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Orlando’s Midfield Tripod Could be a Factor Against New York City FC

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The 4-3-2-1 formation worked well against Columbus and could just be the best option tonight.

MLS: Chicago Fire at Orlando City SC Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

Orlando City SC’s controversial defeat Saturday to Columbus Crew SC generated a lot of headlines for unfortunate reasons and an important aspect of the Lions’ game got overlooked as Head Coach James O’Connor made a slight but efficient tactical adjustment, starting the game in a 4-3-2-1 formation.

Having the back line shielded by Uri Rosell, Cristian Higuita and Yoshimar Yotún, the Lions congested the center of the field and forced the Crew to play through the wings and cross several balls into the penalty area, making center backs Chris Schuler and Shane O’Neill combine for 17 clearances.

“I think it’s a good formation,” Rosell said about the new system in an interview on Tuesday. “In the end, all we want is to play in the way he wants. Every game is different, but I felt that last game, when I was playing as the holding midfielder with Higuita and Yoshi, was really good. The way we could compact the game was positive.”

Despite the setback, Orlando managed to limit the hosts’ activity through the center portion of the field, which was the primary goal of the system. And while it’s hard to predict if O’Connor will keep the same lineup against New York City FC, in the team’s fourth game in just 12 days, he should definitely give the new formation another shot.

After all, NYCFC creates most of its offensive action through the center of the field. According to WhoScored.com, the Citizens funnel their plays 29% of the time, the second-highest rating for MLS teams in 2018. It’s not surprise, by the way, that their center attacking midfielder, Maxi Moralez, has recorded seven goals and 10 assists already.

New York can also be dangerous on counter-attacks, especially as the team has been playing without a true striker since David Villa and Jo Inge Berget went down with injuries. Both are back in training and could feature tonight, but having three bodies in the center portion of the field could also help against that, especially with a team with tired legs facing a well-rested NYCFC.

“If you look at the way they play, at times, certainly at home, they want to press, they can counter-press and the transition moments become very important against a team like that,” O’Connor said after Tuesday’s training session. “The biggest thing for us is to minimize those opportunities for them and making good decisions when we have the ball.”

The best way to avoid being caught off guard in defensive transition is keeping the ball. And against the Crew, Orlando did that for most of the part, with Higuita recording a 96.3% passing accuracy and Rosell recording 94.9%.

And while many could expect differently, the formation with three men in the center of the field doesn’t make the team look more defensive. Last Saturday, Yotún had a shot off the post and an assist while Rosell could also have one to his name if forward Stefáno Pinho had controlled his long pass into the box. Higuita helped link the play that eventually ended in Pinho’s goal by serving as the connection between the back line and Yotún.

“I think we had a pretty solid game playing away and playing against a team like Columbus,” Rosell said. “The way we compacted the game in the middle was hard for them and I think that’s a good start.”

Let’s see how it goes this time.