There was a little bit of injury added to the insult of two dropped points on Saturday night when Orlando City couldn’t quite overcome the Columbus Crew. Cornerstone of the midfield Will Johnson has been ruled out for two weeks at minimum after trying to fight through a sprained ankle before eventually bowing out in the 32nd minute.
The Lions will miss what the Canadian captain brought to the field. Between his leadership — Johnson has consistently worn the armband when Kaká is unavailable — and consistent effort in the midfield going from box to box. With Orlando’s playoff hopes hanging by a thread and a hot Vancouver Whitecaps side coming to town this weekend, Jason Kreis will need to make an important decision to put his best foot forward and collect all three points.
But which player can the gaffer plug into the lineup to best replicate Johnson’s production and give City the best chance to win? He’s got a few options, each with its own positives and drawbacks.
Higuita was his immediate replacement with the Colombian stepping in for Johnson when the latter was forced to leave the game against the Crew. And while Cristian had a fantastic impact on the match, his biggest contributions came from a more familiar spot on the field.
Higuita’s biggest flaw as one of the central midfielders — whether in the diamond formation or flat — has been his inability to get forward consistently. His offense on Saturday was far above what he normally brings to the pitch. To make the decision more interesting, Higuita spent the final half hour as the deepest midfielder after Antonio Nocerino made way for Dom Dwyer’s home debut. His assist to Giles Barnes for the equalizer came after that switch.
Higuita deserves more time for his performance, but can he provide the same offensive spark he did consistently? Or will he continue to be the player he has been all season as a No. 8, playing solid defense and being ineffective going forward. Higuita has quality, but can he actually fill the void Johnson has left?
Johnson’s 22-year-old countryman might be the closest replacement for his skill set. Laryea has only played 65 minutes this season over seven substitute appearances but he’s become one of Kreis’ consistent substitutes off the bench. His ability and willingness to press and run from box to box has been his biggest impact in every appearance — something we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from Johnson — even if he hasn’t been able to contribute on offense. Laryea is all effort and hustle with pace to track down attackers and get up to join the attack. He combined well with Yoshimar Yotún on Saturday in the waning moments of the match, which bodes well for a potential central midfield partnership.
The biggest question with Richie is whether or not he’s ready for a full load of MLS minutes. He hasn’t consistently played a deeper central midfield role as a professional — he was deployed as a play-maker and second striker with OCB — but Kreis has brought him on in that position even ahead of proven veterans like Dillon Powers. Thirty minutes would set a career high for the most MLS minutes Laryea has played in a game this year, is Kreis willing to throw him into the deep end?
Considering the diamond is a foregone conclusion would be unwise. With Barnes providing an impact and bagging his second goal in the league this season on Saturday, he’s still an option to start this week. With Kaká back from suspension, a move back to the wider 4-4-2 with the Brazilian wide left and the Jamaican wide right injects some pace and directness that caused problems for the Crew. With the second striker — be that Dwyer or Rivas — willing to drop into the vacant space, a central attacking midfielder may not be necessary. Carlos’ tendency to drift left allows for Kaká to interchange fluidly to create even more problems for the Whitecaps defenders.
Putting Barnes on the field gives the Lions something they’ve lacked in recent weeks: four players that can score goals. It also gives a different look with a wider formation against a Vancouver team that likes to play through its wide men.
The biggest deficiency will likely be Johnson’s fire and leadership no matter who steps into the Lions’ lineup this weekend. Will has been a vocal force all year, and no matter who steps in there will be a void there. For the young players, it could provide an opportunity to step up. For the remaining veterans, they’ll need to shoulder some more of the load, especially if Jonathan Spector can’t suit up again. With their playoff lives on the line, they’ll be needed more than ever.