It feels so good to be back. The long off-season has come to an end, as Orlando City hosts New York City FC this Sunday (5 p.m., ESPN). Fitting, the rematch of the 2015 opening match for both clubs will also mark the inaugural match at Orlando City Stadium, the club’s brand new 25,500-seat at the heart of downtown Orlando.
2016 was a tale of two clubs for the league’s latest pair of expansion foes. After both missed the playoffs in 2015, NYCFC fired Jason Kreis, replacing him with Patrick Vieira, and rebounded to finish second in the Eastern Conference last season — eventually falling in the conference semifinals to Toronto FC. Things didn’t go quite as well for Orlando, which fired Adrian Heath in the middle of its second MLS campaign before hiring Kreis weeks later. The Lions, however, would go on to miss out on the playoffs for a second consecutive season.
But 2017 brings new hope to the City Beautiful. A new stadium and first (full) year head coach have the city buzzing. But is a playoff berth finally on the horizon? The answer to that question begins on Sunday.
The Lions come into the game with several new faces and an almost entirely new back line to show for the work done over the winter.
Jonathan Spector and Jose Aja have been the No. 1 center back pairing throughout the preseason, and after signing a new four-year contract in the off-season, Aja seems primed for a big year with the club. At the fullback spots, the Lions have already seen more than their fair share of injuries pop up in preseason, with three of their fullbacks going down to various muscle injuries — Rafael Ramos, Kevin Alston, and Tony Rocha. That has forced Kreis to move Donny Toia over to the right side, meaning Victor “PC” Giro is the last left back available to start.
The midfield also has a considerably new look. With Kreis switching to his much talked about 4-4-2 diamond system, the former Real Salt Lake and NYCFC boss brought in free agent Will Johnson this off-season, a player very familiar with both Kreis and the diamond. Johnson will be asked to play an important role in the middle of the Orlando midfield alongside Antonio Nocerino, Matias Perez Garcia, and Kaká.
Most notably missing from the Lions midfield this season: Kevin Molino, who is now with Adrian Heath up in Minnesota. It’ll be very interesting to see how the Lions adjust to his loss, which is no doubt a big one.
Up top, Kreis has stated from the beginning of the preseason that the team plans to run with a two-forward attack. Cyle Larin and Carlos Rivas have been those two forwards throughout the preseason and looked to have a real chemistry going in the games played so far, something that should excite fans. Rivas has been a massive question mark so far over the last two seasons, but if he and Larin can continue to strengthen their relationship up top, they can easily be one of the most dangerous tandems in the league.
New York City FC
The Blues didn’t make too many changes in the off-season. The biggest losses were that of Frank Lampard and Andoni Iraola.
Vieira and company are hoping that the addition of Maxi Moralez, the club’s newest Designated Player, is capable of filling the large shoes left by Lampard, while also taking some of the pressure off of the 35-year-old David Villa, last season’s MLS MVP.
Josh Saunders is now in Orlando after spending the last two seasons in NYC, which means the club has found a goalkeeper, and his name is Sean Johnson, who you may know as once the poor man’s Bill Hamid. Being able to figure things out in the back was a big problem for the club last season, and it’s hoping that the addition of Johnson, among the most talented goalkeepers in the league, will get the club where it needs to be defensively.
I expect NYCFC to line up in the back as follows, right to left: Ronald Matarrita, Federic Brillant, Maxime Chanot, and RJ Allen.
In the midfield, Moralez and, of course, Andrea Pirlo will be the two players to watch. And as always, you have to watch out for Villa up top, as he will surely play in the middle of Jack Harrison and Tommy McNamara.
Player To Watch
Obviously one of the biggest keys for Orlando in this match will be to slow down Villa. Now, Tommy Redding was great at shutting down Villa last season, but Redding won’t be with the club due to national team duties with the United States U-20 side, which means it’ll be on the new back line duo of Spector and Aja to keep the Spaniard in check.
Prediction: Orlando City 3, New York City 3
Listen, as much as I want Orlando City to pull out a victory in its first game on its new pitch, here’s the way I see things: in 2015, it took an 89th-minute free kick by Kaká to end the game 1-1. Last year, it took two miraculous goals in stoppage time to come back for a 2-2 draw with Real Salt Lake. So this year, it only makes sense that the trend continues. I don’t know how it’s going to go down, but I say the teams finish level after an exciting, high-scoring affair to open the season. I hope I’m wrong, of course, and Orlando finishes on top in this contest.