This is it, folks. The season isn’t over after Saturday’s meeting between Orlando City and Columbus Crew SC, but if the Lions fall at home, the season is officially on life support and just waiting around for a miracle.
Complicating the crucial nature of this match is the absence of both Kaká and Jonathan Spector. If Orlando is going to circle the wagons, the Lions will have to do it without two of its most important pieces. Let’s hope they can come up with a performance for the ages and jump back into the postseason conversation — or at least just find all three points at the end of a game for a change.
It's been a long time since we've seen the Crew back in April. What is different about the team since then?
Patrick Murphy: The biggest change has been a change in formation for Crew SC. After Gregg Berhalter played primarily in a 4-2-3-1 over his first three seasons, the team discussed playing a three-man back line in the preseason and did it a few times over the first half of the year. On the Fourth of July, the Black & Gold played a 3-4-2-1 at Minnesota and haven't changed back.
The reasoning behind this is to improve defensively, and this has been somewhat better. Columbus shut out D.C. United and the Philadelphia Union, but then lost 3-0 to the Union in Philly in a game that saw Crew SC receive two red cards. After road games against Real Salt Lake and San Jose Earthquakes (tie and loss), the formation got its first real challenge last week against the Chicago Fire at home. While it looked weird to watch the Black & Gold sit back and counter, it worked to the tune of a 3-1 win.
While Berhalter and his players say they still believe the team can play its attacking, possession-based style out of the new formation, we are yet to see it. Columbus has conceded the ball to most of the teams it’s played over this stretch, but has gotten results and improved defensively, which is the goal.
That's been the biggest change and it will be interesting to see if the team sticks with this look going forward.
What can you tell us about this new DP from Portugal the Crew signed and how much will we see of him on Saturday?
PM: Pedro Santos is a winger with a lot of experience playing in Portugal, as you mentioned, as well as some Europa League matches under his belt. This is a guy that we didn't know much about when we learned of the signing. From talking to fans of his former team, SC Braga, and Berhalter, he sounds similar to Justin Meram, just on the opposite wing, in that he likes the ball at his feet, likes to take players on and looks to score.
This is a player Berhalter first saw in November of 2016 and was interested in signing then, but the asking price was too high. A year, and an injury — which saw him lose his spot — later and the price was down enough that the Black & Gold could make a deal happen, but it was still a record transfer fee paid by Crew SC.
He's looked good in the little bits we've seen in practice, especially on free kicks. He's very slight, which will be interesting in MLS, but he's survived through his career already.
As for how much you will see of him, that's a good question. As of Wednesday, the team was still awaiting his P1 Visa to arrive. On Tuesday, Berhalter made it sound like the staff was confident he would be ready to go for the weekend, but we await updates. I assume, given the injury to Kekuta Manneh and the trading of Ethan Finlay, that we will see Santos in the lineup as soon as he is available.
With Kaká and Jonathan Spector out, what does Orlando City have to do to take a much-needed three points from this match?
PM: I think the answer to that question depends on how Crew SC lines up in this one. If Federico Higuain is back from a knee injury (which it appears he is, given his training this week) and Santos is ready to go on Saturday, it's hard for me to put the pieces into a 3-4-2-1. Berhalter may have to go back to the 4-2-3-1 in order to get his attacking players on the field and just hope the defense holds up.
If the team plays with three in the back, Orlando will need to be ready for the counter attack. It has become rather dangerous with the speed of players like Justin Meram and Kekuta Manneh breaking out in the midfield. If we see the traditional 4-2-3-1, it will be about not letting the Black & Gold boss the game and get this attacking four (the three midfielders and Ola Kamara) going.
Crew SC haven't been great on the road and this will be the first time the team's been to Orlando City Stadium, so it will be interesting to see how Berhalter and company approach this match.
Projected starting XI?/Score line prediction?
PM: There's a lot of guessing here due to the potential Manneh injury and not knowing if Higuain and Santos will be available, but here's what's most likely:
Zack Steffen; Jonathan Mensah, Alex Crognale, Lalas Abubakar; Harrison Afful, Artur, Wil Trapp, Waylon Francis; Federico Higuain, Justin Meram; Ola Kamara.
Big thanks to Pat from Massive Report for giving us some insight on this week’s opponents from Columbus.