Orlando City has faced New York Red Bulls five times over its two-year existence at the MLS level and gone 1-3-1 in those matches. NYRB and USMNT midfielder Sacha Kljestan has featured in four of those five games and found consistent success against the Lions, contributing key service to help the Red Bulls largely own the series with Orlando thus far.
Orlando met NYRB twice in its inaugural MLS season in 2015, splitting the pair of matches with a road win and a home loss. In the loss at Camping World Stadium in July of 2015, Kljestan scored a key goal in a 2-0 Red Bulls win while putting two of his three shots on frame and adding two key passes (a pass that leads directly to a shot). He even drew a bogus red card on Cyle Larin that was later overturned by the league’s disciplinary committee.
The September rematch in Harrison, N.J. was a signature win for the Lions that season, a 5-2 run out that featured great performances from Larin and Carlos Rivas. That was the only match against Orlando where Kljestan has been shut down completely, being held without a shot or a single key pass in the big Lions win despite completing 87.7% of his passes on the night.
Kljestan turned in a very different performance in the first meeting between City and NYRB in 2016, pulling strings all over the pitch to help New York to a 3-2, season-changing win over the Lions at Red Bull Arena. Kljestan only officially registered one assist over 90 minutes that day — a nutmeg of Tommy Redding that led to Mike Grella’s equalizer, which opened a three-goals-in-10-minutes floodgate — but that number could’ve, and probably should’ve, been higher.
Kljestan ran the show from midfield on that April 2016 evening, dishing out nine key passes for NYRB, a few of which were only kept out of the net by incredible Joe Bendik saves. His performance was emblematic of a game that felt more lopsided than the score reflected, and could’ve been a blowout had Bendik not turned in several highlight-reel stops. In the second meeting between NYRB and OCSC last year, a 1-1 draw in Orlando, Kljestan assisted New York’s lone goal and dropped two more key passes.
So in only four matches against the Lions, Kljestan has registered an incredible 13 key passes to go along with two assists and a goal. Jason Kreis’ men will certainly be well aware of the danger Kljestan poses when the Lions host the Red Bulls on Sunday, and the battle in the midfield will be key.
Orlando City has only allowed one goal in two outings in its home stadium, and Kreis’ preferred choice of more centrally-focused midfielders this season has been Servando Carrasco and Antonio Nocerino, with Cristian Higuita making substitute appearances in the second halves of all three matches thus far to supplement. This area of the pitch will be important, as it is where much of Kljestan’s damage has been inflicted in past meetings with Orlando — particularly that maestro performance in April of 2016, when he threaded through balls and began runs into or around the box that ended with laid off passes and shot opportunities for NYRB.
Orlando’s defense, while improved from a season ago, will now be reliant upon Tommy Redding without Jose Aja, so containing Kljestan before he can get into the teeth of Orlando’s back line will be even more critical. Should City bottle up Kljestan for most of the night, it could set things up nicely for the Lions’ offense against a defense that’s struggling somewhat — the Red Bulls have conceded the third-most goals in MLS so far — and now has a pair of injuries of its own to monitor.