Match previews

Preview: Union at Orlando City SC

Photo: Earl Gardner

Who: Philadelphia Union at Orlando City
What: Regular season game
Where: Camping World Stadium
When: Wednesday, May 25 at 7:30 pm
Watch: CSN, MLS Live, Direct Kick
Whistle: Sorin Stoica; Linesmen: Chris Strickland, Logan Brown; Fourth Official: Ted Unkel

Following a last minute victory, Philadelphia Union travel south to face, well, another team coming off a last minute victory. Orlando City’s two big Brazilians combined to set up Cyle Larin for an 87th minute winner as the second-year club climbed into playoff position last weekend. It was the first three pointer in seven games for Orlando, and it showed off the team’s huge potential while highlighting some glaring short-term problems. The Union will travel to Florida hoping to break what is now a 12-match home unbeaten streak for the Lions.

Loose Lions

Although Orlando City has only given up 17 goals, they are drastically outperforming American Soccer Analysis’ goals against prediction, suggesting a soft underbelly to the team that recently shipped Aurelien Collin to New York.

And, in fairness, if a coach told you he was starting the defensively allergic Rafael Ramos and defensively amusing Brek Shea as outside backs, you don’t expect his next words to be, ‘because we are a defense-first team.’

Adrian Heath’s approach is all Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Cleat Marks. His team attacks with speed to keep the opposition pinned deep, and they defend with brash, physical aggression. Kaka embodies Heath’s offensive philosophy, in that he can somehow play a through ball from any place on the pitch no matter what direction he’s facing.

The video below beautifully sums up Orlando City as a whole. Cristian Higuita makes a fantastic challenge to win the ball. Then he plays a dangerous, ill-advised outlet ball through the center that all but begs Montreal to mount up an immediate assault on Joe Bendik. Kaka nips in to secure the ball, turn, and zip an outlet pass to Cyle Larin, who really should have scored. Crunching tackle, crap decision, Kaka. It’s not the formula you necessarily want to rely on, but it can be quite effective.

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Changes at the back

The use of full-on attacking outside backs is only one element contributing to Orlando’s flimsy defense. The Lions often end up with two men in midfield when Kaka pushes forward. This makes it difficult to close teams down on the counter, and the opposition has found holes behind the fullbacks quite often.

Aurelien Collin was jettisoned to New York because, lacking coverage in midfield, his aggression left the defense exposed. In Kansas City, Collin’s daring style of play worked well since teams struggled to find the space to hit KC when the fullbacks were pushed high. In Florida, it never panned out.

Even without Collin, though, it’s clear that Orlando has work to do sorting out the back line. David Matteos is about as much an average MLS defender as you are likely to find (think Nat Borchers or Bobby Boswell but more subtle in the application of brute force) and Tommy Redding is likely to slot in at the right center back position.

Redding and likely right back starter Kevin Alston were both midgame additions to the lineup against Montreal after Ramos and Seb Hines succumbed to injuries. Alston is more cautious going forward than Ramos, and Redding is 19 years old. In short, Orlando is going to show up with a mix-n-match defense against one of the more locked in strikers in MLS right now.

After a few matches against seasoned vets, CJ Sapong should be able to impose himself on this match if he starts.

Attack the left

Even though the right side of Orlando’s defense will be wholly different from last week, the Union should have more success attacking the left side. Matteos, at left center back, is reluctant to leave the center but perfectly adequate when he does (again, see above comparisons, or think of a nimble Steven Vitoria). If Brek Shea starts on the left, Matteos is forced to slide out wide quite a bit, and it is incumbent on the Union to force him to move. Against DC, the Union did not make Bobby Boswell play to his weaknesses, and that must change against Matteos this weekend.

If Luke Boden starts at left back, Matteos will feel less pressure to cover. Boden is far more responsible than Shea (who really should have been sent off last weekend for two bad fouls and kicking a ball away after the play), but less dynamic in the attacking half. Boden will serve in crosses galore, though, and that may be enough with Larin lurking over Yaro.

