Match previews

Preview: Union vs Orlando City SC

Photo: Earl Gardner

Who: Philadelphia Union vs. Orlando City
What: 2016 regular season game
Where: Talen Energy Stadium
When: Friday, April 8 at 7 pm
Watch: UniMás,
Whistle: Jair Marrufo; Peter Balciunas and Daniel Belleau; Rubiel Vazquez

Philadelphia plays tomorrow on short rest; Orlando’s week is even shorter. The Union are missing key players through injury; Orlando won’t have Cyle Larin, Brek Shea, or — quite possibly — Tommy Redding when they travel to Jurassic (Energy) Park on Friday. Philly just lost to Chicago; Orlando just whipped the defending champs, Portland.

So some similarities… and some differences

The trickle-down effects of the Larin injury cannot be overstated; he is everything Danny Mwanga was supposed to be. But as physical, fast, and lethal as the Canadian striker is, Orlando is going to miss his movement the most. Note that Larin is not technically ruled out for Friday’s match, but if OCSC is willing to risk their prized young asset’s long-term health against the Union… on the road… in bad conditions… someone should check what brand of jeans the front office is buying these days. 

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Larin’s movement is noticeably more intelligent than it was when he entered the league. Adrian Heath has clearly imparted the right wisdom, and Larin has learned how to be a gigantic decoy to open gaps for Kaka while remaining aware enough to turn those spacing runs into opportunities. Kaka has a special knack for the final pass that requires a striker who never turns off, hence his success with Inzaghi and Crespo. Larin is far more adept at reading the buildup than anybody that could replace him. Bryan Rochez, Pedro Ribeiro (hi!), Hadji Berry, or the likely-out-of-shape Julio Baptista could all deputize for Larin, but they can hardly provide the same skillset.

Carrasco (5) tends to follow the first runner rather than holding a central position. Philly can exploit this.

Carrasco (5, second from top at upper left of the screen) tends to follow the first runner rather than holding a central position. Philly can exploit this.

Given his options, Heath may opt to push Kaka into a false nine role and plop Servando Carrasco into midfield behind Darwin Ceren and Cristian Higuita. Carrasco may just be the most defensive midfielder in MLS. He drops into the back line extremely quickly if anybody so much as crosses midfield with intent, and, importantly, he doesn’t relieve OCSC’s huge spacing issue between midfield and defense. Carrasco nominally allows Ceren and Higuita to be more aggressive than they already would be. However, the Orlando midfield is so absurdly aggressive that it’s difficult to imagine how they could feel more freedom than they already have.

A major issue with using Kaka as the lone striker is that it means there are fewer players running off of him going forward. Ideally, Brek Shea and Rafael Ramos would provide extra bodies in attack, but Shea’s suspension takes a lot of the width out of Orlando’s left side. Adrian Winter tends to drift inside early (unlike Molino, who hides wide until the last moment when he charges the box), and Shea’s overlaps are almost impossible to track when Kaka can pass out of atomically small spaces with relative ease. On the road, Heath may still value the purported defensive solidity of a 4-5-1, but the Union should still attack the space in front of the central defenders from the opening whistle.

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Attacking that space is an interesting proposition. Many teams would push the attacking midfielder high or ask the striker to drop off the back line, but the Union might prefer to drag Ilsinho inside from the wing so Sapong can stay high and roll off of Seb Hines (who is not the quickest on the turn). Furthermore, if Ilsinho can pull defenders inside, it will let Keegan Rosenberry roll forward. Playing through Rosenberry makes the Union a more dynamic offensive side. With Tranquillo Barnetta and, even more intriguing, Vincent Nogueira close to readiness, Philly could potentially throw out an entire midfield that is comfortable holding the ball in tight areas. The quick moves that could develop up the right would pull in Orlando’s aggressive midfield and open gaps for the counterattack.

Closing speed

One issue the Union will need to deal with on Friday is the previously mentioned aggression of Higuita and Ceren in midfield. Both holding players attack the ball with ferocity, acting as a first line of defense for a team that smartly does not ask Kaka to carry a heavy defensive load. Orlando’s midfield is not shy about taking fouls or taking chances.

The benefits of this hyper-aggressive system often outweigh any potential defensive lapses because OCSC is so much more effective offensively when they are on the break. Cyle Larin has scored some phenomenal goals in his short career, but a lot of his finishing comes while holding off defenders as he runs at goal. With Molino finally fit and Winter adjusted to MLS, Orlando is going to embrace Adrian Heath’s wide open system in a way that was only hinted at last season.

