Conference champions had Bedoya not shanked a penalty off the crossbar. Orlando City will need another stellar defensive effort to get a result and it won’t be easy if the Union gets opportunity after opportunity to attack.
If the Lions can manage those three things, they have a great chance of walking away with all three points.