A (slightly) more conservative Orlando

Adrian Heath has become more defensively pragmatic over time and is now pulling his wingers in narrow defensively. But the Orlando head man still wants to space out the midfield going forward. Isolating their wingers makes the Lions a far more dangerous unit, and failing to do so makes them look borderline incompetent.

Adrian Winter and Carlos Rivas were tightly marked during the first forty-five minutes against Montreal last weekend. In the second frame, Kaka dropped deeper and attracted the fullbacks while Winter and Rivas moved into more advanced positions. This granted the wingers space, and Rivas in particular used it to devastating effect.

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Heath may move away from this more defensive stance once Darwin Ceren returns to the lineup, but for now he is playing it reasonably safe.

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Larin is a load

And boy oh boy, a team that likes attacking up the flanks could not draft a better striker than Cyle Larin. The Canadian striker only reached American drinking age a month ago, yet he’s already one of the better aerial threats in MLS. Like Kei Kamara, Larin showcases great late movement in the box. And like Dom Dwyer, he is learning how to set up defenders by varying how he checks in and goes over the top. Check out the strength from earlier this season. 

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The young striker is improving all the time and will ask big, big questions of Joshua Yaro if the rookie keeps his place above Ken Tribbett. With games coming in quick succession prior to the Copa Centenario break, Jim Curtin could hold Yaro out on Wednesday and chalk it up to resting a rookie. But in doing so, he would leave himself open to questions about whether the Union think they have to hide Yaro against the more powerful strikers in MLS. Yaro will hope that getting the call against Didier Drogba earlier this season means Curtin will let him fend for himself against any and all comers. No matter how big, fast, and Canadian.

Roster news

Jim Curtin said that Ilsinho is running on the sidelines and Nogueira is still in recovery mode, so the Union’s rotation options are limited for this match. Expect the center back pairing to endure even though Ken Tribbett is healthy again, and expect Fabinho to be rested after his muscle cramp on Friday.

Up front, Sapong is likely to continue. Fabian Herbers has shown good movement but is not the stabilizing presence and defensive workhorse that Philly will need to keep Orlando out of a rhythm.

Leo Fernandes will probably rest either Pontius or Le Toux, and Walter Restrepo should see his first minutes of the season coming off the bench.

Prediction: Union 1-1 Orlando

Last time these teams met, they played what was essentially a 1-1 draw with a Barnetta-shaped exclamation point appended to the end of it. In Orlando’s house, Philly will need to either play a far calmer match than they did on Friday or commit to a counterattacking mindset.

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If there has been one constant this season, it is that the Union do not change their style of play for any opponent, so the sit-back-n-counter option seems unlikely. The interesting question, then, is whether it is made necessary by personnel changes (or lack of options).

Injuries mean Curtin will have to mix and match who he rests and when he rests them. Sapong likely remains, but either Le Toux or Pontius could sit. Curtin likely stick with the CB pairing that has been on fire lately.

Injuries mean Curtin will have to mix and match who he rests and when he rests them. Sapong likely remains, but either Le Toux or Pontius could sit. Curtin likely stick with the CB pairing that has been on fire lately.

Jim Curtin said the team wasn’t quite ready to try two attack-minded midfielders at home against DC United, so it would be eyebrow-raising if they were somehow prepared to try such a tactic on the road on Wednesday or again on Saturday. Both Orlando and Colorado are undefeated at home, so opening space in front of the back line seems like one of those ideas that can simmer for a while before it’s laid on the table.

Even though this trip down south takes place less than a full week after the DC match, it is likely that Jim Curtin will save his rotations for the weekend’s showdown with Colorado. As exciting as it would be to see a full strength Union side face up to the top team in the west, that match is followed quickly by a showdown with the recovering Columbus Crew at home. And which points matter more at this stage in the season: A road match against the Rapids or a home game against a team that is already approaching desperation mode before the season is even a third of the way over?

That, of course, is a bridge to cross in the future. For now, Philly needs to focus on opening up the Orlando back line so they can keep the home side deep. Then it’s all about trying to stay a step ahead of MLS’ most creative passer. No biggie.



