Orlando City enters this weekend with an unfortunate five players still on the injury report and it has undoubtedly affected its style of play. With Kaká still sidelined and two first-choice defenders in Rafael Ramos and Jose Aja unable to suit up, Orlando’s depth has been pushed to its limit. The result has been playing players like Will Johnson and Giles Barnes out of position, resorting to defensive, long-ball tactics, and trying to grind out results. Luckily for the Lions, the New York Red Bulls come into this weekend in the exact same position.
The Red Bulls actually have even more walking wounded, with up to six potentially sidelined for this weekend including former Orlando fan favorite Aurelien Collin. With Gideon Baah, Gonzalo Veron, and Mike Grella out for the foreseeable future, the Red Bulls have also been a shell of themselves, relying on their defense to provide results at home but struggling on the road in Houston and Seattle, where they allowed a total of seven goals in two crushing defeats. The good news for New York is that Head Coach Jesse Marsch hasn’t ruled out Collin, Connor Lade, and Fredrik Gulbrandsen yet, though Collin and Lade still weren’t present for midweek training.
There’s bad news for both clubs as they run the risk of devolving into a run of poor form without a result this weekend. The Red Bulls are winless through three, while Orlando dropped an unconvincing contest in Columbus last weekend. But while they may not be at full strength, Cyle Larin and Bradley Wright-Phillips are both capable of punishing these two depleted defenses and there is plenty of talent on both sides to make it an entertaining affair. But it might not be the same level of performance fans are used to for a number of reasons. Sacha Kljestan is still very much a threat for the visitors and Barnes and Carlos Rivas — who has been known to trouble New York all by himself — have made life difficult for opposing defenses in the friendly confines of Orlando City Stadium.
The trouble is that it’s not just injuries that have caused the Lions and Red Bulls to experiment early on in the new year. Both clubs sold key components of their midfield for near league-record sums and have yet to find that similar spark. Winter Park’s own Dax McCarty was moved from New York to Chicago for $400,000 in allocation money while Orlando let Kevin Molino go to Minnesota for $650,000. The holes are apparent from both departures, with Tyler Adams replacing Dax and Matias Perez Garcia occupying Molino’s familiar role on the right wing. Neither has had the impact of their predecessor, but the drop-off in performance hasn’t been astronomical in either case.
The result is two teams trying to adjust to adversity and new playing styles at the same time, trying out some hybrid of the traditional 4-4-2 and 4-2-2-2 formations.
“I see the Red Bulls playing in a different shape but still all the same philosophies of how they play,” Orlando City Head Coach Jason Kreis told the club earlier this week. “So we know it’s a dangerous opponent and it’s going to be a massive challenge for us.”
Both clubs have found moderate success up to this point, with New York sitting at fourth and Orlando at fifth in the latest rendition of the Eastern Conference standings. Even for teams with playoff aspirations, they’ll take that this early on. Neither has had an easy road to this point, playing a slate of last year’s playoff teams and perennial contenders, and both will be looking to get back on the right track this weekend.
For Orlando, there is a perfect home record to maintain. Playing with 25,500 fans at the Lions’ backs has spurred them on to impressive victories over both New York City FC and the Philadelphia Union. They’ll need the support again on Sunday to fend off a still dangerous New York side, no matter how banged up or unorthodox it may seem.