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Familiar Foe Kevin Molino Presents a Daunting Task for Orlando City’s Defense

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The prodigal midfielder returns.

MLS: Minnesota United FC at FC Dallas Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

If there was an epitome of old vs. new in the soccer world, this could be it. New-look Orlando City, using disciplined defense, meets Adrian Heath’s free-flowing attack reminiscent of the USL days.

We knew it was coming. Ever since Orlando City sent Kevin Molino and Patrick McLain north for a record sum of allocation money, Saturday has been circled on most calendars in Central Florida.

It will seem a bit odd watching Adrian Heath and a combination of his former Orlando coaching staff stalk the opposite sideline. But other than the odd camera shot of the touchline and chatter from the commentators, Heath won’t be at the forefront. Once he sets his lineup and tactics, his role is minimized. The Trinidadian play-maker now wearing gray and light blue, on the other hand, will have an enormous impact on the outcome.

There’s no shame in calling Kevin Molino an Orlando City legend, even while he wears the opposing team’s colors. The circumstances surrounding his exit may have soured his relationship with the Orlando City fan base — though the exact details of his contract spat with Orlando’s front office are still nebulous — but his talent is undeniable. The historical sum of $650,000 doesn’t seem as astronomical with his performances this year and it will be a bittersweet reunion to watch this weekend. It won’t be the same being on the other end of his familiar flicks and fluid movement.

Molino has thrived back in his old No. 10 role under Heath, scoring five goals and creating three more. He’s been surrounded with quality attackers in Christian Ramirez, Miguel Ibarra, Abu Danladi, and Johan Venegas, and the Loons’ attack is making its mark on the league. Heath’s patented, free-flowing 4-2-3-1 has been creating problems for opposing defenses, even earning a resounding win against one of the best defenses in the league in Sporting Kansas City. Minnesota is a far cry from the team that got shellacked on a weekly basis to open the year. Their offense, sparked by Molino, has kept pace with the likes of Toronto FC and the Houston Dynamo and has surged United up from the basement of the standings.

This won’t be a surprise to Orlando fans who have watched Molino work his magic since 2011, earning a pair of USL MVP awards and becoming a key piece in the attack last season. The familiarity extends to the pitch where Kaká, Cristian Higuita, Cyle Larin, and Carlos Rivas will perhaps be tasked with marking the player they trained with for two years. But with the injection of new talent to Orlando City’s roster, that familiarity is lost on the defense.

The most familiar of any of the Lions’ first-choice defenders is Jose Aja, who spent just half of the 2016 season rubbing shoulders with Molino at practice. Kevin spent most of the preseason absent or training on his own before he was shipped to Minnesota, so there isn’t even the familiarity from the winter for the players to draw from.

The advantage may go to Orlando when it comes to keying on weaknesses due to the newness of the Lions’ improved defense, but stopping Molino is no easy task for any back four. His quickness is something that Orlando’s center backs haven’t seen coming at them from the middle of the park and it will be an interesting test for Jonathan Spector, Antonio Nocerino, and Aja to cut off those runs. Molino’s unique blend of quickness, skill with the ball, and field vision is bound to make life difficult.

Nocerino is coming off a strong performance in a disappointing loss to NYCFC and he’ll need to bring that same intensity this weekend. Solidity and organization centrally is the first step to containing the Loons’ attack. The combination of veteran steel and intelligence of Spector and Nocerino will be key.

But Heath’s fluid attacking system means that Molino isn’t just a threat in the center. Especially when Johan Venegas lines up next to him, the Trinidadian could pop up anywhere across the midfield to do some damage. There isn’t another player quite like Molino in MLS. While he isn’t the best in the league in any particular category, we’ve seen firsthand what the combination can do.

Scott Sutter and Donny Toia will need to keep a watchful eye out for the Trinidadian while tracking wingers. It’s a system that is potent for a reason; it’s difficult to defend an improvisational offense. But if there’s a defense that can stay a step ahead of a Heath offense, it’s this one.

It’s going to be odd rooting against Molino after cheering for him for so long. It’s tough to see a talented player that has meant so much to the club swapping shirts within the league. On Saturday, we’ll see how Orlando’s newfound defense stands up to one of the club’s most revered players.