Orlando City had arguably the best off-season in MLS. Since coming into the top tier of American soccer, the Lions’ defense has been one of the league’s worst — so in came a new left back, a top Bundesliga center back, and quality depth. The offense was poor in 2017, so why not bring in the MLS assist king, a new, young No. 10, a seven-year MLS veteran coming off his best year yet, and two high-potential rookies, while giving the best goal scorer on the team a contract extension?
However, on opening day Orlando City will be without Sacha Kljestan (suspension) and Dom Dwyer (injury), while Josué Colmán, Richie Laryea, and Uri Rosell’s statuses for this Saturday are still unknown. All this leaves potential issues for the Lions, as D.C. United’s off-season was also a productive one.
D.C. strengthened what was a dismal attack a season ago by adding Darren Mattocks and Yamil Asad. They did lose Bill Hamid, but David Ousted is now in goal so there shouldn’t be much of a drop in net. In fact, with Steve Birnbaum and Frederic Brillant as the two center backs, Orlando City’s offense will have its work cut out this week.
Going down the middle of the field is going to be tough, so the Lions will need to use width. Yoshimar Yotún will need to have a strong game down the left-hand side while Justin Meram will have to pick up right where he left off in 2017.
The key player to watch for Orlando is going to be whoever replaces Dwyer in the starting XI. It is looking like this will most likely be Stéfano Pinho, who had a good preseason but lacks MLS experience. Pinho will have a short learning curve and needs to step right up. All eyes should be on him to see if he can keep up with the speed of MLS play and bring to the first division what he showed in the NASL as a two-time MVP and Golden Boot winner.
As for the visitors, the story will be similar: with 31 goals for in 2017, D.C. was tied with Colorado for dead last in finding the back of the net. Of those 31, Luciano Acosta and Patrick Mullins led the way with five apiece. If D.C. is going to have any success this year, those numbers will have to improve and newcomers Mattocks and Asad will be the two players that Orlando will want to keep under control. The new Orlando defense will especially have to keep Mattocks from getting in behind, or the Jamaican will make the Lions pay.
The other thing to watch for is both of the head coaches. With it being the first game of the 2018 MLS season, it will be interesting to see how Orlando City Head Coach Jason Kreis and D.C. United Head Coach Ben Olsen send out their teams (although Olsen is suspended for the opener, he’ll still have picked the lineup). Then what will the coaching staffs do as the game progresses? Players that are brought on will give a clear idea of who the managers trust at this stage in the season. Also, will there be any formation changes or teams going more defensive- or attacking-minded as the game goes on?
Both D.C. and Orlando were uninspiring in 2017, but both had good off-seasons and made moves to put themselves in positions to fight for playoff spots in 2018. It may be just opening week, but in a tough Eastern Conference points earned from these early games could go a long way come playoff time.