  1. soccerdad says:

    Nice analysis, thanks.

  2. old soccer coach says:

    “no Biggie.” woof.
    if Pontius is rested, and I find your thinking quite plausible that he might be, Walter Restrepo has been playing better in recent games with the Steel than Fernandes.
    Given the apparent reluctance to send Alberg onto the field for anything other than late game cameos, I am surprised by your estimate. I agree the heat might be a good time to rest Barnetta, particularly if a “back of the mind” thought is to bring him on at halftime. But Alberg is a virtual guarantee of a need to sub for his likely lack of conditioning. If, and my record-keeping is shaky on the point, he was subbed off at the 77th minute for Leo Fernandes in the home opener against New England, he has never gone a full 90 all season. The three other times he started he was subbed in the mid 60s and red-carded in the 53rd. Starting him “burns” a sub an hour before kickoff.
    Gaddis for Fabinho is a very good investment in avoiding a bad cramp being overworked too soon into a pull.
    Creavalle, Fernandes, Barnetta and Alberg are the only players available to cover #10 and #8, if Ilsinho is still running only along the sidelines. We are really thin in the center of the center for these two matches.

    It will be revealing to see who is on the bench as back up keeper.

  3. “Crunching tackle, crap decision, Kaka. It’s not the formula you necessarily want to rely on, but it can be quite effective.” Kaka cures a lot of evils, in my mind. Wouldn’t mind seeing something like that solution here, vacuuming up the detritus of the kickball outlets that still seem to be present this year, despite the overall improvements of the defense. Should be fun to watch in any event, although I would have liked to see Fabio attacking that left side that you describe.

  4. Section 114 (Formerly) says:

    I still think we play the A team (or as much of it as we can) in Florida. Then we save the defense lineup (Creavalle/Carroll MF, Gaddis at LB, Herbers at ST, rest Pontius) for Colorado. Goal should be 4, with 3 in Orlando!

    • Zizouisgod says:

      Agreed. Always try to get the points in the divisional game first. Plus, we’ll use our A line-up at home vs Columbus next week with the same idea.

    • +1
      Colorado unbeaten at home and in other division. We should bunker in and play total counter ball against them and hope for a point while trying to take six from Lions and Crew.

  5. Having been present at the Citrus Bowl (or whatever nonsense they call it now) this past weekend, I can say this is a winnable game. The Ruckus (supporters group) are everything they’re cracked up to be but communication didn’t seem to be an issue on the sidelines. Montreal had a whole bunch of attacking success starting toward the Orlando left side, then switching for Piatti on the opposite flank (Ramos was basically asleep until he got hurt and subbed). That caused several good attacking chances in the 1st half. Orlando did start pressing higher on their left to prevent the switch, but the damage had been done. I’d love if Ilsinho was healthy enough for a cameo to do that late, but more important are the defenders distributing forward. I’d like to see Yaro play for this reason.
    As always, great work Adam!

  6. Excellent analysis, however, if that predicted lineup you have is right then we aren’t going to get a result. Leo has been terrible. Alberg has hardly played and has he has made far too many reckless challenges. There’s no playmaking through the center in that lineup if Nogs and ‘Quillo don’t start and/or play. I don’t expect a clean sheet vs the Lions and I’m struggling to find where we’d get a goal from.

  7. Ha ha. Analysis (deep) of the complicated , crucial game of two very complicated soccer teams. Yeah!

  8. Interesting how most of us agreed that the “kick and chase” of the DC game made it a crap game to watch and reminded us of Union years past, but now most of us are aren’t really expressing much concern that the only creative offensive play-maker from last week is expected to sit.
    If that is really the lineup that they march out, and if they are really trying to take 3 points on the road from a mid-table team, then the only reasonable expectation that we could have is that they are playing for the tie in the first half and plan on bringing on Barnetta & Nogs at start of second half – except that we have never seen Curtin sub that early outside of injury.

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