League leading DC United is scuffling lately coming off their first home loss in almost a year and are hoping to regain their form in Orlando with the surprising Lions on a four game unbeaten run of their own.
After a brutal stretch of six games in twenty-one days that saw United lose three of those matches and play badly in most of them including a 2-1 loss to Toronto that snapped a 16 game unbeaten run in RFK, DC has finally had a solid week to recover and get somewhat healthier. Orlando on the other hand is on a burst of good form that has seen them rocket up the Eastern Conference on the wings of a four game unbeaten streak including a come from behind win last week in Chicago.
Suddenly clicking on offense, Orlando has become a serious threat in the East. The Lions started the season as mostly just Kaka surrounded by kids, but those kids have grown up recently to take the pressure off Kaka trying to win games almost single handedly. Mostly behind the emergence of number one draft pick Cyle Larin who has four goals in his last six games, Orlando is piling up the goals lately with 13 goals in their last 6 games after only 6 in their first 8 games. In their current four game unbeaten streak, Kaka still leads with 3 goals, all PKs, and OG has two, but Pedro Ribiero has chipped in a goal and forced one of the own goals in the Chicago win. Youth Designated Player Carlos Rivas has also shown flashes of brilliance after injuries derailed his season early on, and while he hasn’t scored yet he did force the other own goal in Chicago. All this supplements Kaka’s team leading six goals on the year with three of them coming recently, all from the penalty spot.
However as usual, DC dodges a bullet as the Lions will be without number one draft pick Cyle Larin who leads all rookies with five goals on the year. Orlando will also likely be without US International Brek Shea who has been away with the Nats in Europe. Even though Shea didn’t play in Germany mid-week, I don’t see him starting after traveling back and having been out of the lineup during much of Orlando’s current surge. The Lions will be without central midfielder Darwin Ceren as well, who is away with El Salvador for World Cup qualifiers and that is a big loss as he has become a key element on both sides of the ball in Orlando’s midfield with twelve starts and a goal in the current run. DC loses Finnish International Markus Halsti who will be hoping to resurrect Finland’s chances against Hungary today in European qualifying.
DC coach Ben Olsen might well see the return of his team leading scoring tandem from last year as it appears Fabian Espindola and Luis Silva could be available to start this match. Both players have been largely unavailable this year through suspension and injury, but Espindola has been transformative for DC United when on the field with one goal and four assists in four games, three of them starts. Silva has had only has one start and has barely played with Espindola all year, but came off the bench to score the winner in Orlando for his only goal of the year. The two of them combined for 22 goals last year and might be exactly what United needs to get out of this current road funk. DC’s training room remains busy however, as it seems likely Chris Pontius (hip), Bill Hamid (finger), Taylor Kemp (the dreaded groin injury), Chris Korb (quad), Michael Farfan (hamstring) and Miguel Aguilar (knee) are all unlikely to be available.
So, looking into my crystal ball because of course DC United never lets on who even travels with the team, much less who might start, I think Espindola starts up top with Jairo Arrieta as I just don’t think Olsen risks Silva to start just yet and Arrieta has been playing well for the most part. In midfield it should Chris Rolfe, Perry Kitchen, Davy Arnaud, and likely Nick DeLeon going left to right. I don’t see either Kemp or Korb being ready to start, so it seems pretty likely Steve Birnbaum fills in on the left for another game next to Kofi Opare and Bobby Boswell in central defense. Hopefully Sean Franklin is available to play on the right. Franklin apparently rolled an ankle and is questionable for this match. Should he not start, it wouldn’t surprise me to see rookie Luke Mishu get another start either on the right, or shifting Birnbaum to the right and playing his more natural left back. Andrew Dykstra seems likely to get another start in goal as Hamid works through an apparent myriad of health problems lately.
