Riding high on a wild three-game winning streak, Orlando City welcomes the San Jose Earthquakes into the City Beautiful for a Saturday showdown. The Quakes are slowly adapting to the Mikael Stahre regime and several new faces are working their way into the team. New Designated Players Magnus Eriksson and Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili have been the stars of a high-scoring attack, but the defense has a lot to work on after allowing 10 goals through five matches.
This match has all of the makings of being yet another high-scoring affair. Here are three keys to Orlando City picking up its fourth win this weekend:
Weather the Early Storm
San Jose likes to start out on the front foot no matter if it’s home or away. In four out of the Earthquakes’ five matches this year, the Northern California side has struck first (with most of those goals coming within 30 minutes). The Quakes have plenty of attacking potency with Eriksson, Vako, Jahmir Hyka, Chris Wondolowski, and Danny Hoesen at Stahre’s disposal. With Stahre’s recent tinkering early on in the season, it’s difficult to say which attackers and just how many he’ll throw at Orlando in the beginning of the match but it’s safe to say they’ll all be talented.
City has struggled with conceding early in 2018, but improved last week against the Philadelphia Union, earning an early lead and holding on to it. With Will Johnson in all likelihood making another cameo at right back and captain Jonathan Spector doubtful, the pressure is on to perform. The good news is that San Jose has tended to slump in the middle of matches this year and become vulnerable defensively. If the defense can hold on for the first half hour, it’ll a good sign for the Lions.
Win the Midfield Battle
Orlando had to adjust mid-match against Philadelphia, bringing on Cristian Higuita to anchor the midfield. It worked, with the Colombian recycling the ball to the rest of the midfield and keeping the shape organized. But in front of him, the Lions went direct, swapping Justin Meram and Josué Colmán for Stéfano Pinho and Chris Mueller in an attempt to replicate the same magic the offense had in the waning moments against the Portland Timbers.
The consequence was a midfield that struggled to hold on to the ball and let the Union rattle off 19 shots. Against the Earthquakes, OCSC might not be so lucky to keep a clean sheet. Keeping Higuita in the midfield as a destroyer to win the ball and cause general mayhem showed that it can provide stability and allow the attackers to get higher up the field. But Head Coach Jason Kreis may need to look into adjusting the attacking quartet in front of the central midfield to get more players into the side that are comfortable on the ball and dropping into the midfield to collect it.
The flip side is that San Jose is not a team that likes to dwell on the ball for long periods of time — the only match the Quakes have held a possession advantage in was against the counter-attacking Houston Dynamo — which could mean good things for the Lions but it could also leave them vulnerable at the back.
It’s a difficult decision for Kreis to make, but the depth and variability of the midfield especially is one of the biggest strengths this team has to offer. But it’s difficult to bench any of the forwards in Stefano Pinho, Chris Mueller, and Dom Dwyer when the team has scored five goals in just over 100 minutes with that combination on the pitch.
Hold On in Crunch Time
A hallmark of Orlando City and San Jose matches over the past three years has been the Lions gaining an advantage just to let it slip away in the waning minutes of the match to settle for a point. In 2015, it was Wondolowski from the penalty spot in the 68th minute. In 2016, Shea Salinas quieted the crowd moments after Julio Baptista thought he had sealed all three points. Last season, it was Wondolowski again nullifying a Carlos Rivas goal to earn yet another draw. All three goals have come in the final 22 minutes and the last two occurred within the final 10.
Orlando can’t let that happen at home this year when points picked up against Western Conference clubs could be the difference in a loaded East. City has been leaky in the second half and has nearly suffered late blows against both the Timbers and New York Red Bulls while allowing nails in coffins in the second half against New York City FC and Minnesota United.
It’s up to the defense to build on last week. Perhaps Oriol Rosell could be a late reinforcement to lock down the match if the Lions hold a lead.