Orlando City hits the road for the first time in 2017 later today when the Lions visit Columbus Crew SC at Mapfre Stadium. The club had a trip to New England postponed due to weather concerns a couple of weeks ago and, as a result, has not yet played outside the cozy confines of the purple palace in Parramore.
In addition, Orlando has played just two games to the Crew’s four.
The Crew entered the weekend atop the Eastern Conference with seven points from a 2-1-1 record. After starting 0-1-1, Columbus has two straight wins, including impressively knocking Portland from the ranks of the unbeaten during the international break.
Columbus went 1-0-1 in two meetings against Orlando last season, drawing 2-2 at Mapfre Stadium and winning 4-1 at Camping World Stadium. The Lions have not won in Columbus (0-1-1) in two tries and are 2-2-2 against the Crew in all competitions since joining MLS (1-2-2 in league play and 1-0 in the U.S. Open Cup). This is the first of three meetings between the team, with the other two coming at Orlando City Stadium on Aug. 19 and Oct. 15.
What can you tell us about the 2017 Columbus Crew in terms of how different/similar it is to last year’s squad?
Patrick Murphy: There's quite a bit different. Let's start on defense because that was the focus this off-season. Gone is Michael Parkhurst and injured (for the season) is Gaston Sauro. In their places are Nicolai Naess (who was acquired last summer) and Designated Player Jonathan Mensah. That has been the starting duo when both are available this year. Josh Williams was also brought back to bring veteran depth while rookies Lalas Abubakar and Alex Crognale are players the team is high on. Crew SC also brought in left back Jukka Raitala and he started the first three games before being away on international duty last week.
In the midfield, Wil Trapp has a new partner in the Brazilian Artur who is on loan from Sao Paulo. Mohammed Abu was also acquired and started Week 1. Those two moved former mainstay Tony Tchani out of the 18-man game day roster. Speaking of Tchani, Columbus just traded the veteran midfielder to the Vancouver Whitecaps on Thursday in exchange for attacker Kekuta Manneh. When we spoke to Gregg Berhalter about the trade, he was very excited about what he hopes Manneh will add to an already potent attack.
Of these moves, Jonathan seems to be a good addition and Raitala has looked very solid. Crognale started and played a very solid 90 minutes two weeks ago against D.C. United and got some big minutes against the Portland Timbers last week when Jonathan left with an injury. Abu looked good in his first game and the Artur has been up and down, but appears to be trending up.
This is a very long way of saying there have been a lot of changes and the jury is still out on how they will all work after just four games this year.
One suspects fan expectations for the 2017 Crew are somewhere between what happened in 2015 and 2016. Where is this team realistically headed?
PM: I believe this team has to make the playoffs this season. Berhalter did so in both of his first two years and then the team struggled last year while missing the three highest paid players for most of the season (Sauro, Kei Kamara and Federico Higuain) for various reasons.
With how MLS handles its postseason, this shouldn't be too much to ask. The Crew SC offense already seems primed for another big season and there is an added emphasis on defense this year (again, jury still out). I believe this team has enough talent to compete in the East and finish somewhere around third, if not higher.
Much of that will hinge on Higuain performing at the level he's capable of week in and week out. He was the biggest loss a year ago and Columbus still doesn't really have a replacement for him. He didn't have the best first game, but progressed each game this season and was very good last week against Portland.
Who are some of the club's unsung heroes that maybe don't get the publicity or recognition around the league and what do they bring to the team?
PM: Wil Trapp is obviously a name that a lot of U.S. soccer fans know and are hopeful for. In Columbus, the expectations for him got very high and he hasn't lived up to that. With that said, Trapp is vital for what Crew SC do in the center of the park. He helps out defensively and is important in the possession game Berhalter likes to play.
I also think Ola Kamara remains a little under the radar. He was very good last season, averaging a goal every 116 minutes, and already has three goals in four games. His movement is a lot of fun to watch and he has a knack for being in the right position at the right time. He also apparently has a left foot chip shot that we learned about last week, which was pretty remarkable.
The final guy I would say is Nicolai Naess. The center back, who has also filled in at defensive midfield, is a solid defensive player with great passing range. He was a bright spot in an otherwise forgettable defensive year last season and has started 2017 brightly. His partnership with Jonathan Mensah will continue to grow after Jonathan missed most of the preseason while on national team duty with Ghana.
What is your predicted lineup for the Orlando City match and your final score prediction? Also, are there any injury absences or suspensions we should know about?
PM: Injuries: Jonathan Mensah is questionable for this one after suffering a leg injury last week. He ran Thursday but wasn't full go in training.
Projected starting lineup (4-4-1-1):
Zack Steffen; Harrison Afful, Alex Crognale, Nicolai Naess, Jukka Raitala; Ethan Finlay, Artur, Wil Trapp, Justin Meram; Federico Higuain; Ola Kamara
I'm erring on the side of caution and leaving Jonathan out. Josh Williams would be an option too, but I assume Crognale to better battle with size against Larin. Raitala just got back from Europe yesterday but I assume he gets his spot back.
Score: 2-1 to Crew SC. Larin for Orlando, Ola and Higuain for the Crew.
Big thanks to Pat from Massive Report for giving us some insight on this afternoon's opponents from the Buckeye state.