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United drop second straight match with 1-0 loss in Orlando

Orlando, Florida, June 14, 2015 – D.C. United has reached the midway point of the 2015 MLS season in first place, but tonight’s 1-0 loss to Orlando City SC at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida suggests something other than tangible progress as the Black-and-Red dropped their second game in a row.

Armed with a four-point lead in the Eastern Conference over the New England Revolution, United (8-5-5, 28 points) still has played at least two more games than most of their conference opponents to this point in the season. With a seemingly rare full week of training and rest for United, it didn’t seem to make much of a difference as they wilted in the heat and humidity in Central Florida.

Orlando City (5-5-5, 20 points) jumped into third place in the East by virtue of their win tonight and are on a 5-game unbeaten run. Kaka, the man who runs the show in Orlando for the Lions was the difference maker this evening though in controversial fashion. In the 28th minute United defender Taylor Kemp was adjudged to have fouled Orlando City forward Pedro Ribeiro who was chasing down a failed clearance from Steve Birnbaum after Bill Hamid had just pulled off a stunning save on Ribeiro.

The controversy doesn’t lie in the penalty call from referee Jose Carlos Rivero as much as a clear non-call on a high foot right in the face of Davy Arnaud from Ribeiro just seconds before he took his shot on Hamid. That non-call began the fateful sequence of events that ultimately ended up with Kaka heading in his own penalty-saved shot off of a save from Hamid to give the home side a 1-0 lead before a sweaty and raucous crowd of 30,054 fans.

United had plenty of time to turn the deficit around as United are MLS’ best team in doing so (4-4-1 when giving up the first goal this season) and felt they should have had the opportunity to do so in the final minute of the first half. On a rare United corner kick, midfielder Perry Kitchen was essentially rugby tackled from behind by Orlando City fullback Luke Boden at the penalty spot but Rivero either didn’t notice the play or simply refused to give United a penalty claim.

After the break it was United who took it to the Lions by pushing numbers up into attack but as has been the case for a great deal of the season, United couldn’t get any quality looks on goal or the necessary service to level the match. The best of United’s chances was a Conor Doyle drive that he sliced just past the far post late in the match after being set up beautifully by Fabian Espindola. United only had two shots on goal for the match and both of them came from long distance and never really threatened Orlando City goalkeeper Tally Hall.

With the loss, United now has fallen on their worst patch of play of the season. Not surprising considering the amount of games the team has had to play in the past six weeks. United is 2-4-1 in their last seven matches and are in danger of being caught by the rest of the Eastern Conference. The task of turning around their league form begins next Sunday afternoon when they welcome the Revolution to RFK Stadium for a nationally televised (ESPN2) match on Fathers Day at 5pm.

Before that however United will play the Pittsburgh Riverhounds in U.S. Open Cup play on Wednesday night in Pittsburgh. It is expected that Ben Olsen will send his reserves to this match in order to rest up his players for the league match on Sunday.

 

United Notes

  • Chris Pontius (hip), Sean Franklin (ankle), Michael Farfan (hamstring) and Facundo Coria (unknown ailment) all remained back in DC and did not make the trip to Florida
  • Markus Halsti was with Finland over the weekend as they lost 1-0 to Hungary in a Euro 2016 qualifier. Halsti is expected to be back in D.C. by Tuesday. It’s unknown whether he will be included on the bus that will travel to Pittsburgh on Wednesday night for their 4th Round match up with the Riverhounds in the U.S. Open Cup

DC hopes to regain winning ways in Orlando

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.

Hamid early, Silva late in United’s stoppage-time 1-0 win over Orlando City SC

Luis Silva’s 92nd minute free kick was the difference maker in D.C. United’s smash-and-grab 1-0 victory over Orlando City SC this evening at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida.

Six days after Chris Pontius’ 93rd minute game-winner over the Galaxy, Silva stepped up and curled a clinical shot over the wall and off the mitts of Orlando City goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts to give United (3-1-0  9 points) their first road win of the season and back-to-back stoppage-time wins, a first in team history. Conversely, the expansion Florida side (1-2-2,  5 points) dropped their second match at home in a row via a stoppage time free kick. The win for United vaults them to the top of the Eastern Conference for at least a week until their rematch with Red Bull next weekend.