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To counter the visiting side’s midfield aggression, the Union need to keep a tight shape in midfield and move effectively off the ball. These two issues stood out last week as Roland Alberg’s defensive workrate was not matched by quick offensive checks and moves. Additionally, the Union’s attacking midfielder was often isolated far up the pitch when he needed to be deeper to start attacks. The question of whether an attacking midfielder should generally be positioned to make or receive the first pass off a turnover is an interesting one.

Cristian Maidana was constantly calculating where he needed to be to receive the first pass, but Philly has had more success this season when all three midfielders are close together and the first pass goes to Sapong or a winger. Aggressive pressing in midfield is best countered with short passes that take charging defenders out of the play. The short passes open longer lanes forward, thus eliminating the most industrious members of the defense. It’s like if you were a matador and could throw your red wavy thing to a friend for a moment when the bull charged, then get it right back. It makes things easier, but only if your friend is nearby and knows what’s about to go down. Otherwise, your friend is about to get his shin raked by a bull who will later claim he did absolutely nothing wrong as Jair Marrufo diffuses the situation with stern looks and threats of expulsion.

Jack McInerney came on and immediately went to work in the giant bubble of space in front of the Orlando back four.

Jack McInerney came on late and immediately went to work in the giant bubble of space in front of the Orlando back four.

How not to play against Orlando

Portland offers an object lesson in how not to attack Orlando City. Diego Valeri dropped deep or wide to collect the ball while Fanendo Adi hugged the offsides line like it was the Christmas present he asked for but didn’t think he’d actually get. This led to unnervingly open areas in front of the Orlando defense that came to look like empty thought bubbles outlined in purple jerseys.

Midway through the second half, Caleb Porter introduced former US Gold Cup attendee Jack McInerney and the Union draft pick immediately went to work in that gigantic space between the lines. Portland never figured out how to play around Higuita and Ceren effectively, so all they were able to muster was long passes into McInerney’s feet. But even with that approach they were able to give the striker enough time to turn, assess his options, and fire wildly low percentage shots like a tiny, scruffy Balotelli.

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The Timbers never created short connections in midfield, so each pass out of pressure was either a reset or a risky look up the line or into Adi. This didn’t work, and Philly should seek other options in possession.

This leads to the sort of unanswerable lineup questions that, thankfully, I will not have to be answering. Jim Curtin said that he already has a good idea of how he will set up on Friday, and bully for him because the rest of us have no clue what Philly will trot out in midfield. Without knowing where Barnetta and Nogueira stand fitness-wise, it’s foolish to guess at lineups (yet, of course, I will do so below). Ideally, the Union would be able to use Alberg or Nogueira as a box-to-box player who offers defensive support against Kaka and the first runner out of midfield behind him while then pushing forward offensively. Nogueira would sit deep and simply stay in front of Kaka while silkily passing around the two-man orc horde coming at him out of midfield.

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But Barnetta may not be ready for a full ninety, and who knows exactly what Curtin thinks he can get out of Nogueira and his niggling injuries. So a realistic projection sees Brian Carroll behind Alberg and Ilsinho, with Sebastien Le Toux drafted into the side on the right. Curtin could call on Leo Fernandes again, but Fernandes tracking Rafael Ramos does not seem like an ideal matchup. Again, the goal for the Union should be quick, short passes to open dribbling lanes, then balls played into space in front of the defense. If Ilsinho can turn and run at the Orlando defense five times, there’s a pretty good chance both center backs will be on cautions and Philly will have a crooked number on the board.

Orlando spaces the field and passes through the lines. And they really space it out.

Orlando spaces the field and passes through the lines. And they really space it out.

How will Orlando attack?

Cyle Larin’s absence changes the Eastern Conference leader’s options, but not their overall approach. Orlando’s offense resembles Roberto Martinez’s Everton in everything but numerical setup. They stretch the field from touchline to touchline, willing to pull their own shape apart to give playmakers enough space to operate. It’s a dangerous approach, yet it is pragmatic at the same time. By giving attackers an extra yard to collect the ball, Orlando provides more opportunities to run at defenders (Kevin Molino and Adrian Winter will gladly take on any and everyone who deigns to challenge them). However, that extra space means that turnovers can become particularly dangerous.

But enough about all that. Orlando will attack through Kaka. When the ball goes through the Brazilian, OCSC is inherently dangerous. The former Balon D’Or winner is like an evil Bond girl in that his game is so beautiful that you don’t want to believe he’s going to use it to hurt you.