Orlando plays a 4-5-1 with Ribiero spearheading the attack and Kaka running the show underneath him. The rest of midfield might be interesting though. I think it likely Orlando coach Adrian Heath plays Eric Avila, Cristian Higuita, Amobi Okugo and former DC midfielder Lewis Neal across the midfield from right to left as that was the group that earned the Chicago win with Okugo being the natural replacement for Ceren. However, given the way DC plays, not attacking much up the middle, Heath might get decide to push Neal, who is a much better two way player, inside next to Higuita and keep the more defensive minded Okugo on the bench. That has the added bonus of getting the dynamic Rivas (or maybe Brek Shea) on the field terrorizing a banged up Franklin or an out of positon Birnbaum or even the rookie Mishu down their left side. On defense, the only question is whether Shea plays left back or not. If he does, Luke Boden heads to the bench, if not Boden plays on their left. The rest of the defense should be Sean St. Ledger next to Aurelien Collin in central defense with Rafael Ramos on the right in front of Talley Hall.
So, looking at those matchups and tactics DC could be in some trouble. Orlando plays the exact same style as DC in that they defend first and seek to counterattack by pouncing on mistakes, but recently they have shown a much more dynamic flow of play where they attack quickly in waves of sustained pressure. When Orlando attacks, Kaka is obviously the key as he is world class at finding spaces to create havoc, and Ribiero has been clever in getting behind defenses giving him room to operate as well as being available for balls over the top. Avila and Ramos have both been very effective attacking the right side with Ramos especially whipping balls into the box. Obviously Rivas or Shea can unbalance the left side too, so if DC isn’t careful it could be a another siege where Orlando runs wild all over DC’s defense, but this time around they might well finish their chances and rout United. Birnbaum and Franklin or Mishu simply have to be rock solid and even then likely need help from Rolfe and DeLeon. Plus, Kitchen and Arnaud have to be almost perfect against Kaka. At best, absent good fortune from the soccer gods, DC is looking at giving up a goal or two. Orlando’s offense is just too good lately and without Hamid’s magic, even Dykstra’s excellent play of late isn’t likely to keep a clean sheet.
On the bright side, Orlando’s defense is nowhere near as good as their offense so they will give up some goals too. They have scored 19 goals in 14 games, but given up 19 goals too. Offensively, you have to like the sneaky Arrieta and the very effective Espindola going against the teeth rattling tandem of Collin and St. Ledger, especially if Rolfe can get forward at times too. DeLeon could cause some serious problems for the left side as well if Shea is out. Boden is their weak link and Rivas won’t defend without a gun to his head, although Neal would likely negate DeLeon if he plays out there. So DC should get a goal or two themselves making this match a toss up on paper. As is often the case mistakes and set pieces could decide this one and DC has the edge here in general as DC doesn’t make mistakes often and their set pieces are a lot more effective with Espindola and Rolfe on the field.
And you hope it plays out that way as the intangibles certainly don’t favor DC despite DC having already beaten expansion Orlando twice in the only two matches they’ve played. Both those wins were darn near flukes as Orlando created boatloads of chances but just couldn’t score and Collin getting injured in one of them didn’t hurt DC either. Looking at current form, Orlando is on a four game unbeaten streak as mentioned, and they are 1-0-2 at home lately after starting the season 0-3-1 in the Citrus bowl. They tied the Crew and thrashed LA in their last two at home. DC, on the other hand has been dreadful on the road lately with only a pitiful point against nine man NE sandwiched in between two 1-0 losses in Philly and Portland in their last three away from RFK.
So there you have it. Should be a wild one in Florida tomorrow evening. I expect both teams to score at least two and who gets the third could go either way. In fact, if Larin and Ceren and Shea were all available, I’d pick Orlando to win going away, but Olsen always seems to catch teams at the right times it seems. Still, if the soccer gods had any justice, they’d balance the scales after helping DC win the first two matches despite arguably being out played by Orlando in both of them. However, Olsen seems to have the magic touch in tight games especially with Espindola in the lineup. You can’t win them all of course as the TFC loss attests, but Olsen and DC have been winning a lot of them the past year and a half and it’s tough to bet against them getting a result in this one even with a banged up defense and poor road form recently.