While the headlines deservedly go to Silva, it must be noted that goalkeeper Bill Hamid kept United in this game with a number of spectacular saves to frustrate the Lions. Hamid made a pair of point-blank stops inside the six yard box in the first half, first on defender Rafael Ramos’ bid and then thwarting midfielder Kevin Molino’s one-v-one effort off of a nice pass from Brazilian Designated Player and resident superstar Kaka.

United were on the back foot for most of the first half and finally settled into the game after the second of Hamid’s stunning saves. The Black-and-Red nearly grabbed the lead against the run of play when Chris Rolfe’s volley went inches wide of the far post, a shot that Ricketts would have had no chance to save.

After the break United started to gain more control of the match and severely limited the Lion’s chances to take the lead. In fact, it was United who should have taken the lead in the 68th minute  when a trio of shots somehow managed not to go into the goal. The play started with a beautiful diagonal ball over the top of Orlando City’s defense from defender Taylor Kemp. The ball met Sean Franklin in stride and his cut back on Aurelien Collin opened up a pass to the onrushing Conor Doyle. The substitute striker’s shot was well saved by Ricketts but right into the path of Chris Pontius who’s goal-bound bid was miraculously stabbed out of the way by retreating defender Brek Shea. The ensuing pop-up of Shea’s play was headed by Doyle but his bid was frustratingly palmed away by Ricketts for a corner kick.

United must have thought that was their golden opportunity to snatch all three points given that the team has been sporadic offensively through their first four league matches, undoubtedly due to the numerous injuries of key players and the suspension of leading scorer from last season Fabian Espindola. Fortunately for United a slight remedy was at hand as Silva was making his season debut with United when he came on for Rolfe in the 76th minute.

Silva managed to draw a foul at the edge of the area offset to the left when he was bowled over by Collin in the 91st minute. There was no question who was going to take the ensuing free kick and Silva made Orlando City pay dearly for their missed opportunities and silenced the crowd of 32, 822 with a curling effort just over the wall and out of the reach of the rangy Jamaican goalkeeper.

While United has been far from aesthetically pleasing through the first month of the season, the fact that they have banked 9 out of 12 possible points is encouraging as their injured players (and suspended ones) slowly start to make it back to the playing field. Things hopefully will get better from a soccer standpoint, but I really don’t think Ben Olsen cares at this point about the lack of flow offensively.

With that in mind, United has an opportunity to exact revenge on their bitter rivals New York Red Bull when they welcome them to RFK Stadium next Saturday night at 7pm. Red Bull easily defeated United 2-0 two weeks ago at Red Bull Arena.  This match will be televised live on CSNWashington.

 

United Notes

  • Eddie Johnson, out all season with an illness not yet officially disclosed by the team, was in attendance tonight and in the locker room after the match. According to eye witnesses, Johnson proclaimed, “I’ll be back soon”.. More good news perhaps???

Depleted DC faces Orlando for first time

Fresh off their first victory over the Galaxy in seven years but reeling with injuries, DC travels to Orlando to face Orlando City on a purple monstrosity.

DC United has been clinical at home with two 1-0 wins over less than impressive opposition, but the fact they are grinding out points when not playing particularly well and with some key injuries and absences does bode well heading into Orlando and facing an expansion team that is definitely punching above their weight so far this season. But pulling off surprises on the field is nothing compared to what they have done to their field in the Citrus Bowl where they have installed purple grass. Not painted purple grass, actual grass colored purple that was grown specially for them and required a special dispensation from FIFA to be used. This abomination is no doubt newsworthy, but let’s hope OCSC keeps their marketing shenanigans to a minimum.

As for the latest on the injury list for DC is starting central defender Steve Birnbaum who rolled an ankle five minutes into the LA win and is out four to six weeks. He joins Eddie Johnson and unfortunately the guy signed to replace him, Finnish defender Markus Halsti who remains out with a bum knee. Of course, Fabian Espindola still has this game and three more to complete his suspension as well. DC does have forward Luis Silva nearly ready to return, in addition to midfielder Michael Farfan who did get some minutes at the end of the NY debacle, but options for DC coach Ben Olsen are thin for sure.Orlando also has some injury concerns as well, but will be bolstered by the return of their internationals.

