It was a disappointing beginning to the 2017 USL season for Orlando City B. A penalty was the difference in a 1-0 defeat to the club’s arch-rival Tampa Bay Rowdies. The young Lions were bested by a Rowdies side that dominated for most of the match. Tampa has acclimated to the USL quickly, climbing up the Eastern Conference table to sit fourth after 18 matches. OCB is technically on the outside looking in at ninth after tie breakers with New York Red Bulls II.
The I-4 Derby returns to Orlando — at least in its current form — Thursday night as the Rowdies travel to Orlando City Stadium for the second of three regular season match-ups this year. It’s a match that means a lot for Orlando in the thick of the playoff race and a lot for both teams in terms of pride.
A big question for the Lions will be how many MLS players suit up for the B side with another week until their next league match. Eight were in the match-day squad for the 0-0 draw with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds last week, even with Pierre Da Silva suspended. Rafael Ramos is now out with yet another hamstring injury and Da Silva is still sidelined due to the same suspension, but expect a high concentration of guys on MLS contracts making appearances with the Gold Cup break still in effect.
It will be a tough battle for the Lions against the talented Rowdies to even the season series. Here are three match-ups to watch as OCB looks to do just that:
OCB Defenders vs. Georgi Hristov
Hristov has been leading the Rowdies’ line since 2013 and he once again leads the team in goals in 2017 with six. The Bulgarian striker beat Earl Edwards Jr. back in March with his spot kick to earn all three points for Tampa Bay and it will be up to Seb Hines and his partner to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Hines has been the steady hand for OCB since his return from injury, but the center back that has lined up next to him has been a revolving door over the past few matches. Zach Carroll, Conor Donovan, and Leo Pereira have all gotten starts recently.
Pereira and Hines were the pairing that shut down the Riverhounds and there’s a good chance Leo gets the nod again on Thursday. The Brazilian earned his way up through some positive performances early in the year and returned to put in a good shift. Hristov has been deployed wide left, meaning he’ll likely get Zach Ellis-Hayden marking him as well. The Canadian defender has been steady at the back for the young Lions but the Tampa attack will be a test on the next level.
The Rowdies have been scoring at a steady clip with 23 goals on the season. So even if the Lions manage to shut down Hristov, they’ll still need to watch out for former Orlando City striker Martin Paterson, who scored the game-winner against FC Cincinnati in the Rowdies’ last game.
Austin Martz vs. Luke Boden
It was odd to see former Lion Luke Boden wearing the green and gold hoops of the Rowdies the first time around. It will be even stranger to see him in Orlando City’s brand new stadium in opposition colors after six years in purple.
Boden has been one of the best left backs in USL — like he used to be during Orlando’s dominant seasons — and it will be up to one of OCB’s brightest newcomers to keep him occupied all night. Martz has been one of the first names on the team sheet for Anthony Pulis, making 16 appearances to lead the team. The speedy winger puts in a good shift week in and week out but it will be up to him to take advantage of one of Boden’s biggest weaknesses: getting forward and not being able to get back into position.
Boden is bound to give Ellis-Hayden trouble on the other end as well, especially with his crossing ability. Luke has created eight chances in 12 appearances, good enough for fifth on the team. But if Martz can do enough to make Boden cognizant of the threat he poses, the Englishman will have to stay honest. Martz has the pace to burn the Tampa Bay defense on the counter.
Richie Laryea and Hadji Barry vs. Rowdies Center Backs
Laryea has taken his positive performances at the MLS level and raised his game even further in the USL. The Canadian has been one of the better attackers for the young Lions this year and was unlucky not to impact the scoreline against Pittsburgh. He and fellow 2016 first-round SuperDraft pick Hadji Barry have combined to terrorize USL defenses when they have both been available. Their best combination this year is this slicing ball from Laryea that threaded through the Rochester Rhinos defense to find Barry’s run:
That kind of vision will be crucial to breaking down a Rowdies defense that has kept seven clean sheets. Barry has kept up his impressive goal average in USL again this year, averaging a goal almost every other game. He has three goals in six games this year and he and Laryea have been the biggest offensive weapons for the young Lions. Both have three goals on the year and still lead the team. With no attacker stepping up in their absence, it’s up to Barry and Laryea to perform when they’re with the side.
Laryea has earned a place with the first team with recent impacts off the bench but Barry hasn’t gotten on the pitch in an MLS match since April. He’s got the chance to impress in live minutes in front of the hometown crowd.
Pulis has already made it clear that Thursday’s match is about more than points in the table. If the young Lions can get the better of their in-state rivals in these three key areas, they can walk away the victors and three points closer to their second straight playoff appearance.