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Three Things to Watch for in Orlando City vs. Sporting Kansas City

In this defensive showdown, any advantage could be the difference.

MLS: Orlando City SC at Sporting KC John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re a fan of goals, Orlando City’s match with Sporting Kansas City on Saturday probably isn’t the game for you. SKC has only allowed five goals through 10 matches this year — the best average in the league — and that’s after it allowed two to Minnesota United this past weekend. It’s no coincidence that Kansas City’s matches this year have been dogfights that often come down to a single goal.

The same has been true of Orlando City, which only has a single win by multiple goals and has relied on its defense to absorb pressure until the offense can break through. The Lions were right behind SKC in goals allowed until their unfortunate stumble in Houston.

It will be a standoff of sorts in Orlando City Stadium this weekend with two of the top defenses in the league squaring off. SKC will be missing Dom Dwyer — which could spell trouble for the visitors — but its defense has been capable of shutting down better attacks than what the Lions have offered to date. If Orlando City wants to keep up its win streak at home, it will need a high-flying performance on both ends of the pitch.

Can Orlando Expose Graham Zusi at Fullback?

The weakest link in the KC back line hasn’t really been weak at all, but Graham Zusi is still adjusting to life as a full-time fullback. The Longwood native has averaged less-than-stellar numbers there this year, recording fewer than two tackles, interceptions, and clearances per game. Carlos Rivas and Donny Toia are a handful for far more experienced fullbacks. Zusi has proven to be very active in the attack, pressing forward similar to his days as a midfielder, which could leave the left flank exposed for Orlando to exploit.

Having said that, Zusi has been a key piece in Sporting keeping opposition offenses under control. His experimental switch to fullback for club and country has gone far better than the Brek Shea saga. Graham’s only glaring weakness so far this year has been losing track of runners when the ball is on the opposite side of the field. Maynor Figueroa took advantage of that, and that goal proved to be the difference in a heavyweight fight. Dominique Badji nearly did the same thing earlier this season but was stopped by Tim Melia. It’s doubtful that Zusi would forget about a striker like Cyle Larin, but perhaps Rivas can sneak in behind.

Are Orlando’s Starters Finally Healthy?

The match against Houston was a shadow of a fully fit Orlando team. Other than the obvious fatigue issues from the whole team, Will Johnson, Antonio Nocerino, and Kaká were not fit enough to go the full 90 minutes. Add in that Jose Aja was seeing his first live action since going down with a hamstring injury and Jonathan Spector was resting an ankle, and it was a banged-up Orlando side. With a week full of rest, we might finally see a full-strength Orlando City lineup for the first time this season. Tommy Redding is already in Asia for the U-20 World Cup, so hopefully Aja has managed to shake off the rust.

We’ve only seen glimpses of what Orlando can really do with Kaká on the field in two starts and two cameo appearances off the bench. Maybe it’s time for a full-time return to the starting lineup. The Lions will need his eye for a pass to crack the SKC defense. But regardless of the result, Orlando has emerged near the top of the table while battling the adversity of injuries and fitness issues. Even just getting the first-choice team on the field together for the first time would be a small victory for the team. The club is still a way off from the team having a clean bill of health, though there are positive signs that defenders Seb Hines, Rafael Ramos, and Kevin Alston could be ready for selection soon.

Can the Lions Defend the 4-3-3?

A clean sheet isn’t guaranteed for Orlando even though Dwyer will be missing. Sporting has plenty of skill on the wings and Benny Feilhaber is plenty capable of hurting the Lions from midfield. After struggling against a similar 4-3-3 in Houston (although under vastly different circumstances), it will be interesting to see if there are any adjustments to handle defending wider formations. The narrow diamond generally gives up the flanks for solidity in the middle, but for a team like Kansas City that relishes taking the ball wide, it could spell trouble. Cristian Higuita and Will Johnson will have to help Toia and Scott Sutter cope with Zusi and Seth Sinovic bombing forward. The biggest question will be how the club deals with the counter and how the team will respond if it does allow a goal.

Saturday’s contest should be a hard-fought one between two of the top teams in the league. If Orlando can break through one of the top defenses in MLS, it can start setting its sights a little higher.