Incredibly, despite being an expansion team and playing perhaps the least attractive soccer overall of any team outside of Colorado, Orlando has ridden a surprisingly strong defense and a few moments of Kaka brilliance to a 1-1-2 record and is only a point behind DC in the standings. Obviously, Kaka is the key to their success. His shot got the miracle deflection to tie NYCFC in their home opener, he scored and set up the two goals in 90 seconds that tied the Impact in Montreal last week and when Vancouver throttled him in week three, Orlando had no answer. However, rookie Pedro Ribiero has also been key as well scoring Kaka’s assist in Montreal and it was his hustle that forced Houston’s goalkeeper in to one of the most improbable own goals in soccer history.

Looking at the lineup’s DC should be pretty predictable as they are pretty much down to the nubs in terms of options. There’s no way Silva is ready to start, so it will be the Montreal hero Jairo Arrieta and the LA hero Chris Pontius scorers of DC’s only two goals this season at forward. In midfield, it is almost certainly to be Chris Rolfe, Davy Arnaud, Perry Kitchen, and Nick DeLeon going from left to right, although Farfan could start DeLeon as a tactical decision if he’s ready and Olsen wants to try something new, but more on that later. In defense, Taylor Kemp should get the start on the left, Kofi Opare the central partner for Bobby Boswell, and Sean Franklin on the right in front of Bill Hamid.

As for Orlando, that’s much more of a crapshoot. They’ve played more tactical variations than any team in the league in their first four games and have clearly not settled some positions. Seems likely Ribiero starts as their lone forward with Kaka roaming underneath him. Then in their crowded midfield, it’ll be some mix of Kevin Molino, Bryan Rochez, Eric Avila, Amobi Okugo, Darwin Ceren, Maybe Cyle Larin who just scored for Canada, etc. Orlando coach Adrian Heath has plenty of interchangeable parts on offense depending on what he wants to do. Same with the defense, he’d been playing four in the back, but the team scored two goals playing a hybrid 5 man backline in Montreal for example. I don’t think he does that again however as I think he goes four in the back which most likely will be Brek Shea fresh off a goal against the Swiss, Seb Hines or Sean St. Ledger, Aurelien Collin and Rafael Ramos in front of former goalkeep of the year Donovan Ricketts.

Looking at the tactics and matchups DC does have advantages, but in a matchup of two teams known so far for pretty tight defense and limited offense relying mostly on seizing opportunities, it’s more a matter of forcing mistakes rather than straight up tactics. Of course DC will go 4-4-2 as they have no imagination but it would be prudent to note that Orlando will play a five man midfield of some sort very similar to the Red Bull midfield that dismantled DC with ease. When DC is attacking, they simply have to get Kemp and Franklin forward or they have little hope of scoring outside of luck. If they get Kemp and to a lesser extent Franklin, who will have to be careful with Brek Shea and the soft defending DeLeon in front of him, then DC can stretch Orlando and beat them especially with Collin being foul prone and giving up set pieces.

It’s defensively where DC has to tighten up quite a bit or they are doomed. If they give Kaka the room they gave Kljestan and Felipe, he’ll hang a hat-trick on them especially as Kaka drifts to the right and the left side of DC’s defense is the weakest with Kemp not being the greatest at staying goal side his man and Opare being less than impressive when covering open space. With the speedy Rochez or Molino roaming that side as well, Kitchen or Arnaud simply have to be sharp to cover that central space and help the left side too because if it’s left up to Rolfe to always track back DC’s offense might go into witness protection it will be so invisible.

There’s plenty of variations for this to play out too, but the bottom line is Kitchen and Arnaud have to be able to handle the center of midfield with as little help from Pontius or Opare as possible. If they shut down Kaka, that’s most of the heavy digging done. Then Boswell and Hamid have to be smart with Ribiero and Opare has to help Kemp control that left side. Which means Franklin has to handle Shea pretty much on his lonesome. All of which is reasonable, fingers crossed with Opare. Then on offense, Collin is good but is shocked that anyone thinks he’s ever made a foul ever and Hines and St. Ledger are just teeth rattlers, Pontius and Arrieta are clever enough to get around them or force a crucial mistake. Neither Shea or Ramos are all that impressive defensively either so DeLeon or Rolfe can find some joy too assuming they can get up the field often enough.

Current form suggests a 1-1 draw and I think it plays out that way. It’s about time Orlando’s smoke and mirrors gets exposed and about time for DC to show they can play reasonable soccer on the road even if it is on a purple field. Kaka will score or set up one, but I think Rolfe or Pontius gets the other on a counter or an Orlando mistake. We’ll see.