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The wonderful aspect of Kaka’s MLS game is that he has modified it to fit his age and legs. In the Milan/Madrid glory days, Kaka could carry the ball past defenders with long, languid strides. Now he can’t necessarily accelerate past a well-positioned defense, but he can turn them in knots with short touches and smart movement. There is probably not a single player in MLS who can do more things with five yards and one teammate as Kaka, and it has to be difficult to follow runners when everything about a situation suggests a turnover is coming. But this is Kaka, remember, so it doesn’t come.

UnionOCSCPrediction: Union 2-1 Orlando City

On short rest and without Larin, OCSC are primed for their first loss of the season. However, this is a team that has given up only four goals in four games, so they have thus far managed to hide away their defensive frailty. This is because Higuita and Ceren have become very good at what they do, and the wingers have been more dedicated to defense than in the past.

Still, Philly has the attacking power to threaten Orlando. But they will need to play mistake-free defense, particularly on the wings. Fabinho’s aggression could get him into trouble against a side that will be looking to Kevin Molino for offense with Larin missing. Staying in front of Molino — and keeping track of the sneaky-fast Winter — will be key to coming up with a second home victory on Friday.

The Union will, perhaps only for a few hours, take over first place in the Eastern Conference with a win. On this same date last season, they had two points.

First place, even for a short time, turns heads. Philly can make a statement with a win, but it won’t be easy because, well, Kaka.


  1. Lucky Striker says:

    Game will be won or lost in the center of midfield. Hard to like their chances.

  2. Matt Jones a forgotten man.

    • Section 114 (Formerly) says:

      Who the F cares? I’m happy with Andre in every game where he’s not off with the Boyz.
      Of course, we could be really lucky and have Rais back….

      • der Fussballzuschauer says:

        What CPfeif is pointing out is the fact that the Philadelphia Union have 26 players under MLS contract / on loan from other clubs but the graphic displayed with the article only has 25 players on it.

      • Bingo.

  3. The best news about this match-up is timing: Larin likely out, Shea out (totaling 4 goals and 2 assists of their 8 goals). Combine that with them coming off of a short(er) week. I feel like those few things in place don’t happen too often so we should be able to take advantage. It only gets better with Nogs and Barnetta being available options.

  4. I think between the resounding victory last weekend over the reigning champs, the short rest, and the missing players, Orlando will be primed for a letdown.

    I also think it’s very likely that Nogueira and Barnetta will start in midfield with Carroll this week, with Ilsinho on the right wing and Albers and Le Toux coming off the bench. It’s generally Curtin’s style to start people and give them 60 minutes if they aren’t ready to see 90. Plus, we’ll have an extra day’s rest on the far end, since this is a Friday game. I expect we’ll see pre-planned subs for one or both of those guys between minutes 60 and 70.

    The big worry, for me, is whether Carroll can go another 90. We don’t really have anyone to replace him properly with Creavalle out.

  5. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Reporter for the Orlando Sentinel says both Larin and Redding will not travel to Philly.

  6. To be honest, I’m totally fine with Carroll starting this game so long as he has one job. Mark Kaka. If my memory serves me right, he did that very, very well in the first game against orlando in last year’s 0-0 draw. If he can manage a similar performance I think we’ve got a very good outlook on this game. Especially when you consider our offense is generating more chances lately.

  7. hobosocks says:

    “he is everything Danny Mwanga was supposed to be”
    Anyone else read this and just get a little sad inside?

    • pragmatist says:

      I’m waiting for a wall of tombstones in TRE, illustrating all the careers that Sak killed.
      (Ok, it may not be his fault, but I take comfort in blaming him.)

  8. Orlando plays easy to read soccer and Union plays nonsense complicated soccer , so dull , so juvenile, so much like the emperor without any clothes according to the analysis given.

  9. Zizouisgod says:

    Bad Idea Jeans…well played, Adam.

  10. soccerdad says:

    always impressed with Adam’s analyses. Well done. I’ve played all my life and learn something every time I read Adam. Hope your prediction comes true. Weather should be fine for soccer, both watching and playing.

  11. And Cann nailed the score. It really is a new year!

    • Even nailed the kaka as a false 9 thing, that heath wouldn’t like his other options. Heck, the starting 11 is only missing Nogueira, and that’s only because ilsinho apparently picked up a last minute injury.

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